The importance of good leadership in occupational safety and health
Julia Flintrop, The Cooperation Centre (Kooperationsstelle), Hamburg
- 1 Introduction
- 2 Theories of good leadership
- 3 The impact of leadership on health, safety and well-being
- 4 References
- 5 Links for further reading
Managers are key persons in an enterprise to design and improve the working conditions and thus influence the health of subordinates. They plan, lead, coordinate and control work organisation and work activities. They also have a large impact on general working demands, control and social support, which are known to strongly influence employee health. Accordingly they are the ones primarily influencing working conditions and deciding on changes in the workplace and work environment. All these aspects contribute to determining the level of safety and health at work.
Theories of good leadership
The intention of this paragraph is to give an overview of the main ideas that influenced leadership theories and to give some examples of leadership theories. Generally different streams of theories of leadership can be distinguished, the ones based on traits and the ones based on behaviour. A more recent trend focuses on situational aspects interfering with certain features of leadership behaviour.
The trait theories were based on Lewin´s approach. He was the first creating a concept by differing three types of leadership styles: autocratic, democratic and laissez-faire. The autocratic leadership style relies on a strongly hierarchical system. Employees are not involved in decision making. The manager takes decisions and controls obedience. Employees working for an autocratic leader are generally less creative. However there are certain situations in which the autocratic leadership style might be productive. Situations that leave little time for long group decision processes and where the leader is accepted as the person with the highest knowledge might lead to productive results under an autocratic leadership style. The democratic leadership style, also known as the participative leadership style is according to Lewin the most effective leadership style. Managers following the democratic approach, let their employees participate in decision making. However they still maintain the right of taking the final decision. They delegate tasks and they mostly allow for self control instead of controlling employees themselves . This style leads to a higher motivation in employees and generally the results are more creative and of higher quality. The laissez-faire style results of no or very little guidance by the manager and no control. A group with a laissez-faire manager is normally less productive. However, there are few situations when this style can lead to effective results. A group of members that are highly qualified in an area of expertise might under certain circumstances be able to take advantage of such a constellation.
Behaviour based theories
Basically two types were differentiated when looking at the behaviour of leaders, the relationship oriented behaviour and the task oriented behaviour. While relationship oriented behaviour focuses on feelings, attitudes and satisfaction of the members of the group, task oriented behaviour focuses on the tasks and the problems evolving from the requirements. While task oriented leadership behaviour has the advantage of delivering structure, relationship oriented leadership styles are associated with higher consideration of the single group members. Of course those two different styles generally present a typology and are normally not found as pure styles using only relationship oriented behaviour or only task focused behaviour. Both styles are related to positive aspects and a cooperative style is seen as the most appropriate approach: leaders should especially provide structure when stress is high and be more considerate in less stressful times.
An important theory differentiating between different leadership behaviours was developed by Burns. He published a paper through which the term of transformational leadership gained fame. According to Burns, transformational leadership is characterized by leaders and followers motivating each other to gain a higher level of moral and inspiration. Transformational leaders are those that are able to inspire followers through the strength of their vision and character. They motivate their employees to work jointly on common goals. Transformational leadership is relationship oriented. The focus of this kind of behaviour is on the connection between managers and employees. Leaders follow a common goal with joint forces of the whole group but they also put emphasis on encouraging each single member of the group. Transformational leaders encourage their followers to think creatively and they accept and even support employees in putting existing solutions into question.
Transactional leadership is characterised by exchanging rewards for work and loyalty. Normally the leader possesses of something that the follower gets for delivering the service, work or time he is investing. A crucial principle making this system working well is that both parties have to have the same idea of the content and importance of the task. Normally contracted work is characterised by a transactional leadership. However, transformational leadership might produce higher results.
The situational approach
Diverse and extensive research on good leadership finally revealed that there is not one best style of leadership that guarantees success in every situation. It is now common sense that the success of leadership behaviour also depends on the situation.
Fiedler was one of the researchers developing a theory taking the situational circumstances into account when trying to define best leadership behaviour. In his so called contingency theory he declares the contingency of the leadership style with the factors describing the situation is the most important aspect when trying to predict the output and efficiency of a group. This contingency is defined by three dimensions:
- The personal relationship of the leader with the employees/followers,
- The degree of structure of the task that has to be conducted, and
- The authority that is associated with the respective position of the leader.
Higher parameters on these dimensions go along with facilitative circumstances for the leader. According to Fiedler´s theory it is not possible to state that a leader is generally a good or a bad leader, without taking the situation into account. This includes that leaders who were successful in a certain position might fail after being transferred to another post.
The impact of leadership on health, safety and well-being
There are different areas where the importance of management leadership becomes especially visible when it comes to occupational safety and health aspects. First of all leadership should ensure that a good and functional management system is in place integrating all possible OSH aspects in a structured approach. For more information on OSH management systems please see the wiki article on management systems. Management systems are most effective if they are lived and accepted within the whole company. The success of occupational safety and health management is therefore also based on leaders´ behaviour when it comes to developing and transposing visions and strategies on OSH. More information can be found in the wiki article on Commitment and leadership as key occupational health and safety principles. The involvement of workers within the process of actively including OSH in the company´s vision and strategy is of major importance. To consult workers and to encourage their participation is not only required by law but is also an important step for ensuring good communication of occupational safety and health matters within the company.
