A study of government and military officials has found a direct correlation between rank and stress: The higher the leadership position, the lower the stress.
A study from Stanford psychology professor James Gross, Ph.D., and Jennifer Lerner, Ph.D., a professor of public policy and management at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government, suggests that leadership positions are associated with less anxiety and lower levels of a stress hormone.
The study looked at both cortisol measurements and self-reported anxiety levels within a rarely studied group: High-ranking government and military officials enrolled in a Harvard executive leadership program.
Although evaluating stress is itself complex — cortisol levels and reported anxiety are not necessarily correlated — the researchers found that high-ranking leaders were less stressed according to both measures. The strength of the relationship was directly related to rank: The higher the position, the lower the stress.
To determine the specifics of the results, the researchers had to determine what, exactly, about a job makes it a leadership role. The critical element seems to be a sense of control, according to the researchers.
The connection between power and tranquility was dependent on the total number of subordinates a leader had and on the degree of authority or autonomy a job conferred.
What that means, according to the researchers, is that the feeling of being in charge of one’s own life more than makes up for the greater amount of responsibility that accompanies higher rungs on the leadership ladder.
The researchers note the study is correlational, meaning they can’t say whether leadership leads to low stress levels, or whether people who are predisposed to feeling less stress are more likely to be leaders.
The researchers added they view this study as an initial look at a topic that has relevance to anyone who lives in our hierarchical society.
“By looking at real leaders, people who really have a lot of real-world responsibility, we can learn a lot about stress and health in general,” Gross said.
The paper appeared in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
Source: Stanford University