Most of us are well aware of the pernicious effects of job stress on our health. One might think that the more responsibilities that one has, the greater the experienced stress, and as such the worse the eventual health outcomes. Viewed from this perspective, we might predict that the CEO of a Fortune 500 company is more likely to suffer a heart attack than the security guard minding the information desk at the company's lobby. Similarly, one would think that a neurosurgeon experiences much greater stress than a hospital orderly, and as such the latter should be more prone to experience the ill effects of stress.
Interestingly, some compelling research has repeatedly found the exact opposite effect. The social epidemiologist Sir Michael Marmot has conducted extensive studies demonstrating a link between individuals' job gradients and various health outcomes (cf. Marmot, 2004; Bosma et al., 1997). He has found that with higher occupational status comes better health and longer life expectancy (whilst controlling for some of the obvious confounding variables). Why would this be the case given that we typically associate greater stress with jobs of higher status?
Marmot argues that the operative psychological stressor is the extent to which one can exercise control in their job functions. Higher status jobs typically permit individuals to have much greater mastery over their professional lives than their lower status counterparts. The physiological means by which this psychological reality manifests itself is via the stress hormone cortisol. Research has found that status is inversely linked with cortisol levels (see for example the work of the brilliant Stanford neurobiologist Robert Sapolsky), with higher cortisol levels being associated with various deleterious health outcomes .
I experience this reality in my own profession. I am perfectly happy to work 18-hour days doing something that I love (e.g., working on my books, writing up research papers, supervising my graduate students). However, once I have one or two administrative meetings in a given day (and hence I have less control over my schedule), I am utterly stressed out!
Ciao for now.
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