Positions of leadership are often seen as highly demanding and stressful. They are associated, for example, with long working hours, high responsibility, severe time pressure, and intense performance expectations. Surely, these features make leadership a very challenging task. But can we really conclude that positions of leadership come with more stress than positions without leadership responsibility? Do people experience greater stress as they climb up the hierarchy?
Some time ago, my colleagues and I have examined this question, in cooperation with the magazine Intermediair . We surveyed more than 1600 employees, about half of whom held leadership functions, and we asked these respondents about the emotions they experienced at work. The results were surprising. Employees with leadership responsibility did not feel more stressed-out. To the contrary, leaders experienced less negative and more positive emotions, as compared with non-leaders. We could only speculate about the reasons for this unexpected finding. As employees ascend to higher-level leadership positions, they typically gain greater freedom and autonomy, potentially enabling them to better cope with their work demands. Unfortunately, the data available at that time did not allow us to directly test this explanation.
Recent research by Gary Sherman and colleagues sheds new light on this issue. This group of scholars conducted two independent studies to examine the relation between leadership and stress. They used different methods to measure work stress – based on both survey ratings (as we had done) and on levels of the stress hormone cortisol. In line with the results of our Intermediair survey, leaders experienced less stress than people without leadership responsibility. Additionally, Sherman and colleagues were able to uncover an important reason for this relationship. Higher-level leaders reported a greater sense of control and autonomy than lower-level leaders. This sense of control, in turn, was associated with reduced stress. It seems that the initial explanation for our own findings was not so far from the truth.
Clearly, this is not the last word. Sherman and colleagues note, for example, that leadership and stress may mutually influence each other. Leadership positions may promote feelings of control and, thus, reduce stress. At the same time, people with high stress resistance may be particularly likely to climb up the hierarchy. More research is certainly needed to fully understand this complex set of relationships.
Nevertheless, we can draw some important conclusions at this point. Of course, it would be a mistake to downplay the intense stress many leaders experience and to neglect its potential implications. On the other hand, leadership positions are not inherently more stressful than positions without leadership authority. Hence, human resource interventions designed to reduce work stress should extend beyond higher-level leaders.
Moreover, the findings discussed here point towards a powerful tool that can reduce work stress at different hierarchical levels. Empowerment initiatives that foster a sense of control and autonomy (e.g., job enrichment or participative management) can enable employees to better deal with their work demands and to circumvent the negative consequences intense work stress entails. There is no reason to assume that these benefits will only accrue to leaders at higher hierarchical echelons.