Leaders Less Stressed Out

By Denise Mann
WebMD Health News

Reviewed by Louise Chang, MD

Sept. 24, 2012 -- It's easy to presume that people in leadership positions are more stressed because of their heavy workloads and increased responsibilities, but a new study suggests that may not be the case.

It turns out that leaders actually report less anxiety and stress than non-leaders. This is likely because leaders have a heightened sense of control. Feeling like you are in control can help buffer the harmful effects of stress.

In the study, 65 non-leaders from various professions and 148 leaders (who were mainly recruited from a Harvard University executive education program and the military) filled out questionnaires about their anxiety. Researchers also measured the levels of the stress hormone cortisol in participants' saliva.

Overall, leaders had lower levels of cortisol and less anxiety than those who were not in charge. The more powerful the position, the lower the cortisol and anxiety levels. The findings appear in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

"The conventional wisdom is that leadership is demanding, and demands come with stress," says researcher Gary D. Sherman, PhD, a postdoctoral fellow at the Harvard Kennedy School in Boston. And that's true, but control does help defuse the greater demands.

Who's the Boss?

"The more control you have or think you have, the less stressed you will be," says Curtis Reisinger, PhD. He is the director of the Employee Assistance Program at the North Shore-Long Island Jewish Health System in Great Neck, N.Y.

Think about it: "A boss has a lot of latitude about when he gets to leave the office, when he takes his lunch, and has more control over his own schedule in general."

But this doesn't mean you are powerless if you are not the boss, he says. There are ways to lower your stress levels.

Warning signs that you might be stressed out from your job may include:

  1. Racing heart
  2. High blood pressure
  3. Frequent colds or illnesses
  4. Trouble sleeping
  5. Cynical attitude about work

Meditation, regular exercise, and deep breathing can help take the sting out of stress.

Talk therapy may also help change how you deal with stress. This therapy alters how you think about your job, your coworkers, or your boss. "If you constantly think, 'My boss is slave driver,' it will add to your anxiety and stress," Reisinger says.

Employee Empowerment

Things are not always so clear cut in the workplace, says Paul Spector, PhD. He is professor of organizational psychology at the University of South Florida in Tampa. "Extra responsibility and higher workload can cause stress for leaders, but on the other hand, they have more control."

Another key factor is whether or not you like what you do. "It is not stressful when you are doing something that you enjoy," he says. People who feel undervalued and underpaid may be more likely to grow bitter and stressed. "As you move up in leadership, you get more rewards, more perks and more salary, so even though the effort is higher, you are getting more rewards so you feel better about the job."

Stress leads to more sick days and less productivity all around. Employers need to take steps to empower their employees. This can include flex time or other non-traditional schedules. "If you can work your own hours, you can quit early one day," he says. "Flexibility improves control."

Social support from coworkers also helps reduce stress and anxiety.

Sometimes the answer may be more training to help complete tasks more effectively. "If you get promoted and are now anxious about your new responsibilities, you can seek training to enable skills and confidence," Spector says.

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SOURCES: Curtis Reisinger, PhD, director, Employee Assistance Program, North Shore-LIJ Health System, Great Neck, NY. Paul Spector, PhD, professor of organizational psychology, University of South Florida, TampaGary D, Sherman, PhD, postdoctoral Fellow, Harvard Kennedy School, Boston. Sherman, G. PNAS Early Edition, 2012, study received ahead of print.

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