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Surprising Science

Why It’s Less Stressful at the Top

Despite the conventional wisdom that higher-ups suffer more pressure because they have more responsibility, new research concludes that its more stressful being on the bottom. 

What’s the Latest Development?

Harvard University researchers have concluded that individuals working at the top of hierarchies in business and government self-identify as less stressed than those working beneath them and that leaders have lower levels of cortisol, a hormone that circulates at high levels in the chronically stressed. “Leaders possess a particular psychological resource—a sense of control—that may buffer against stress,” the research team reported Monday in Proceedings of the National Academies of Sciences. Leaders typically enjoy control over their schedules, their daily living circumstances, their financial security, their enterprises and their lives.

What’s the Big Idea?

The researchers’ findings run counter to the conventional wisdom that it’s more stressful at the top, the same wisdom behind the thriving corporate anti-stress industry, built to teach leaders how to deal with the corrosive effects of the pressure they allegedly experience. Nichole Lighthall, who researches stress and its effects at Duke University, said: “People in a company at all levels may be affected by the market and its unpredictability.” But while rank-and-file employees worry about being laid off, chief executives can rest assured “they’ll keep their position in society, their superiority, their lifestyle and their income” even if the organization over which they preside suffers.

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