King Henry VIII ruled the Anti-Healthy Workplace

By: Dr. Adam Stoehr, July 2010

I was recently in London England at Hampton Court Palace for a music festival.  When King Henry VIII ruled England (between 1509 and 1547) he spent a lot of his time at this Palace.  King Henry wasn’t exactly known for his “healthy workplace” practices.  He ruled with absolute power, perhaps the last English monarch to do so.  I spent two days exploring the Palace and reading a lot about the King.  Three themes emerged about his “Anti-Healthy Workplace” leadership style: 

  • He killed people that disagreed with him
  • He changed the rules a lot
  • He spent lots of money unnecessarily


These themes are the Anti-Healthy Workplace or ‘Sickly Workplace’.  The following is how not to act if you want happy engaged employees.

Picture I took of a painting of King Henry VIII inside Hampton Court Palace. June 19, 2010

Execute the opposition

If you stood in the King’s way, one of his primary tactics for dealing with you was  execution.  His wives, clergy, and members of his staff were often groundlessly charged with high treason and executed.  .

He’s most (in)famous for how he treated his many wives.  For example the King’s second wife Anne Boleyn wasn’t the obedient wife that the King wanted, so instead of working this out with her, he accused her of adultery and high treason and had her executed.   He married his fourth wife, Anne of Cleves, sight unseen and once he spent time with her decided that she was too ugly to stay with so he had the marriage annulled. Lucky for her he didn’t kill her -  instead he executed the guy who set up the marriage.  His fifth wife, Catherine Howard, wasn’t so lucky and after an alleged affair the King had her executed for adultery. 

Over the years the head count totaled somewhere in the neighborhood of 70,000 people including two wives, one cardinal, twenty peers, four leading public servants, six of the king's close friends, various church leaders, and thousands of regular folks.

If leaders took this approach in the workplace today we would have a mutiny.   Even if you don’t take it literally, “execution” is not the best way to handle your work colleagues. Unfortunately some workplaces continue to operate this way.  They’re not killing each other but they do participate in turf wars, blaming, infighting, gossiping, and bullying.  Don’t execute the opposition, involve and engage them.  If you’re interested in the ‘Sickly Workplace Award’ go ahead and sharpen your axe and get ready to execute.

Evening shot as I sat in the courtyard outside Hampton Court Palace, June 19, 2010

Rules are made to be changed

If the King wasn’t killing people he was making up new rules and holding people to them.  A lot of his rule changing had to do with laws and religion.  For example, he would change laws to suit his needs - like the following Act about how he wanted people to accept his second marriage: “all adults in the kingdom are required to acknowledge the Act’s provisions by oath and those who refuse are subject to imprisonment for life.” Any publisher or printer of any literature alleging that this marriage was invalid was automatically guilty of high treason and was sometimes punished by death.   The irony of this Act was that he ended up executing his second wife as well.

Similarly he changed a lot of rules about the church eventually making England a Protestant nation.  For many reasons, including his ability to get a divorce, Henry declared himself supreme head of the church in England.  The ‘Act of Supremacy’ declared that the King was "the only Supreme Head in Earth of the Church of England" and the ‘Treasons Act’ made it “high treason, punishable by death, to refuse to acknowledge the King as such.”

I would love to think that randomly changing important rules was a thing of the past in the modern organization.  Unfortunately it’s common practice for management teams to “flip the script” on unsuspecting workers.   I was working with an organization a few months ago that all of a sudden decided that flexible work hours and working from home were no longer going to be tolerated. Organizational rules in the form of processes, policies, and procedure are important and act like a rudder keeping the organization on track.  Don’t change the rules for the sake of changing the rules.  Go ahead and change them if you’re interested in the ‘Sickly Workplace Award’.

I need another Palace!

If the King wasn’t killing people or making up new rules, he was unwisely spending lots of money.  For example, Henry expanded the Royal Navy from 5 to 53 ships and increased the number of palaces in his kingdom from 12 to 55 during his reign.  His extravagant outfits were  made of expensive velvet and satin dripping with gold, pearls, and jewels.

Henry inherited a vast fortune from his father Henry VII.  This fortune was estimated to be around £375 million by today's standards. Much of this wealth was spent by Henry on maintaining his personal kingdom.  Despite efforts by his people to reduce the waste, Henry died in debt.

Sitting at King Henry VII’s dining room table in the Hampton Court Palace with my Cousin. June 19, 2010


Some modern organizations have trouble with lavish spending on controversial things like scandal, guaranteed bonuses, and overly risky investments.  You only need to look at some of the spending scandals of the previous couple of years like Canada’s federal sponsorship scandal, the Toronto computer scandal, and all the financial institutions’ undeserved bankruptcy bonuses.  As  with the King, self-interest clouded the judgment of those responsible.  Ethical behaviour and accountability are needed to avoid future scandals.  On the other hand, if you want a ‘Sickly Workplace Award’, go ahead and turn a blind eye and shine up your gold, pearls and  jewels.  

Your Majesty’s Future

"Killing" your colleagues, "Rule Changing", and "Self-interested" spending are criteria for the ‘Sickly Workplace Award’.  The antidote is a new kind of King.  In an age where there is great debate about the future of the monarchy, a new kind of King needs to emerge in the workplace. This King won't have absolute power. This King will aim for healthy employees making a contribution to the organization within a healthy workplace environment focusing on the following criteria:

All hail the Healthy Workplace King!


  • Learn more about this Healthy Workplace® Criteria and a practical method for implementation at the next Quest for a Healthy Workplace training in a city near you: Click here.

End note: All of the facts in this article about the King and his reign were taken from the exhibits at the Hampton Court Palace and other online sources.

Author Information

Adam  Stoehr, PhD

Adam Stoehr, PhD