Leadership Matters: Transformational Leadership Can Enhance Emotional Health for Police Officers

Here is a new study that suggests a strong relationship between effective leadership and the long-term health and wellness of police personnel.

“An empirical investigation of high-risk occupations: Leader influence on employee stress and burnout among police,”  Lisa M. Russell, School of Business, Indiana University Southeast, New Albany, Indiana.

Abstract

Purpose – The purpose of this study is to analyze the relationship between stress and burnout in high-risk occupations and how leadership moderates this relationship. Thus, the primary research question addressed within this study is: What is the relationship between stress and burnout in high-risk occupations as governed by transformational leadership behavior?

Design/methodology/approach – An analysis of primary data obtained by survey from 379 police officers from nine southern and southwestern agencies was conducted. Hierarchical regression analysis, multiple moderated hierarchical regression analysis, bivariate correlation analyses and other statistical methods are used.

Findings – Results indicate police stress exacerbates perceived burnout. Transformational leadership influences this relationship such that high levels of perceived transformational leadership attenuates the negative relationship between stress and burnout, but less so under highly stressful conditions. Findings have strong implications for leaders in high-risk occupations where bureaucracy, departmental policy, and life and death decision-making intersect.

Research limitations/implications – This study can be used as a basis for further inquiry into the effects of transformational leadership on individuals’ perceptions of performance, behavioral and psychological criterion variables in high-risk occupations.

Practical implications – The assessment of relationships among stress and burnout in high-risk occupational settings potentially allows managers to better understand how to structure supervisor-subordinate relationships in order to minimize the effects of stress on perceived burnout and provides a more realistic view of how individuals in high-risk occupations are influenced by leader behaviors under stressful conditions.

Originality/value – This study is thought to be the only one to evaluate the moderated relationships among stress, transformational leadership and burnout in high-risk occupations characterized by increasingly stressful circumstances. More specifically, the notion that individuals in high-risk occupations perceive burnout differently than those in less-risky occupations is not prevalent in the literature.

Journal: Management Research Review
Volume: 37
Number: 4
Year: 2014
pp: 367-384
Copyright © Emerald Group Publishing Limited
ISSN: 2040-8269

Introduction

High-risk occupations present unique challenges because they are more dangerous and expose workers to different types of stress than less risky occupations. Organizations operating in dangerous or risky environments have higher costs (i.e. employee training and replacement, healthcare, and worker’s compensation insurance) than those operating in less risky environments (Deschamps et al., 2003). Because law enforcement is among the most stressful high-risk occupations (Dantzer, 1987) and officers suffer higher rates of illness, burnout, absenteeism, and premature retirement than other workers (Hart et al., 1996; Violanti and Aron, 1993) and face higher risk of increased rates heart disease and stomach disorder and higher rates of alcohol and drug abuse, divorce, and suicide (Lord et al., 1991; Rogers, 1976), it is important to study the relationships between stress and burnout among police.

There is considerable evidence documenting the effects of stress on individual well-being (Asterita, 1985; Bakker and Heuven, 2006; Jamal and Baba, 2000) and organizational performance (Bartone, 2006; Tang and Hammontree, 1992). While there is substantial research in the police and criminal justice literature examining how stress affects outcomes in high-risk occupations, there is a dearth of research centering on how leader behavior influences these relationships. The purpose of this study is to analyze the relationship between stress and burnout in high-risk occupations and how leadership moderates this relationship. Thus, the primary research question addressed within this study is:

RQ1. What is the relationship between stress and burnout in high-risk occupations as governed by transformational leadership behavior?

Theoretical framework and hypotheses

Stress and burnout

For the purpose of this study, stress is defined as a relationship between a person and the environment appraised as taxing or exceeding one’s resources and endangering his or her well being (Lazarus and Folkman, 1984). Factors contributing to stress in police work include tough physical demands and life threatening situations (Moon and Jonson, 2012). Moreover, economic, social, and technical changes are transforming societal expectations creating new work demands of police officers (Deschamps et al., 2003). Accordingly, police are an appropriate high-risk occupation to evaluate within the context of this study.

