Leadership and stress: a meta-analytic review

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Leadership and stress: a meta-analytic review
Publication Date: 
October, 2016
International Journal of Evidence Based Coaching and Mentoring

Abstract: Stress has been implicated as an important determinant of leadership functioning. Conversely, the behavior of leaders has long been argued to be a major factor in determining the stress levels of followers. Yet despite the widespread acknowledgement that stress and leadership are linked, there has been no systematic attempt to organize and summarize these literatures. In the present, we meta-analytically review the relationship between three leadership constructs (transformational leadership, leader-member exchange, and abusive supervision) and stress and burnout. Our analyses confirm that leader stress influences leader behavior and that leadership behaviors and leader-follower relationships are significant determinants of stress and burnout in subordinates. We build on these results to suggest new avenues for research in this domain as well as discussing how these results can inform practice with regards to leader development.

Summary: This article explores the connections and complex relationships between leadership and stress from several perspectives.  Leadership roles are considered to be inherently stressful, but stressful situations can also bring out and further develop leadership skills. Thus, it focuses on two main connections – how stress impacts leaders and leadership behaviors, and how leaders’ stress is relevant to employee well-being. Stress is defined in the tradition of the transactional model of stress and coping, in the sense that events and contexts are perceived as stressful if they are threatening, and one appraises their own resources for coping as inadequate to deal with them.

If such a situation continues for extended periods of time, it could lead to burnout (with its symptoms of emotional exhaustion, disengagement, and reduced personal accomplishment).  While these topics are widely studied separately, this particular meta-analysis brings together the ideas of stress as impacting leaders and employees. It looks into:

  • stress as related to leadership behavior and styles: whether leader stress is related to lower transformative leadership and to higher abusive supervision;
  • leader stress and behavior as related to employee wellbeing: whether higher transformative leadership and communication are related to lower employee stress, and whether higher levels of abusive supervision are associated with higher employee stress and burnout.

To clarify these relationships, the authors conduct a detailed meta-analysis by collecting data from published articles, ultimately re-analyzing 157 independent samples, to come to new conclusions about these questions. The analysis results in the following findings:

For leaders, the findings were limited to a small number of studies and need to be interpreted with caution, though they do point to:

  • the components of leader burnout were associated with fewer transformative leadership behaviors,
  • higher levels of stress in leaders were associated with abusive supervision of employees.

For employees, the results were clearer:

  • Transformative leadership showed associations with lower stress for employees,
  • Communication between leaders and employees was associated with reduced stress of employees and can be a buffer of stress for them,
  • Abusive leadership was associated with higher levels of stress for employees.

Implications for practice:

By pooling the findings of multiple studies, this meta-analysis lends further support to the connections between the stress of leaders and that of employees and the importance of addressing these to sustain the wellbeing of everyone in the workplace. Organizational culture and environments are critical elements in these relationships and need to be analyzed; training and coaching of leaders would also be an important way to support wellbeing.  The authors propose interventions such as resilience building, training for stress management, coping skills, and communication with others. Coaching can support these and other approaches to mitigating stress for leaders and thus for employees, including in the context of healthcare and primary care.  The role of coaching for wellbeing has been illustrated in other studies (Jones, Woods, & Guillaume, 2016) and will also be elaborated upon in the upcoming January 2018 webinar. 

Jones, R. J., Woods, S. A., & Guillaume, Y. R. F. (2016). The effectiveness of workplace coaching: A meta-analysis of learning and performance outcomes from coaching. Journal of Occupational and Organizational Psychology, 89(2), 249-277. doi: 10.1111/joop.12119


The Leadership Quarterly Volume 28, Issue 1, February 2017, Pages 178-194

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