Bossing stress away

Imagining the stereotypical executive doesn’t exactly conjure up the image of a zen-like state. Instead, we tend to associate leadership roles with too many demands and not enough time to meet them—in essence, a pretty stressful lifestyle. After all, managers typically have to juggle more responsibilities and contend with more personalities than do their subordinates. However, research recently published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences may paint a different picture of how stressed your boss actually is. This work compared the stress levels of leaders enrolled in an executive education program at Harvard with non-leaders recruited from the larger Boston community, using both the physiological measure of salivary cortisol levels (the implications of cortisol levels are up for debate but won’t be discussed here) and a self-report of anxiety levels as proxies for stress.

An initial study established that leaders exhibited lower levels of physiological and emotional stress than did non-leaders. Their second study disentangled this effect a bit, indexing ‘leadership level’ with a composite measure of a) total number of subordinates, b) number of direct reports, and c) authority. The second set of results indicated that more leadership was incrementally related to lower cortisol levels and reported anxiety. Additionally, they found that sense of control mediated this effect—that is, the results suggest that leadership breeds a sense of control, which in turn lowers stress levels.

As the authors acknowledge, however, leadership itself may not be the sole driver of these effects. It may be that individuals who tend to manage stress effectively to begin with are the ones who end up getting the promotion and becoming managers. Following this logic, the causal chain may actually be reversed, with dispositionally calmer people feeling greater control and thus being selected for leadership roles.

The authors also identify other potentially relevant factors that may help leaders have lower stress levels than non-leaders, such as quality of social support and coping strategies. Clearly, there are many remaining questions about the leadership-stress link for future research to unpack. However, the present research at the very least may shift our perception of how the advancement to a managerial role affects daily stress.