While organizational (i.e. administrative, departmental, etc.) and operational (i.e. tasks, events, etc.) factors contribute to police stress, organizational factors are repeatedly identified as the strongest police stressors (Shane, 2010; Violanti and Aron, 1995). Organizational stressors include interdepartmental practices (e.g. authoritarian structure; lack of participation in decision making which directly influence accomplishment of daily tasks; punishment-centered managerial philosophy; unfair discipline; and lack of administrative support), while operational stressors include job specific tasks (e.g. shift work, danger, apathetic public perceptions, boredom, and contending with suffering and death). Police face stressful events with the potential to encounter harm and organizational factors such as what they perceive as unfair workplace treatment like forced overtime, completing paperwork off the clock, and a general lack of support (Anshel, 2000; Anshel et al., 1997; Deschamps et al., 2003; He et al., 2002; Violanti and Aron, 1995). These factors result in higher levels of various outcomes among police than for workers in other professions including more stress-related complaints (Hart et al., 1996; Lobel and Dunkel-Schetter, 1990; Violanti and Aron, 1993); more illness, absenteeism, burnout, and premature retirement (Band and Manuele, 1987; Brown and Campbell, 1990, 1994; Burke, 1993); and increased rates of heart disease, stomach disorder, alcohol and drug abuse, divorce, and suicide (Lord et al., 1991; Rogers, 1976).

There is evidence showing the effects of stress on both individual well being of police and organizational performance (Asterita, 1985; Bakker and Heuven, 2006; Bartone, 2006; Jamal and Baba, 2000; Tang and Hammontree, 1992). More recently, researchers found that stressful shift work significantly increased sleep complaints and decreased use of primary health care among Swiss police (Gerber et al., 2010). The level of stress among police officers is not simply an inherent component of police work but results from a combination of situational factors including perceived levels of burnout.

Burnout is defined as a particular type of response among human service providers such as doctors, nurses, counselors, and police to occupational stress emanating from emotionally charged and demanding interactions with recipients (Bakker and Heuven, 2006; Maslach, 1982; Maslach and Schaufeli, 1993). Burnout, an extreme state of exhausted resources due to chronic exposure to occupational stress, represents a distinctive response to interactions between the provider and recipient of a service (Cordes and Dougherty, 1993; Lee and Ashforth, 1996; Maslach, 1982). It is largely accepted that individuals in a wide array of occupations involving a high degree of interpersonal interaction are prone to burnout (Cordes and Dougherty, 1993). Police officers represent one such occupational group.

Studies assessing relationships between stressors, leadership, and burnout among police (Densten, 2005; Thompson et al., 2005) are noteworthy because they evaluate how leadership and supervisory support influence the stress-burnout relationship. Researchers in one such study (Densten, 2005) evaluate how leaders’ visioning behaviors and follower burnout among 480 Australian law-enforcement senior managers are related. Densten (2005) found inspirational motivation (e.g. how leaders communicate bottom-line goals) reduced emotional exhaustion by clarifying roles followers are expected to play. Inspirational motivation was positively related to personal accomplishment (i.e. self-inefficacy or lack of ability) and negatively influenced depersonalization in this study, appearing to help burned out individuals cope by way of improving perceptions of personal accomplishment while simultaneously diminishing the need to emotionally distance themselves from recipients. Thus, the two facets of inspirational motivation exhibited by leaders in this police organization appeared to perform disparate roles in the decrease of burnout among followers. Indirect relationships between inspirational motivation and burnout were also evident in Densten’s study and he suggests inspirational motivation does not directly influence somatic feelings associated with emotional exhaustion; does not directly influence desires of providers to emotionally distance themselves from recipients; and does not directly affect success expectations or perceptions of learned helplessness of followers. Thus, effectiveness of inspirational leaders appears to be achieved through the pivotal role emotional exhaustion plays in burnout in this study.

Thompson et al. (2005) evaluated associations between leader support and burnout on crossover to the family environment and found supervisor support, but not coworker support, reduces role stressors among policewomen. Specifically, supervisor support reduces work stressors such as role overload and role ambiguity, which then influences emotional exhaustion. Emotional exhaustion differentially affects perceptions of both family cohesiveness and family conflict, such that policewomen who experience lower levels of emotional exhaustion report increased perceptions of both family cohesion and conflict. Thus, supervisor support indirectly affects the family environment through its impact on role stressors and emotional exhaustion.

