Who is more stressed? Leaders or those who work for them?
Today, in the Washington Post, On Leadership columnist Jena McGregor discusses a new study out of Harvard that challenges the common perception that leaders have higher stress levels than nonleaders. The study, published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, discovered that those who hold leadership positions actually experience less stress.
Researchers tested the stress levels of leaders and nonleaders and discovered that leaders had significantly lower levels of cortisol (the stress hormone) and lower reports of anxiety when compared to nonleaders. In a second study, they found that leaders who held more powerful positions exhibited lower cortisol levels and reported less anxiety than leaders who held less powerful positions.
The authors attributed much of what they discovered to a psychological factor commonly associated with strong stress-buffering effects—a greater sense of control. When you are in charge, you're more likely to have better control over factors that cause stress. Although the study found that leaders are more likely to sleep less and consume more caffeine, they also are less likely to smoke and more likely to exercise.
Of course, this does not mean that leaders don't experience negative stress or that all leaders manage stress better than their employees. However, it does suggest that those in leadership positions have more of an opportunity to control the stress in their lives because they have better control over what happens in their workplace. Taking advantage of this opportunity may be the key to reducing stress. It also could be that people with better stress management skills or those with a higher tolerance for stress to begin with are more likely to rise to leadership positions.
According to HealthDay reporter Randy Dotinga, who interviewed the lead author of the study, researchers hope to extend their work by tracking stress in people over time to see what happens to their stress levels as they move up and down the career ladder.
© 2012 Sherrie Bourg Carter, All Rights Reserved
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Sherrie Bourg Carter is the author of High Octane Women: How Superachievers Can Avoid Burnout
(Prometheus Books, 2011).