Human Resources News & Insights

A sure-fire way to reduce employee stress

Who’s likely to be more stressed: The CFO preparing to explain less-than-stellar quarterly earnings to his Board of Directors?  Or the clerk in accounting, trying to get the proper signature on a weekly travel expense form?

Believe it or not, it’s probably the clerk, according to a study out of Stanford and Harvard.

Researchers found that higher-level leaders had less stress than non-leaders or lower-level leaders, turning on its head the common notion that C-level execs experience the most anxiety.

In other words, climbing the corporate ladder is a good way to manage your stress.

The study measured levels of the stress-related hormone cortisol while asking participants a series of questions.

It included 213 middle and high-level government officials and military officers in the Harvard Business School’s executive education program, 136 men and 77 women. They were compared against a group of non-management folks with similar characteristics based on age, sex and ethnicity.

It’s good to be king

James Gross, a Stanford psychologist, said they were trying to answer the question, “As you become a leader or climb up leadership ranks, is it true things get more intensely stressful for you?”

Gross said it’s common to believe top execs are highly compensated in part to endure stress levels, get sick more often and die earlier. But that’s not so.

Instead, having that extra level of control associated with more responsibility and power is actually more closely correlated with less anxiety.

“That was really interesting to us, which showed that common sense may be wrong,” he said. “That’s not to say that leaders can’t get stressed. But looking at general levels, leaders appear to be less stressed.”

The study measured a leader’s sense of control by asking if they agree to a series of statements on a scale of one to five. Example: “I can get people to listen to what I say.”

The higher up a person’s position, the lower their cortisol levels — and the less stressed they said they felt.

A couple points of interest: Leaders were more likely to be male and have more money than subordinates. They exercised more, smoked less, woke up earlier, slept less and drank more coffee than the non-leaders.

Though leaders are perceived as pressurized workaholics, this study is consistent with earlier research suggesting that employee stress is lower in people who have a greater sense of control.

But there remains a classic chicken-egg question: Does being higher up on the ladder cause bosses to be less stressed, or is it possible that people with less anxiety are more able to handle leadership roles, which gets them promoted?

Still waiting on that answer.

Rich Henson is Senior Director of Management Training for ManageElite.

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