Direct relationships between antecedents and burnout provide additional support for the contention that stressors influence burnout. Martinnussen et al. (2007) found that while the overall level of burnout was low among police officers compared to other occupational groups (i.e. health care workers) tested in Norway, job demands, especially work-family pressures, were important predictors for all dimensions of burnout among police officers. Lambert et al. (2010) found that social support could have positive effects on burnout. Specifically, these researchers found that although not all types of social support attenuated burnout, each dimension of burnout was affected by at least one type of social support (i.e. management, co-worker, supervisor, family-and-friends) among correctional staff in their study pointing to the important role social support (particularly supervisory and managerial) can play in reducing burnout among correctional staff.

While the Thompson et al. (2005) study provides evidence supporting the contention that leader behavior through supervisor support influences the relationship between work stressors and burnout, caution must be exercised when generalizing findings because this study evaluates only policewomen. Densten (2005) also provides evidence for the influence of leader behavior on the stress-burnout relationship among the 92 percent of male police respondents, but both studies (Densten, 2005; Thompson et al., 2005) evaluate different variables to address different research questions. In addition, these studies appear to use samples from outside the USA, limiting the ability to generalize findings. The country of origin of the Thompson et al. sample is not disclosed, but the academic affiliation of the authors and the language describing demographic characteristics of the sample hint an Australian sample was used.

Based on documented relationships between stressors and outcomes in the stress, police and correctional literature (Densten, 2005; Lambert et al., 2010; Martinnussen et al., 2007; Thompson et al., 2005) and in accordance with observed associations between work perceptions and burnout among police officers surveyed in this study (Bakker and Heuven, 2006; Maslach, 1982; Maslach and Schaufeli, 1993), increasing stress in police work is expected to increase perceived burnout. Thus:

H1. There is a positive relationship between stress and burnout.

Transformational leadership

Transformational leadership is defined as leader behavior influencing both values and aspirations of followers by activating higher-order needs and arousing followers to transcend self-interest for the benefit of the organization (Bass, 1985; Podsakoff et al., 1996, pp. 259-260; Rowold and Schlotz, 2009; Yukl, 1989). Transformational leaders influence the values and aspirations of followers (Bass, 1985). Moreover, transformational leaders are often credited with arousing followers to transcend self-interests for the sake of the organization. In effect, transformational leader behaviors influence followers’ values, activate followers higher-order needs, and motivate followers to self-less action on behalf of the leader’s organization (Bass, 1985; Podsakoff et al., 1996, pp. 259-260; Yukl, 1989).

Transformational leader behaviors are important to police organizations because of the trust between transformational leaders and their followers. Police officers must trust their partners with their lives. This same level of trust in leadership within police organizations allows police officers to perform their duties without worrying if they will get into trouble. In essence, transformational leaders are trusted to support officers when bureaucracy, departmental policy, and life and death decision-making intersect. Also, transformational leader behaviors can influence how officers react to stressful situations and encounters. Leaders in police organizations who articulate a clear vision and model behavior toward that vision, who provide individualized support for the followers, and who help officers accept group goals influence and change followers’ beliefs, attitudes, and core values and enhance performance beyond what is required by the organization (Podsakoff et al., 1996, 1990).

Evaluating transformational leaders serving at various levels of departments within the context of this study is both practical and beneficial. Indeed, Engel (2001) identified leader behaviors (e.g. traditional, innovative, supportive, and active) of patrol sergeants and lieutenants. Engel (2002) went on to identify specific follower behavior tied to lower level leader behavior. Specifically, he found that officers with active (i.e. get their hands dirty on the job) supervisors engaged in more self-initiated and community policing/problem-solving activities in a typical shift while those with innovative (i.e. transformational-style) supervisors spent more time with administrative tasks. Thus, leaders at higher and lower levels of the organization have the potential to influence officers with their respective leadership behaviors. Loon et al. (2012) argue that transformational leaders drive learning throughout organizations via shared vision and this translates to learning at all levels – including the individual level. This shared vision also translates to supervisors who have a direct impact on organizational members, and the potential outcomes associated with leader behaviors of these lower level supervisors is critically important. Moreover, direction from the top as an exemplar of model behavior is crucial in high-risk organizations because the consequence of failure can be loss of life (Weick et al., 1999, 2005).

