09/24/2012 03:01 EDT | Updated 09/24/2018 09:25 EDT

More leadership responsibility correlates to lower stress hormone levels: study

TORONTO - Rising through the ranks at work may offer more benefits than a bump in pay or bigger office: new research suggests leaders with more responsibility have lower stress hormone levels than peers with less on their plates.

Lead author Jennifer Lerner, professor of public policy and management at Harvard Kennedy School, said she has been interested in how leaders make decisions and cope with stress.

Harvard researchers partnered with professors from the University of California San Diego and Stanford University, with study results appearing in this week's Early Edition of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Participants were recruited from the Boston area and one of the many executive education programs at Harvard University. Leaders included military officers, government officials, non-profit administrators, and business leaders from the U.S. and around the world.

Study 1 looks at whether those categorized as leaders — those responsible for managing others — and non-leaders had any differences in their reports of anxiety and levels of the stress hormone cortisol.

About 200 leaders and non-leaders provided saliva samples to determine baseline cortisol levels. Anxiety was measured using the 19-item Spielberger Trait Anxiety Inventory, where participants read statements and selected a response to indicate how they generally feel. "I get in a state of tension or turmoil as I think over my recent concerns and interests" was one example of a statement in the inventory.

In their introduction, researchers wrote that they suspected leaders have lower stress levels because of the "psychological resources that leadership affords." They wrote of how holding a leadership role boosts one's sense of control, known to have "a stress-buffering effect."

Researchers also cited the work of Stanford neuroscientist Robert Sapolosky which associated higher social rank with lower cortisol in non-human primate species. Studies of humans have also linked higher employment rank to better health, they wrote.

Study 1 found that those who identified as leaders had lower cortisol levels and reports of anxiety than non-leaders.

"It wasn't surprising to us, no," Lerner said in an interview from Cambridge, Mass. "But the conventional wisdom is the higher you ascend in leadership responsibility, the more stressed you are."

Study 2 measured anxiety and cortisol among 75 leaders, as well as aspects of leadership that indicate greater rank or power.

High-ranking leaders might be responsible for personally managing a large number of people, might have many subordinates — including those who don't report directly to them — or might be given great authority and autonomy to make decisions regarding subordinates, researchers wrote. To capture different forms of leadership, researchers assessed leadership level by authority, the number of subordinates and the number of people who directly reported to them.

Researchers found participants in Study 2 who held more powerful positions displayed lower cortisol levels and less anxiety than those who had less powerful positions.

Interestingly, those leaders with fewer subordinates were found to have greater anxiety and higher cortisol levels. Lerner said there are likely multiple reasons why those particular leaders were found to be more stressed. But one of the key findings researchers identify relates back to the sense of control.

"When you have a sense of control, then it reduces stress hormone secretion," she said.

Lerner said one of the most promising aspects of their research is an understanding not only that there's lower stress among higher-ranking leaders, but also the reasons why, allowing them to design interventions that improve people's sense of control.

Andrea Plotnick of Hay Group, a global management consulting firm, said the findings which show higher-ranking leaders have lower stress levels aren't entirely surprising.

"As you move up an organization and you're forced to make a lot more decisions with ambiguous information, lack of data ... if you worried about every single decision that you made, you'd never get anything done," said Plotnick, national expertise director for organizational effectiveness. "First of all, you wouldn't be in that position — but you'd also never get anything done.

"I think, over time, you get better at making those decisions," she added. "And maybe in some way, you sort of distance yourself a little bit from the impact and just get better at making those kinds of decisions makes it a little less stressful. So that's one part of it."

Leaders at the top of an organization are a little bit more removed from the impact their decisions have on people, Plotnick noted.

"When you're sort of lower down within the organization, a small decision that somebody at the top makes can be monumental to you," she said. "It feels like a little tweak at the top of the organization, but it has huge, monumental impact at the bottom of the organization — hence that's sort of where all the stress resides."

To help those lower-ranking within an organization feel less stressed, Plotnick said it's key for those people to focus on areas where they can exert or regain control, and to concentrate on where they can make the most impact.

"`What areas of my job can I put some boundaries around and really focus on there?'" she said. "Maybe it's chunking your work out so you don't become overwhelmed with: `Where can I have an impact?'

"There certainly is something around positive self-talk to get you out of just assuming you have no control over something, and really sort of questioning that, and making sure that those are legitimate conclusions."

In a recent Vanity Fair profile, U.S. President Barack Obama offered some insight into his decision-making process, including how little thought he gives to more mundane daily choices, like picking his wardrobe.

"You’ll see I wear only gray or blue suits," Obama told the magazine. "I'm trying to pare down decisions. I don’t want to make decisions about what I’m eating or wearing. Because I have too many other decisions to make."

Plotnick said the example illustrates the ability of leaders to focus energy on where they're going to make a difference.

"If you look at people who are highly anxious people and highly stressed people, it's almost like every decision becomes monumental.... Every decision is agonized over, which just absolutely increases your stress.

"I'm not sure if that's what allows you to rise up through the ranks, or if that's something that you develop when you're up there," she added. "You're better able to parse your decisions down to the ones that do deserve your energy, your thought, and focus there, and sort of limit where you're investing your psychological and emotional energy — and therefore your stress."