Beat the stress, aim for the top

The image of the stressed-out boss may be an inaccurate stereotype, with a new study showing leaders are likely to have lower stress levels than subordinates, or even than peers with less responsibility.

That could be because leaders have a greater sense of control, but it may also be that leaders rise through the ranks because they are predisposed to feel little stress.

Researchers from Harvard and Stanford universities measured levels of stress hormone cortisol in senior leaders from the public and private sectors and the military.

"Our evidence indicates that higher-ranking leaders have a greater sense of control in their lives," research team leader and Harvard Kennedy School professor Jennifer Lerner said.

"We aren't talking about fleeting moods," she said.

"Cortisol is an important biological variable related to morbidity and mortality. Chronically elevated cortisol levels impair immune functioning and, as a result, contribute to major diseases and shorter life span."

The laboratory study carried out by the researchers found that people who hold positions of leadership tended to have lower levels of cortisol than did non-leaders.

Within a group of leaders, those with more subordinates had lower stress and cortisol levels than those with less responsibility.

"Not only are leaders less stressed than non-leaders, but more powerful, higher-ranking leaders are less stressed than less powerful, lower-ranking leaders," study co-author Dr Gary Sherman of Harvard said.

The cortisol-based findings were backed up by levels of self-reported anxiety.

While the authors found feelings of control could explain the findings, Lerner noted "reverse causal direction" was also possible.

"People may rise to positions of leadership because they have a skill for insulating themselves from the stresses that go with increased responsibility."

The research fits in with other studies that suggested more power is associated with less stress.

The Whitehall studies of health in the British civil service showed that higher governmental rank was strongly correlated with lower mortality rates, while measurements of cortisol in baboons showed lower levels of the hormone in high-ranking troop members.

"We live as social beings in a stratified society," Stanford psychology professor James Gross, who worked on the latest study, said.

"It's our relative status in a group that disproportionately influences our happiness and well being."