Contrary to the commonly held image of the stressed-out executive, new research suggests that despite the burden of extra responsibilities, becoming a boss could actually protect you against stress-induced heart attacks.
The latest findings, published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, suggest that workers higher up the food chain suffer less stress because being in charge offers a heightened sense of control.
Researchers from Harvard University, Stanford University and the University of California, San Diego tested the common theory that leadership creates more stress by studying and comparing the levels of the stress hormone cortisol in the saliva of almost 150 bosses to 65 workers in non-leadership positions.
Investigators found that the group of leaders, which mostly comprised of participants in a Harvard Kennedy School executive education program that typically attracts mid- to high-ranking government and military officials, suffered less anxiety according to the results of self-reported surveys and had significantly lower levels of cortisol.
Researchers also compared the higher-ranking leaders to lower-ranking leaders and found that the ones holding to most powerful positions had the lowest cortisol levels and anxiety reports than those whose positions were less influential. The latest findings held true even after researchers accounted for age, gender and ethnic backgrounds, suggesting that the level of authority might actually be inversely related to stress.
"The conventional wisdom is it is very stressful to be the top dog, the CEO or the military general. There are an increasing number of popular press books stemming from the idea that the top dog needs help managing stress," lead researcher Jennifer Lerner, a professor of public policy and management, said. "Our results indicate that the top dog has less stress as measured by baseline cortisol. That is quite surprising to some people."
"As people ascend to positions of leadership demands increase dramatically, but the number of hours in the day does not increase," she said. "Because stress results when demands exceed resources leadership is often viewed as highly stressful."
"Not surprisingly social scientists and practitioners have proposed and developed scores of tools to help leaders manage their stress and leader stress management has become a vibrant industry," she added.
However, the latest findings show that leadership is in fact associated with lower levels of stress when researchers compared leaders with non-leaders and when they compared leaders in higher positions to leaders with lower positions. "Furthermore, in both cases, the relationship appeared across two distinct manifestations of stress - one physiological and one psychological," Lerner said.
Past studies on rhesus macaque monkeys found that higher social rank is linked with lower stress hormone cortisol, especially when harassment of subordinates occurs frequently in a group.
Lerner and her team believe that leaders possess "a particular psychological resource" like a greater sense of control that may protect them against stress.