Home All A Good Boss or A Good Doctor: Which Matters More?

A Good Boss or A Good Doctor: Which Matters More?

written by Marie-Josée Shaar 26 June 2013

Marie-Josée (MJ) Salvas Shaar, MAPP '07, CPT, has studied, tested, coached, and taught smart health habits for over 13 years. Combining positive psychology with fitness and nutrition, she created a coaching method that builds better sleep, food, mood, and exercise habits, as described in her book, Smarts and Stamina: The Busy Person's Guide to Optimal Health and Performance, which includes 50 practical health-building activities. Today MJ gives keynotes for corporate wellness programs and offers continuing education for wellness professionals, who can license her Smarts and Stamina Online program. Full bio. MJ's articles are here.

“Do you enjoy going to work everyday?” might be one of the most pertinent yet most overlooked health questions ever asked. Turns out whoever said that work isn’t work unless it is tedious, tiring, or plain painful had it all wrong.

After studying well-being in more than 150 countries and interviewing people of all ages for roughly 60 years, here’s Gallup’s insight:

“Career wellbeing might be one of the most important priorities to consider for maintaining good health over the years,” say Tom Rath and Jim Harter, authors of Wellbeing: The Five Essential Elements.

It makes sense. At work, lower well-being usually means higher stress and anxiety. Higher stress and anxiety translate into higher cortisol levels in the body. Higher cortisol can lead to insomnia, increased appetite, weight gain, a weakened immune function, an impaired cardiovascular system, and accelerated brain cell loss. As if this weren’t enough, Rath and Harter also found that as engagement at work go down, cholesterol and triglycerides tend to rise.

On the up side, and thank goodness for it, Rath and Harter’s research also shows that improving career well-being and engagement at work have all the opposite effects. They further report that people who have the opportunity to focus on their strengths at work are three times as likely to report having an excellent quality of life in general.

This research ties very well with the Smarts and Stamina approach, which shows that our sleep, food, mood, and exercise habits are mutually reinforcing thanks to the biochemical activity that each generates in the body. In other words, the better we do in any of these four categories, the easier it is to stay on track with the other three. Improving our health habits is therefore better done by looking at the whole and leveraging the interactions. Working on a single habit in isolation is about as effective as buying a cell phone without the accompanying charger. Eventually you run out of juice and it’s game over. (For more details on this concept, see my article, Why Happier People Are Healthier.)

Anyone who has lived on both sides of the coin, being crushed by a terrible boss as well as thriving in a supportive work environment, can attest that career well-being boosts mood tremendously. With a boosted mood comes a snowball effect of health-promoting bio-reactions, which in turn benefit our sleep, food, and exercise habits.

Happiness researchers Ed Diener and Robert Biswas-Diener took a different road than mine. Rather than study biochemical activity and its repercussions, they looked at people’s behaviors directly. They confirm that happier people tend to have better health habits, generally speaking.

For the linguists and other sharp-witted readers, let me be precise: Rath and Harter define career well-being as being satisfied with what you do everyday, whether you are a C-suite executive, a volunteer, or a homemaker. I have yet to meet someone who despises what she does all day and stands out as Little Miss Sunshine at the same time. It just doesn’t happen very much.

So career well-being has considerable repercussions on our mood and overall health habits. For the employed, the biggest determinant of career well-being is the immediate superior. Like it or not, your boss is either helping or hindering your health big time. Working with a good boss could be even more important than choosing the ideal doctor, no disrespect to anyone who has had the courage, talent, and dedication to survive through med school.

If you need help dealing with a toxic boss, check out the soon-to-be released Profit from the Positive, by Margaret Greenberg and Senia Maymin. They offer tools for positive contagion. Or consult Jane Dutton’s chapter about corrosive bosses. If neither works, consider that even in these lack-luster economic times, a new boss to work with is much easier to find than a new body to live in…

Author Note: If you’d like to help your clients look at their health habits in synergy rather than in isolation as described in this article, please visit Build your Coaching Business Online.




