Why Bosses Think They’re Stressed When They’re Not

Relax: If you’re on top, you’re not really that worried. Just ask science.

Why Bosses Think They’re Stressed When They’re Not
[Image: Flickr user Kaustav Das Modak]

Everybody’s complaining about everything all the time, including bosses: They get insane amounts of email, have to sit in way too many meetings, and have to suppress their bowel movements to keep moving up the ladder.


As a new Harvard, Stanford, and University of California study shows, military officers, government officials, and business leaders have demands heaped upon them for all their ascension, but at a physiological level, they’re much less stressed than their underlings.

Scientific American writer Keith Payne helps us see that when executives complain about being stressed, we have to pay attention to what they’re talking about:

They may have more emails in their inbox than they can get to. They may work long hours. But in most cases, they can say no to requests and they can decide when and how to deal with challenges. They have much more control over how their lives are arranged than does the secretary who schedules their appointments or the janitor who cleans their office.

It’s control that negates stress. Why? Because stress is really the stress response. Cortisol and adrenaline increase your heart rate, glucose releases energy, and nonessentials like growth and digestion get shut down in favor of surviving the situation at hand, Payne says, whether it’s a hyena making a beeline toward you or your boss giving you dagger eyes.

This turns toxic over time, Payne says: The heart-thumping turns into heart disease, the glucose flood turns into diabetes. And if you have a lack of control in your life, you’re more likely to have high blood pressure, a weaker immune system, and problems with your sleep.

But if you’re a leader, the authors of the study say, you’re in control. If you’re in control, you’ll be less exhausted and less stressed.

“The professional class may be stressed in their way,” Payne says. “But the powerless are stressed in the way that kills.”


About the author

Drake Baer was a contributing writer at Fast Company, where he covered work culture. He's the co-author of Everything Connects, a book about how intrapersonal, interpersonal, and organizational psychology shape innovation.