Dimensions for successfully building up a safety climate are reflected in the Nordic Safety Climate Questionnaire. The questionnaire defines Safety Climate as the “workgroup members´ shared perceptions of management and workgroup safety related policies, procedures and practices. It reflects workers´ perception of the true value of safety in the organisation.” The dimensions related to management behaviour and decisions regarding safety are:
- Management safety priority and ability referring to managers´ ability and behaviour when it comes to questions of prioritising OSH,
- Management safety empowerment – relating to the question if managers make sure all necessary means are given for successfully dealing with OSH issues at work,
- Management safety justice dealing with the fairness of management behaviour in case an accident occurs.
All three dimensions are affected by different ways of influence leaders can take on changing the OSH situation within a company. They are all affected by the behaviour leaders show in consideration to
- Company measures for traditional risk management and accident prevention
- Health and safety behaviour of employees by implementing a health and safety culture
- Psychosocial risks and resources at work.
Leadership influence on traditional risk management and accident prevention
This approach is mainly promoted in traditional view of health and safety at work, focusing on risks by enhancing prevention and minimising risks for work accidents. Responsibility of the employer to follow general rules for the prevention and protection of workers against accidents and diseases is laid down in the EU Council Directive on the introduction of measures to encourage improvements in the safety and health of workers at work. The traditional view implies that one of the most basic OSH tasks for leaders is taking occupational safety and health standards into account and making sure that all rules are followed and all regulations are complied with. Chief executive officers and managers are the ones in a company who have to assure that sufficient resources are provided in means of time and money to comply with rules and to conduct the necessary changes.
A lot of guidance has been generated for management to show the right way of ensuring that occupational safety and health is sufficiently dealt with within a company. Principles for leaders mainly propose the same structure starting the task, as for example stated in the International Labour Organisation (ILO) OSH-MS guidelines and in other international publications. The first step is seen in implementing a policy and organizing responsibility and accountability for OSH issues within the company. By doing a proper planning and by formulating appropriate goals regarding occupational safety and health at work the next step is taken. In a third step the necessary changes have to be implemented in the daily processes and structures. Managers should monitor the process and implement a reviewing process during which it can be assured that goals included in the planning have been reached. Further the evaluation process allows concluding which measures have not been successful and where further effort is required. The last action for closing the circle is finally to implement changes and continually improve occupational safety and health performance.
Leadership influence on health and safety behaviour of employees by implementing an OSH culture
A health and safety culture is regarded as the key factor when it comes to determining the effectiveness of a safety system,. Culture is rather based on behaviour, every day actions and decision and goes far beyond health and safety policies, even though it is of major importance to integrate core values based on a policy into the whole process of implementing and maintaining good health and safety behaviour. According to Petersen (1998), certain criteria are the foundation for a positive safety culture being led by a management constituting a credible example for the behaviour and values they are promoting. Daily pro-active supervisory is as important as visible commitment to the high priority safety has within the organisation.
The development of such an occupational safety and health culture is based on strong management leading to an actively lived vision and strategy of OSH within the company. Ten Platinum Rules were developed by the NSW Mine Safety Advisory Council. Although they were originally meant to be applied in mining sector, they contain such general rules that they are basically valid for any sector:
Ten Platinum Rules for better Management
- Remember you are working with people
- Do not exhaust them
- People are not machines
- Treat them with dignity and respect
- Listen to and talk with your people
- Be inclusive
- Do it frequently
- Value and develop people skills in supervisors and managers
- Fix things promptly
- Don not let issues fester
- Keep people informed of progress
- Make sure your paper work is worth having
- Keep it current
- Make sure it is meaningful
- Improve competency in OSH
- Particularly at management level
- Encourage people to give you bad news
- Fix your workplace first
- Measure and monitor risks, that people are exposed to
- Don not just react to incidents: fix things before they happen
- Control risks at their source
- Keep checking that what you are doing is working effectively
- Are you achieving what you think you are?
- Apply adequate resources in time and money
For taking these rules into practice and making them actually important in a company, there are three major steps to do: The rules should be discussed within the teams in the company, gaps should be identified and close networking is then required to put them into practice.
As demonstrated by giving an overview of the key ideas influencing the success of leadership, good management depends on the leadership behaviour in different situations. A main aspect of making leadership successful can be based on psychosocial aspects like for example the relationship of the leader with his/her followers. Accordingly psychosocial factors are determining to a major degree the well-being and health at work.
A report from the EU-OSHA summarizes that leadership style can play a significant role on rise of harassment at work. According to the World Health Organization (WHO) the harassment is favoured by many organisational aspects at work such as inadequate organisation and unfavourable work environment. Leadership has an influence on both aspects, work environment and organisation, but additionally management style is also found to have a direct influence on harassment at work.