Shaar, M.J. & Britton, K. (2011). Smarts and Stamina: The Busy Person’s Guide to Optimal Health and Performance. Philadelphia, PA: Positive Psychology Press.

Rath, T. & Harter, J. (2010). Wellbeing: The Five Essential Elements. Gallup Press.

Greenberg, M. & Maymin, S. (2013). Profit from the Positive: Proven Leadership Strategies to Boost Productivity and Transform Your Business. McGraw Hill.

Diener, E. & Biswas-Diener, R. (2008). Happiness: Unlocking the Mysteries of Psychological Wealth. Wiley-Blackwell.

Dutton, J. (2003). Energize Your Workplace: How to Create and Sustain High-Quality Connections at Work. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

Photo Credit via Compfight with Creative Commons License
Stress head courtesy of ian boyd
Mean boss courtesy of slworking2
Helpful boss courtesy of designjamiasi

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oz 27 June 2013 - 6:51 am

i really wonder how useful it is to expect to work in a great work environment. Would it be better to lower expectations and accept that work isn’t always going to be great?

Sheila Tasman 27 June 2013 - 7:05 am

Bravo for bringing this elephant in the room to light so that we really know the impact for well being and overall health.

When a company values and appreciates their employees and is concerned about profitability and health promotion, they will look more closely at improving the underlying factors, don’t you think?


Margaret Greenberg 27 June 2013 - 9:45 am

Nice piece MJ! Love the “…biggest determinant of career well-being is the immediate supervisor”. He or she can either boost employee performance or deplete it and according to one study, in as little as 7 minutes! Sometimes I think it can be in as little as a nano-second — just by the way a manager walks into the workplace.

Judy Krings 28 June 2013 - 5:39 am

Hi, MJ,

Sometimes it takes courage you may not know you have to decide to be healthy.

Years ago when I was having a difference of opinion with a business colleague and not looking forward to going into my office, my professional manager gave me some of the best advice I have ever received: “If you can’t open the door and walk into your office with happy anticipation looking forward to the day, you need to make a decision to take action. It is your responsibility.

I did. It was life altering. And my headache went away. Literally and figuratively. I needed to put on my big girl party pants. All of my employees were thrilled and outwardly grateful. I had not realized they were affected as much as I was. I learned many lessons about empathy, self-compassion and taking the bull by the horn. All great for health. We all felt as if we had been on an elevator to more meaning, peace, and had space for more growth.

Loved your comment about the elephant in the room, Sheila!

Thanks much, MJ

Marie-Josée Shaar 28 June 2013 - 5:59 pm

Thanks for the feedback, Ladies! Glad my article resonated with you! Sheila – I agree that employers who truly care about wellness will actively involve management. I think that health promotion is not an employee-program, and it’s not an ROI-thing. It’s for everyone, and it’s the right thing.

Oz – work isn’t always going to be great even with a great boss. So why should we also put up with an energy-vampire that will just make us miserable? I see your point that overly high expectations can lead to avoidable disappointments, and I’m not suggesting that your boss should be your best friend. But I do think that our work environment should be supportive of our development and health. When work is a deterrent, it’s time to go. We’re people, not machines!

Judy – would love to hear more about how you made that decision and how you stuck with it. If you’re open to it but would rather take the conversation offline, you can email me at info(at)SmartsAndStamina(dot)com.

Cheers! 😉

Sean, Edmonton Ab 4 July 2013 - 10:48 pm

Great article! I gave a copy to each of my staff! Very helpful

Sean Swaby 22 July 2015 - 7:22 am

Great article. I have shared this and discussed it with my staff. I also write a blog and I write for the Good Men Project. I cited your article in a piece at https://smswaby.wordpress.com/2015/07/22/your-boss-or-your-life/. I invite your feedback or comments.


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