Empirical findings support the proposition that transformational leadership behaviors moderate the relationship between police stress and burnout. Supervisor behavior such as leader-member exchange, participative decision-making, and supervisor-follower communication is found to moderate the relationship between perceptions of politics, a stressor, and outcomes such as job satisfaction and perceived strain such as anxiety among organizational members of highly bureaucratic organizations (Harris and Kacmar, 2005). In a study of 480 senior managers from an Australian law-enforcement organization, Densten (2005) investigated whether visioning leader behaviors (i.e. concept-based and image-based inspirational motivation) influenced the burnout process among followers. Results reveal inspirational motivation behaviors reduce feelings of emotional overextension and emotional exhaustion. Bartone (2006) found leaders in high-risk occupations, where individuals are routinely exposed to danger, hazards, and extreme work-related stressors, shape the sense-making process and interpretation of stressful circumstances through sharing positive construction or reconstruction of shared stressful experience.

Based upon theoretical and empirical findings associated with transformational leadership theory, transformational behavioral patterns of supervisors are expected to moderate the relationship between stress and criterion variable outcomes. Accordingly, the following hypotheses are associated with the influence of transformational leadership behavior on burnout in the present study:

H2. The relationship between stress and burnout is moderated by followers’ perception of leader behavior.

H2a. The relationship between police stress and burnout is moderated by followers’ perception of leader behavior such that when transformational leadership is perceived to be high the positive impact between police stress and burnout is lower than when transformational leadership is perceived to be low.

Methods

Survey

The paper-based survey, used as part of a larger study, consists of 15 sections, each containing multiple sections. Most of the 302 items, including 12 demographic questions in the survey require Likert-style responses. Two of the items are open-ended questions asking respondents to provide their thoughts and opinions about variables. A pilot study was used to assess the validity and reliability of the survey and the instrument was found to be reliable and valid with the pilot study data.

Sample and procedure

Multiple police departments in the southern and southwest US served as the sample for this study. This sample is well suited for study because officers in these departments are responsible for responding to multi-state natural disasters in addition to performing normal police activities (e.g. local, community and state policing, crime response and prevention, etc.). Moreover, the demanding nature of police work (e.g. unpleasant and even dangerous contacts and interactions with civilian and inmate populations), the fact that police face limited resources (particularly financial constraints) and the fact that leadership and stress-related and attitudinal outcomes are salient to this group make them a strong match to the target population.

To begin the data collection efforts, the Chiefs, Sheriffs, and Directors of nine departments were contacted and asked to participate. Researchers were given access to all officers (482) at daily briefings and shift changes where respondents were informed that participation was voluntary. Respondents were also informed that researchers would keep individual responses confidential and were told about the goals of the study and specifics of informed consent. Survey data were collected over a two-week period during shift changes and daily briefings by researchers on premises for all but two departments, where sealed surveys were collected by the watch sergeants and then sent to researchers. χ 2 tests revealed no differences among respondents where data were collected on premises by researchers and those that were collected internally and sent to researchers. A total of 379 respondents (78.6 percent response rate) completed the survey.

The majority of the respondents were non-Hispanic white men, between the ages of 32 and 45. Most officers were married with at least one child living at home and had at least some college experience. Just under half of those responding reported working in urban departments and equally classified their respective agencies as city, county, or state agencies with less than 100 officers. Over 40 percent of the respondents worked for agencies employing between 100 and 500 officers. The majority of respondents ranked themselves as either officers or deputies, having less than 15 years experience in police work, and as working in patrol capacity.

Measures

Measures for this paper are from a survey used as part of a larger study. Most of the 302 items in the larger survey required Likert-style responses and the survey instrument was found to be reliable and valid with pilot study data. Permission was obtained from the original authors to use all measures.

Stress

A 60-item previously validated measure (Spielberger et al., 1981) was used to assess the stress levels among police officers. The first event listed, assignment of disagreeable duties, was given a rating of 4, a moderate amount of stress, in the first column. Subsequent events such as disagreeable departmental regulations, ineffectiveness of the judicial system, making arrests alone and delivering a death notification are rated proportionately higher or lower in stress in comparison to being assigned disagreeable duties, which is generally considered moderately stressful by individuals in a variety of occupations (Spielberger et al., 1981). Officers indicated the number of times they personally experienced the event in the past six months by selecting the corresponding number in the second column. A stress index for the Police Stress Survey (PSS) was created by averaging the product of perceived stress (1 – no perceived stress to 7 – high amount of perceived stress) by frequency ratings (0 – never to 7 – 7+times), according to PSS instructions. Cronbach’s α for the present study is α=0.950.

