New Research into Stress and Control

By: Michael Lam, MD, MPH; Justin Lam, ABAAHP, FMNM

Your Health, Stress and ControlHow do stress and control effect your life? It has been a long-held perception that people on the top, whether corporate executives, political leaders, heads of the military, or others sitting at the top of a hierarchy, are more stressed than those that are working under them. A recent study, researching levels of stress and control on health, finds out the truth and unravels that such a perception is purely a myth. People at the top are much less stressed than others and this is not just a feeling or belief but a fact established by a test on their cortisol levels.

This may be bad news for the motivational speakers and those who have been harping on how stressful it is to be at the top. It is not only that those at the top are fine and doing well, they are better off in terms of health in comparison with other people of the same age, gender, and ethnicity as them.

Research in Stress and Control

A group of Harvard researchers studied the leaders in different domains as well as workers and professionals working at the lower and middle echelons of corporate hierarchy and the reason that they found to be behind the chilled attitude of the leaders is control. Those at the top appeared to be in control of their lives: their daily schedules, finances, lifestyles, and the businesses or projects they head. The stress and control level were related.  In a nutshell, the ones at the top have a calm and peaceful life that is completely in control without any anxiety whatsoever. On the contrary, those who are at the bottom or in the middle who are struggling to rise up the ladder were anxious about several aspects.

The research team commented in the Proceedings of the National Academies of Sciences that leaders possess a sense of control, a particular psychological resource that actually helps in buffering against stress. Such a conclusion is a revelation for many, but some experts have been aware of this reality all along. Those who had dealt with baboons and monkeys observed their behavioral patterns along with levels of anxiety and stress found that acquiring positions of power in a social circle or group lowers the stress and anxiety levels. As long as the position of power is not challenged or threatened by something or someone, the primates show a sense of calm and control. Thus, here again, stress and control seem directly related.  In one of the recent studies, female macaque monkeys were observed to have periods of high and low levels of stress as they rose or fell through their social ranks. This impacted the genes and their overall health as well.

Nichole Lighthall, a researcher at Duke University, who was not part of Harvard’s team conducting the study, said that having a sense of control is certainly a protection against stress. She further added that professionals in any industry are always troubled with the unpredictability of the job market, the anxiety of getting laid off if something bad was to happen, while on the other hand, the people at the top are pretty relaxed having been assured of continuity in terms of their employment and income, thus keeping their financial and social stature. Not having to handle bosses or people who can dictate their fates, is also contributive to low or no stress and control increase at the top levels.

The Harvard team invited participation of students who had enrolled for mid-career and senior professionals’ programs that the university offers to leaders of various industries as well as future leaders who are set for promotions at their respective companies. The research team led by social psychologist Gary Sherman asked the participants to answer a questionnaire to study the psychological traits. The 148 participants had to offer a description of their jobs, mention the number of workers that reported to them directly or indirectly and also provided a sample of their saliva for a test to measure the cortisol levels (cortisol is the hormone that is indicative of higher or lower levels of stress). To establish a parallel study, researchers brought in 65 people of same age, ethnicity, and gender from non-managerial and non-leadership posts who were subjected to the same tests.

The analysis of the results showed that leaders who have done well in their lives and held commanding positions in their line of work had an increased sense of control and due to the prosperity associated with other benefits, had lower levels of cortisol which confirmed the assessment of their psychological traits of being less stressed.

An additional study looking at distinct groups of leaders showed that those who had larger workforces under their command were further less stressed than leaders who had smaller counts of workers reporting to them.

The result of the study is interesting especially that it counters the traditional myth and establishes a new psychological reality of people at influential and commanding positions.


© Copyright 2016 Michael Lam, M.D. All Rights Reserved.

Stress and control