"...if leaders ... experience a heightened sense of control—a psychological factor known to have powerful stress-buffering effects—leadership should be associated with reduced stress levels."
That sentence is taken from the abstract of a new study of stress levels in leaders. Perhaps, instead of implementing stress reduction measures, organizations should be focusing on promoting the employee's sense of control?
The news release from Stanford University:
More authority means less stress, say Stanford and Harvard psychologists
In a study of high-ranking government and military officials, Stanford psychologist James Gross and a Harvard team found that a higher rank was associated with less anxiety and lower levels of a stress hormone.
BY MAX MCCLURE
"Uneasy lies the head that wears a crown" is that rare thing – a Shakespearean quote embraced by the world of management. The high-powered but perpetually tense leader is a trope from Wall Street to the Pentagon. The idea of "executive burnout" has inspired a cottage industry of stress management directed toward government and corporate leaders.
But the top seat may be more comfortable than leaders have been suggesting. A study from Stanford psychology Professor James Gross and Jennifer Lerner, a professor of public policy and management at Harvard's Kennedy School of Government, suggests that leadership positions are, in fact, associated with lower levels of stress.
The paper appeared today (Sept. 24) in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
"We live as social beings in a stratified society," Gross said. "It's our relative status in a group that disproportionately influences our happiness and well-being."
Specifically, a growing literature suggests that more power is associated with less stress. The Whitehall studies of health in the British civil service showed that higher governmental rank was strongly correlated with lower mortality rates. Stanford biology professor Robert Sapolsky's measurements of the stress hormone cortisol in baboons showed lower levels of the hormone in high-ranking troop members.
The new Stanford-Harvard study looked at both cortisol measurements and self-reported anxiety levels within a rarely studied group: high-ranking government and military officials enrolled in a Harvard executive leadership program.
Although evaluating stress is itself complex – cortisol levels and reported anxiety are not necessarily correlated – the researchers found
that high-ranking leaders were less stressed according to both measures. The strength of the relationship was directly related to rank: the higher the position, the lower the stress.
To tease out the specifics of these results, the researchers asked, as Gross put it, "What exactly about a job makes it a leadership role?"
The critical element seems to be a sense of control. The connection between power and tranquility was dependent on the total number of subordinates a leader had and on the degree of authority or autonomy a job conferred.
It's possible, in other words, that the feeling of being in charge of one's own life more than makes up for the greater amount of responsibility that accompanies higher rungs on the social ladder.
The present study is correlational, meaning it is unable to say whether leadership leads to low stress levels, or whether people who are predisposed to feel little stress are more likely to be leaders. But Gross and Lerner view the study as an initial look at a topic that has relevance to anyone who lives in our inherently hierarchical modern society.
"By looking at real leaders, people who really have a lot of real-world responsibility, we can learn a lot about stress and health in general," Gross said.
James Gross, Psychology: (650) 723-1281, firstname.lastname@example.org
Max McClure, Stanford News Service: (650) 725-6737, email@example.com
From the study:
The current findings also provide insight into the particular forms of leadership that most clearly boost one’s sense of control and as a result, buffer against stress. In particular, occupying a position marked by a large number of subordinates and possessing substantial authority over one’s subordinates are two aspects of leadership that confer such benefits. That these positions elevate one’s psychological experience of control is not surprising; they are likely to be marked by prestige as well as objective power and influence. In contrast, personally managing a large number of people was not associated with a greater sense of control or less stress, perhaps because ascension to a high-ranking position encourages one to delegate the day-to-day management of sub- ordinates to lower-ranking officials. Altogether, these results highlight the importance of distinguishing between total number of subordinates and number of direct reports, and they suggest that the rank–stress relationship within human organizations may be shaped by certain complexities that are not present within nonhuman primate dominance hierarchies.
It is important to note that the low stress levels of leaders may both cause and result from leadership. That is, individuals with low stress levels may be particularly well-suited for leadership and as a result, may select into leadership positions. ...