Burnout

The 24-item, previously validated Maslach Burnout Inventory (MBI) measure (permission granted by CPP, 2009) was used to assess burnout. Respondents read statements like “I feel burned out from my work” and rated how often an event occurred on a scale of zero to six (0 – never to 6 – everyday). Many researchers (Cordes and Dougherty, 1993; Densten, 2005; Maslach, 1982; Thompson et al., 2005) find emotional exhaustion fundamental, and the first step, to experiencing burnout; and that emotional exhaustion is consistently related to high levels of work demand. Thus, burnout in this study is comprised primarily of items from the emotional exhaustion dimension of the MBI. Cronbach’s α for the present study is α=0.873.

Transformational leadership

A 28-item, previously validated measure (Podsakoff et al., 1990) was used to assess transformational leadership. Respondents were instructed to rate how accurately statements like “Always gives me positive feedback when I perform well” describe their supervisor (Sergeant, Lieutenant, or higher) on a scale of one to five (1 – strongly disagree to 5 – strongly agree). Because global measures were used for both police stress and burnout, a global measure (rather than individual dimensions) of transformational leadership was also used to maintain consistency. Cronbach’s α for the present study is α=0.960.

Control variables

Based on a review of the extant literature (Kohan and Mazmanian, 2003; Liu et al., 2008; Violanti and Aron, 1993, 1995; Wolfgang, 1995) and to help minimize spurious relationships, controls for gender (male – 1, female – 2), ethnicity (white (non-Hispanic) – 1, African-American – 2; Asian-American – 3, Hispanic – 4, other – 5), age (18-24 years – 1, 25-31 years – 2, 32-38 years – 3, 39-45 years – 4, over 45 years – 5), current rank (officer/deputy – 1, sergeant – 2; lieutenant – 3, captain – 4, chief or higher – 5), and department size in number of sworn officers (500=5) were used. Ethnicity, organizational size, and age were coded in groupings to help respondents feel that their ratings were confidential and would not be easy to identify.

Analytical approach

Hierarchical multiple regression (HMR) analysis was used to test the direct hypothesis and hierarchical multiple moderated regression (HMMR) analysis was used to test the moderated hypothesis. HMR and HMMR are appropriate because it is important to determine any significant increase in predictive power beyond that of the control variables. Of equal importance is distinguishing between the main and interaction effects, given that moderating variables are investigated in this study. Moreover, the order in which the variables are entered into the regression is theoretically important. Tests of moderation were conducted in accordance with Baron and Kenny (1986). To avoid potential autocorrelation between the interaction effect of the independent and moderating variables, independent and moderating variables were centered for the HMMR analyses in this study (Aiken and West, 1991). In all analyses, statistical assumptions were tested and unless otherwise stated, data passed all tests or were successfully transformed.

Results

The bivariate relationships among variables in this study were evaluated by analyzing the Pearson Product-Moment correlation coefficient. Means, standard deviations and intercorrelations are shown in Table I. Correlations between predictor and outcome variables are significant and in the expected direction. Correlations associated with the moderator variable are also as expected, and the highest correlation between the three variables is 0.439, which provides evidence, that although correlated, they are measuring different constructs.

With respect to the control variables, gender is positively correlated with age (p<0.05), indicating that women tend to be older than men in this study. Current rank is positively correlated with age (p<0.01) indicating that ranked officers are generally older than non-ranked officers. Department size is negatively correlated with current rank indicating that larger departments have fewer ranked officers as a percentage of total officers.

Police stress is negatively correlated with department size indicating that members of larger departments perceive lower levels of police stress. Police stress is positively correlated with transformational leadership and burnout indicating that higher levels of perceived stress are associated with higher levels of both transformational leadership and burnout among officers in this study. Transformational leadership is positively correlated with the size of a department indicating that officers in larger departments perceive higher levels of transformational leadership from supervisors. Finally, burnout is negatively associated with transformational leadership indicating that officers who perceive higher levels of transformational leadership report lower perceived burnout.

The effects of police stress on the dependent variable burnout was examined in a separate hierarchically arranged multiple regression analysis. Results are presented in Table II. Gender, age, ethnicity, current rank, and department size were used as control variables in this analysis.

H1 states there is a positive relationship between police stress and burnout. H1 is supported (β=0.442; p<0.01). The change in R 2 indicates police stress explains 11.8 percent of the variance beyond that explained by the control variables. Thus, for every 1 percent increase in perceived stress, respondents reported nearly 12 percent increase in perceived burnout.