Possible stressors can be divided into different categories:
- Workload because of the work task
- Workload because of the working environment
- Workload because of work organisation
- Workload because of the social support/environment/circumstances
Strain is the personal reaction to various stressors. Strain can vary according to personal protective factors and personal coping strategies. The recommended approach to reduce possible occupational stressors is to first change working conditions and the working environment and then to enhance personal coping strategies by for example offering stress reduction courses or seminars on time management, etc. Managers can influence the work organisation and all aspects related to traditional health and safety risks. They also have a major influence on social support at work and they can make a contribution to enhancing personal coping strategies like motivation of employees.
Managers´ behaviour is of importance when it comes to employees´ well-being and satisfaction. Nyberg et al. (2005) conducted a comprehensive literature review on the relationship of leadership styles with health, well-being and job satisfaction. They give an overview, resuming leadership behaviour that especially contributes to a good psychosocial well-being of employees and to enhancing employees´ job satisfaction. They resume “that a good leader:
- Shows consideration towards subordinates
- Initiates structure when needed – especially in stressful situations
- Allows subordinates to control their work environment
- Gives access to empowerment structures and opportunities for participation, autonomy and control
- Inspires employees to see a higher meaning in their work
- Provides intellectual stimulation
- Is charismatic.”
This list of good leadership behaviour inspiring employees makes reference to the theories explained above. A good leader is said to be relationship oriented in certain situations but also needs to give clear instructions and structure, when needed. Democratic and transformational leadership styles are the ones coming closest to the description of good leadership behaviour by Nyberg et al. (2005).
Nyberg et al. also summarise what kind of behaviour is typically shown by a leader having a bad influence on his subordinates. “A bad leader:
- Does not show consideration
- Initiates structure without showing consideration, or deprives subordinates of participation, autonomy, and control.
- Uses only a transactional approach towards subordinates
- Acts laissez-faire – does not respond to subordinates and does not monitor performance.”
More information on the impact of leadership behaviour and commitment on occupational safety and health can be found here in the other OSHwiki articles under "[[Commitment and leadership as key occupational health and safety principles|OSH management and organisation]”.
- Zimber, A. `BGW-Projekt Führung und Gesundheit, 1. Teil: Literaturanalyse´, 2006. Available at: 
- Zell, H. `Grundlagen der Organisation – lernen und lehren´, 2011. Available at: 
- Cherry, K. (a) `Lewin´s Leadership Styles´, (undated web information). Retrieved on May 2011, form: 
- Weinert, A. `Organisationspsychologie´, Psychologie Verlags Union: Weinheim, 1998.
- Hay, I. `Transformational Leadership: Characteristics and Critisims´, 2007. Available at: 
- Cherry, K. (b) `Leadership Theories – 8 major leadership theories´, (undated web information). Retrieved on May 2011, from: . Retrieved May 2011.
- Homrig, M.A. `Transformational Leadership´, 2001. Available at: 
- Kines, P., Lappalainen, J., Mikkelsen, K.L., Olsen, E., Pousette, A., Tharaldsen, J., Tómasson, K. & Törner, M. `Nordic Safety Climate Questionnaire – NOSACQ-50´.
- 89/391/EEC Council Directive of 12 June 1989 on the introduction of measures to encourage improvements in the safety and health of workers at work´, 1989. Available at: 
- ILO – International Labour Organisation, `Guidelines on occupational safety and health management systems, ILO OSH 2001´, 2001. Available at: 
- Bundesanstalt für Arbeitsschutz und Arbeitsmedizin (BAuA) – 'Arbeitsschutzmanagement' (no publishing date available), Retrieved on 15 June 2011. Available at: 
- Petersen, D. `Safety Policy, Leadership and Culture´. In: Saari, J. (ed), Safety Policy and Leadership, ILO Encyclopedia of Occupational Health and Safety (4th edition, volume 2), ILO, Geneva, 1998, pp 59.2-59.7.
- Simard, M., `Safety Culture and Mangement´. In: Saari, J. (ed), Safety Policy and Leadership, ILO Encyclopedia of Occupational Health and Safety (4th edition, volume 2), ILO, Geneva, 1998, pp. 59.7-59.11.
- NSW Department of Primary Industry, `Digging Deeper – 10 Platinum Rules, First Steps for Action´, 2008. Available at: 
- EU-OSHA – European Agency for Safety and Health at Work, Workplace Violence and Harassment: a European Picture, 2009. Available at: 
- WHO – World Health Organization. `Raising Awareness of Psychological Harassment at Work´, 2003. Available at: 
- Richter, P. & Hacker, W. `Belastung und Beanspruchung. Streß, Ermüdung und Burnout im Arbeitsleben´, Asanger: Heidelberg (1998).
- Nyberg, A., Bernin, P.& Theorell, T. `The impact of leadership on the health of subordinates. SALTSA – joint programme for working life in research in Europe´, 2005. Available at: 
Links for further reading
HSE – Health and Safety Authority, 'Leading health and safety at work' (publishing date is not available). Retrieved on 1 June 2011, from: http://www.hse.gov.uk/leadership/
ILO – International Labour Organisation, Guidelines on Occupational Safety and Health Management Systems', ILO-OSH, 2001. Available at: http://www.ilo.org/wcmsp5/groups/public/---ed_protect/---protrav/---safework/documents/publication/wcms_110496.pdf