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Does more authority translate into a reduction in stress and anxiety?

This may come as a surprise, but a growing body of scientific evidence suggests that having more power is associated with less stress and anxiety. Take the Whitehall studies of health in the British civil service that found a higher governmental rank was strongly correlated with lower mortality rates. Or, consider the work of Stanford biology professor Robert Sapolsky, PhD, on the influence of social hierarchy on primate health. His measurements of the stress hormone cortisol in baboons showed lower levels of the hormone in high-ranking troop members.

Now new research from Stanford psychologist James Gross, PhD, and a Harvard team offers more evidence that higher rank is associated with less anxiety and lower levels of cortisol. In the study, which was published today in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, researchers examined both cortisol measurements and self-reported anxiety levels within a group of high-ranking government and military officials who were enrolled in a Harvard executive leadership program. Study results showed the high-ranking leaders were less stressed according to both measures.

A Stanford news release explains how researchers teased out specifics from the findings to better understand the relationship between leadership roles and stress level:

The critical element seems to be a sense of control. 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.

It's possible, in other words, 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 social ladder.

The present study is correlational, meaning it is unable to say whether leadership leads to low stress levels, or whether people who are predisposed to feel little stress are more likely to be leaders. But [researchers] view the study as an initial look at a topic that has relevance to anyone who lives in our inherently hierarchical modern 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.

Previously: Anxiety shown to be important risk factor for workplace absence, Stanford health psychologist Kelly McGonigal discusses how stress shapes us and How work stress affects wellness, health-care costs
Photo by Bruce MacRae

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