H2 states that the relationship between police stress and burnout depends on followers’ perceptions of leaders transformational leader behaviors. H2a states that the transformational leadership influences this relationship such that perceptions of burnout diminish when high levels of transformational leadership are perceived. Results from HMMR analysis for H2 and H2a are also depicted in Table II. H2 is supported. Transformational leadership moderates the relationship between police stress and burnout (β=0.124; p<0.01) Transformational leadership explains an additional 1.4 percent of the variance beyond that of the control variables and the direct relationship between stress and burnout.

The moderated relationship of police stress on burnout by transformational leadership is shown in Figure 1. To the degree that leaders exhibit high levels of transformational leadership, followers perceive lower overall levels of burnout. It is interesting to note that followers perceive increasing levels of burnout as police stress intensifies, but the change occurs at a stronger rate as perceived levels transformational leadership increases.

The ordinal relationship shown in Figure 1 indicates that officers perceiving high levels of transformational leadership experience lower overall levels of burnout, and transformational leader behavior appears most effective in reducing burnout under low stress conditions. Thus, it appears that transformational leadership is less effective in reducing burnout under increasingly stressful circumstances and H2a is not supported.

Discussion

Empirical and theoretical studies associated with stress (Anshel, 2000; Anshel et al., 1997; Deschamps et al., 2003; He et al., 2002; Lazarus and Folkman, 1984; Moon and Jonson, 2012; Shane, 2010; Violanti and Aron, 1995) and burnout (Bakker and Heuven, 2006; Maslach, 1982; Maslach and Jackson, 1984; Maslach et al., 1996; Maslach and Schaufeli, 1993) suggest that as stress increases, so to does burnout. Findings in this study support these conclusions. Specifically, the linear relationships between police stress and burnout was significant and in the hypothesized direction.

Social exchange theory (SET) (Blau, 1964) provides a conceptual framework for the argument that transformational leadership influences the direct relationship between stress and burnout. SET is centered on the idea that social behavior is based on exchanges between parties where individuals try to maximize pleasurable, and minimize less pleasurable, experiences (Cropanzano and Mitchell, 2005). In terms of transformational leadership among police, officers work to accomplish tasks and organizational goals in exchange for leader recognition (e.g. praise, acknowledgment, encouragement, consideration, and perhaps most importantly respect). Findings in this study support this conclusion, but results are more complex and specific than expected. Specifically, police officers perceive lower overall levels of burnout to the degree that leaders exhibit high levels of transformational leadership, but officers’ perceived burnout intensifies as perceived levels of transformational leadership increases. Thus, transformational leadership appears to be effective at mitigating burnout at lower levels of stress, but less so as stress levels increase for police in this study.

While results for both H1 and H2 are in line with SET, there appears to be a point where the positive benefits from the social exchange among police and their leaders no longer yield positive outcomes. It may be that transformational leader effects only have the desired outcomes up to a certain point for this high-risk occupational group, at which some of the benefit may actually be less effective. Indeed, Yukl (2012, p. 75) contends that moderate (amounts of) leader behavior (in terms of quantity exhibited) is optimal. Yukl’s contention is rarely empirically investigated, however.

Another possible explanation for why perceived burnout diminishes at lower but not higher levels of transformational leader behavior can be found in Hobföll’s conservation of resources (COR) theory (Hobföll, 1989; Hobföll and Shirom, 2000), which suggests that individuals work to accumulate, protect, and retain necessary resources, such as those required in stressful circumstances. Hobföll suggests that workers expend valued resources (i.e. those objects, personal characteristics, conditions, or energies valued by the individual). Hobföll suggests that individuals protect existing resource stores and expend them only when necessary to avoid re-accumulating them. The effectiveness of which transformational leadership reduces burnout appears to diminish as individuals are exposed to increasing levels of stress for which they must tap internal resource stores. Individuals may be less likely to recognize the benefit of transformational leader behavior until stress is reduced, at which time leaders are better able to help subordinates replenish vital resources. Thus, consistent with tenets of COR theory, transformational leadership is beneficial only up to a point. Needless to say, these are post hoc explanations beyond the scope of this data, but that I hope researchers will strive to answer in future empirical studies.

