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Reality Check: Your Employees Are More Stressed Than You

A new study out of Harvard shoots down the conventional wisdom that business is most stressful at the top.

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The idea that those at the top lead more stressful lives is deeply embedded in our society. That's one reason we pay CEOs and successful executives more, after all--their big payout is partly in recognition of the huge stresses they endure to make their organizations successful.

And life as the average worker? Sure the pay and prestige may be lower, we tell ourselves, but with the higher-ups making the tough calls and shielding them from risk, the living is easier. 

Except the conventional wisdom may be all wrong.

That's the conclusion of a new study out of Harvard that shows leaders often have less stress than those below them on the organizational pecking order. The research, led by Jennifer Lerner, a professor of public policy and management at the Harvard Kennedy School's Decision Science Laboratory, surveyed folks from all levels of business hierarchy and also tested them for hormones, such as cortisol, that are indicators of stress. Lerner summarized the findings for HarvardScience:

The conventional wisdom is it is very stressful to be the top dog, the CEO or the military general. There are an increasing number of popular press books stemming from the idea that the top dog needs help managing stress. Our results indicate that the top dog has less stress as measured by baseline cortisol. That is quite surprising to some people.

Leaders bear more responsibility and have a clearer view of risks, so how could they possibly have lower stress levels?

Examining the results in greater details, the research team concluded that stress levels were less about the weightiness of your responsibilities and more about control. The less control you have, the more stressed you are likely to be (at least as determined by physical indicators--there's no word in this study on how folks assess their own mental state).

So what's the takeaway for entrepreneurs? No researcher, no matter how prestigious their institution, is going to convince the average business owner that their role isn't stressful, or important. Of course it is--you feel that every day--so the real lesson here is perhaps greater empathy for and understanding of those working below you on the chain of command.

When you set procedures or mandate actions from the top in an effort to eliminate the stress of decision making from your team's lives, your efforts might be counter-productive. What you view as stress-relieving routine, they may see as stress-boosting lack of control. You de-stress your staff not by taking away responsibilities and the ability to make meaningful choices but by empowering them to control their working lives, this study suggests.

Does the relationship between stress and control revealed by this study match with your personal experience? 

 

Last updated: Oct 4, 2012

JESSICA STILLMAN is a freelance writer based in London with interests in unconventional career paths, generational differences, and the future of work. She has blogged for CBS MoneyWatch, GigaOM, and Brazen Careerist.
@EntryLevelRebel




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