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Stressful at the top? Not really, study finds

Harvard researchers find leaders in business, politics and the military report lower anxiety levels than others. The key to their serenity is control.

September 24, 2012|By Melissa Healy
  • Those who lead have been shown to have less stress than their counterparts who have not reached the top professionally.
Those who lead have been shown to have less stress than their counterparts… (Joe Raedle / Getty Images )

Management consultants say 60% 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 the nation's political, military, business and nonprofit organizations are actually pretty chill. Compared with people of similar age, gender 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 Monday in 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 constant challenge. A recent study of female macaque monkeys demonstrated that rising and falling through the social ranks not only dialed their stress up and down, it turned genes on and off in ways that can powerfully influence health.

"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," she said. 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 the organization over which they preside suffers, she said.

To gather leaders for study, the Harvard team took advantage of the university's array of programs for mid-career and senior professionals. Such students — some at Harvard for just a week, others for as long as a year or two — are generally rising stars being groomed for promotion within their organizations. 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 nonprofit organizations. Each participant was asked to complete an inventory of psychological traits and a questionnaire that captures the extent to which a person feels a sense of power in general and in his relationships with others.

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

For comparison, the study drew 65 people from the general community who did not exercise management control over others. Researcher had these participants complete the same inventories and measured their cortisol. They ensured that both groups — leaders and non-leaders — were identical in terms of their age, gender and ethnic composition.

The results showed that compared to non-leaders, leaders' sense of control and propensity toward anxiety were lower. So were their cortisol levels, providing physiological proof that they were less stressed.

When the researchers focused on differences within a group of 75 leaders, they found that the larger the pool of workers an individual managed, the lower he or she scored on measures of stress and anxiety.

Samuel Barondes, director of UC San Francisco's Center for Neurobiology and Psychiatry, said the study didn't reveal whether leaders became less stressed as they climbed toward the top or whether they were less prone to stress in the first place, facilitating their ascent. He suspects it's a combination of both, but either way, "once you've made it and are not at the whim of capricious meanies above you in the hierarchy, you are less stressed," said Barondes, author of "Making Sense of People: Decoding the Mysteries of Personality."

To Sherman, the study underscores that humans and their primate relatives are not so far apart when it comes to the exercise of power.

"Certainly, human hierarchies are more complex than those you see in nonhuman primates," he said. "But clearly, some of the same factors may be at play: Any time you get a hierarchical organization, you may get effects like this."

melissa.healy@latimes.com

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