Limitations

A potential limitation to this study is mono-method bias, a threat to construct validity due to the use of only one method of measurement (Trochim and Donnelly, 2007). Procedural and statistical remedies (e.g. use of previously validated measures, post hoc comparisons to archival demographic data, partial correlation procedure, scale trimming, the use of a panel of experts to determine appropriate exclusions, scale reordering, altering the design of the questionnaire such that the dependent and criterion variables are randomly placed throughout the questionnaire, etc.) were applied to minimize the effects of consistency artifacts (Podsakoff et al., 2003; Podsakoff and Organ, 1986). Moreover, Harmon’s one-factor test and confirmatory factor analysis revealed the presence of multiple factors, with eigenvalues greater than one, accounting for various levels of variance indicating less likelihood of a common factor (Podsakoff et al., 2003). Researchers recommend using structural equation modeling (SEM) to minimize the effects of common method variance (CMV) (Podsakoff et al., 2003). SEM was not the most suitable statistical analysis for assessing relationships in this study because tests of moderation were required.

Researchers recommend temporal separation of data collection between criterion and predictor variables to contend with another issue associated with CMV, in which CMV saturates higher order multidimensional constructs (Johnson et al., 2011). Various constraints (i.e. time, financial, etc.) prohibited temporal separation of data collection for the present study. Hence, while some researchers suggest that CMV presents less of a concern in some studies (Spector, 2006), correlations in the bivariate correlation analysis point to the notion that CMV may be present in this study. Thus, while every effort was used to minimize potential effects, it is impossible to rule out potential bias due to CMV, and results should be considered accordingly.

The sample in this study represents a variety of individuals from various agencies. Only one high-risk occupation, however, was examined in this study. Officers from multiple agencies from the city, county, and state level were surveyed representing a wide cross-section of police agencies. In addition, rural, suburban, and urban departments ranging in size from a few officers to well over 500 officers were included in this study. Nonetheless, external validity is limited and generalizing results from this study should be done with caution. It could be that police officers have differential needs for transformational leadership, so it will be important to investigate these relationships in a variety of high-risk and less-risky occupations to address this limitation.

Another limitation of this study pertains to the type of leaders assessed. Respondents were instructed to rate commanding superiors at the rank of sergeant, lieutenant, or above (or the nearest equivalent) to assess transformational leaders within respective units of command. Differences in department size, however, may affect the rank of leader being assessed with higher-ranking leaders being assessed in smaller departments and lower-ranking supervisors being assessed in larger departments. While differences in leadership styles certainly exist between top leaders and supervisors, top leaders set the tone and organizational culture, and create a climate in which supervisors must effectively work. Indeed, visioning of the top leaders of a department will effectively filter through the ranks to the supervisory ranks and be reflected in lower-level leadership styles. Nonetheless, future studies should investigate differences between upper-level and supervisory leaders.

Theoretical and managerial contributions

There is an abundance of research evaluating the relationship between stress and burnout among police (Bakker and Heuven, 2006; Densten, 2005; Maslach, 1982; Maslach and Schaufeli, 1993; Lambert et al., 2010; Martinnussen et al., 2007; Thompson et al., 2005). Few studies, however, evaluate how leadership influences this relationship; and of those evaluating the leadership-burnout relationship, most evaluate direct relationships (Bartone, 2006; Griffin et al., 2012; Lambert et al., 2012). This study provides a first step in addressing this important gap in the literature. As such, one of the major theoretical contributions of this study is the assessment of the moderating role of leadership on the relationship between stress and burnout.

Results from this study also have implications for managers and leaders. First and foremost, findings are in alignment with research in the area (Bakker and Heuven, 2006; Bartone, 2006; Densten, 2005; Lambert et al., 2010; Martinnussen et al., 2007; Thompson et al., 2005) that confirms that stress is positively associated with perceptions of burnout. Specifically, as police stress increases so to do perceptions of burnout among officers in this study. Moreover, leaders are able to mitigate perceived burnout when stress levels are low, but have less influence at increasing stress levels. Accordingly, the positive impacts of transformational leadership should be understood and encouraged, to the extent that it is effective in diminishing the negative effects of lower levels of stress. Managers and leaders need to be aware that providing transformational leadership is a good thing – under less stressful circumstances. Under highly stressful circumstances, a different leadership style (e.g. authentic leadership, inextremis leadership, participative, or supportive leadership) might be better suited to attenuate perceived burnout. Potentially these results allow managers and leaders to better understand how to structure supervisor-subordinate relationships in order to minimize the effects of stress on perceived burnout at varying levels of stress.

