Control factor makes leaders less prone to stress, US study finds

Those in control are less prone to worry about issues than people farther down the hierarchy

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 26 September, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 26 September, 2012, 4:10am


Management consultants say 60 per cent of senior executives experience high stress and anxiety on a regular basis, and a thriving industry of motivational speakers teaches business leaders how to manage their corrosive burden of stress. But just how uneasy lies the head that wears the crown?

Not so uneasy, it turns out.

A new study reveals that those who sit atop America's political, military, business and non-profit organisations are actually pretty chill. Compared with people of similar age, sex and ethnicity who haven't made it to the top, leaders pronounced themselves less stressed and anxious. And their levels of cortisol, a hormone that circulates at high levels in the chronically stressed, told the same story.

The source of the leaders' relative serenity was pretty simple: control.

Compared with workers who toil in lower echelons of the American economy, the leaders studied by a group of Harvard University researchers enjoyed control over their schedules, their daily living circumstances, their financial security, their enterprises and their lives.

"Leaders possess a particular psychological resource - a sense of control - that may buffer against stress," the research team reported in the journal, Proceedings of the National Academies of Sciences.

Though the finding appeared to fly in the face of conventional wisdom, it came as no surprise to those who have studied the role that social status plays in the well-being of our primate relatives.

Baboons and monkeys who rise to positions of power in their social groups show lower levels of anxiety and stress, so long as their status is not under challenge.

"It's clear that having a sense of control is protective against stress," said Nichole Lighthall, who researches stress and its effects at Duke University and was not involved in the new study.

"People in a company at all levels may be affected by the market and its unpredictability."

But while rank-and-file employees may worry about being laid off, chief executives can pretty much rest assured that "they'll keep their position in society, their superiority, their lifestyle and their income" even if their organisation suffers, she said.

To gather leaders for the study, the Harvard team took advantage of the university's array of programmes for mid-career and senior professionals, generally rising stars being groomed for promotion. Members of Harvard's Decision Science Laboratory invited them to take part in their studies.

Social psychologist Gary Sherman and his colleagues recruited 148 people who managed others in military, government, business and non-profit organisations. Each was asked to complete an inventory of psychological traits and a questionnaire.

Participants were also asked to describe their jobs and count the workers below them. Finally, the study members provided a sample of their saliva so the researchers could measure levels of cortisol.

The results showed that compared to non-leaders, leaders' sense of control and propensity towards anxiety were lower. So were their cortisol levels.