This work potentially provides a more realistic view of how individuals in one high-risk occupation are influenced by leader behaviors under stressful conditions and can potentially inform both researchers and practitioners. From a practical standpoint, the truth is that individuals in high-risk occupations do not always make rational choices when faced with stress despite organizational attempts to train them otherwise. This is particularly true for individuals providing service to, and engaging in, emotionally charged contacts with the public (Bakker and Heuven, 2006; Maslach, 1982; Maslach and Schaufeli, 1993).

Future research

Future research efforts investigating these hypotheses, with other samples from both high-risk and less risky occupations to determine the robustness of results is necessary. Additionally, studies with other consequences such as task performance, organizational behavior, job satisfaction, turnover and organizational commitment would help expand the nomological network related to this association. I encourage future studies that examine these outcomes, as well as research efforts with other, related consequences and longitudinal research designs as these types of investigations would be insightful.

Another area for future research would be to determine if transformational leadership has a curvilinear, as opposed to linear, relationship with various outcomes such as stress, burnout, and citizenship behavior. Specifically, do ever-increasing levels of transformational leadership lead to more and more desirable follower outcomes or is there a point of diminishing returns where followers feel “over valued”? It could be that police officers experience the too much of a good thing (TMGT) effect (Pierce and Aguinis, 2013). Perhaps followers value transformational leadership only up to a certain point after which the leader behaviors are no longer valued. This TMGT effect has been suggested in areas of leadership (Fleishman, 1998; Gebert et al., 2003) and researchers have found that leader-member exchange quality exhibits curvilinear relationships with stress, job tension, and turnover intensions (Harris and Kacmar, 2006; Harris et al., 2005; Hochwarter and Byrne, 2005) and assertiveness is nonlinearly related to leadership effectiveness ratings (Ames and Flynn, 2007). I encourage future studies that examine potential curvilinear associations, as these types of investigations would be insightful. A limitation of this study pertains to the type of leaders assessed. Respondents were instructed to rate commanding superiors at the rank of sergeant, lieutenant, or above (or the nearest equivalent) to assesse transformational leaders within respective units of command. Differences in department size, however, may affect the rank of leader being assessed with higher-ranking leaders being assessed in smaller departments and lower-ranking supervisors being assessed in larger departments. While differences in leadership styles certainly exist between top leaders and supervisors, top leaders set the tone and organizational culture, and create a climate in which supervisors must effectively work. Indeed, visioning of the top leaders of a department will effectively filter through the ranks to the supervisory ranks and be reflected in lower-level leadership styles. Nonetheless, future studies should investigate differences between upper-level and supervisory leaders.

Finally, only one high-risk occupation was investigated in this study – namely police. It is important that researchers work to confirm findings from this study not only among police, but also among workers from other occupations. Moreover, the type of stress may influence results. In addition to the type of stress, it is recommended that researchers study other high-risk occupations along with less risky occupations so that comparisons between levels of risk can be made.

Conclusion

An abundance of leadership research exists, with the large majority showing the positive associations with desired individual and organizational outcomes. Research and managerial recommendations about transformational leadership have implicitly stated that this type of leader behavior is beneficial. This study finds that although transformational leadership attenuates the relationship between stress and burnout, results only hold for lower levels of stress for police in this study. More specifically, results indicate that transformational leader behavior may actually augment burnout at higher stress levels. It may be that there is TMGT when it comes to transformational leader behavior – questions for further study. My hope is that this study will stimulate additional questions and that future investigations will further knowledge about the associations regarding transformational leadership behaviors and burnout in addition to other important variables.

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About the author

Lisa Russell is an Assistant Professor of strategic management and entrepreneurship at Indiana University Southeast. Her interests centre on high-risk occupations facing crisis and how stress influences individual and organizational outcomes. In addition to owing her own businesses, Dr Russell has worked in top management positions in corporate as well as in high-risk occupational settings. Lisa Russell can be contacted at: lismruss@ius.edu

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About stephenomeara

My name is Jim Jordan. I have had the privilege of working with the Boston Police Department and hundreds more departments over my nearly 30-year career in police administration and city government. I am now teaching and consulting independently at www.sergeantsleadership.org. I have learned the best of what I know from the thousands of smart, dedicated and ethical police personnel and scholars who have guided me along the way. My address is named for the great Reform commissioner of the Boston Police at the turn of the 20th century. Commissioner O'Meara died just a short while before the Strike in 1919. He was replaced by a vicious puppet (of Gov. Coolidge) named Edwin U. Curtis. Had O'Meara lived events may have turned out quite differently.
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