People with top leadership positions in companies and industries generally are more stressed out than lower-level workers, right? While that might be the stereotype, a recent study out of Harvard University showed the opposite.
Published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, Dr. Gary Sherman presented the results of a study of 148 high-level executives, government officials and military officers and 65 lower-level workers, considered “non-leaders”, who attended a leadership conference at Harvard University. The researchers quizzed each participant about how stressed they felt in their lives.
They also measured a more objective measure of stress: they tested each participant for their level of the hormone cortisol in their body. Cortisol is produced in the adrenal glands, which sit on top of the kidneys. Cortisol is released when someone is in a stressful situation.
For example, if you are threatened by an assailant, your adrenal glands immediately release cortisol, which increases the glucose (a sugar) into your bloodstream. Glucose is a quick fuel for your muscles when you need to react fast, such as to fight, or run away.
Cortisol is useful in these emergency situations, but a chronically high level harms your body. A high level lowers your immune response and causes your muscles to break down. So it’s better to have a low level in your body, unless you are under an emergency situation.
Now, the surprising result of the study was that the leaders had a 27 percent lower level of cortisol than the non-leaders, and the leaders also reported being under significantly less stress than the non-leaders. And just considering the leaders, the “top” leaders reported less stress than the lower-level leaders.
Dr. Sherman and his group concluded that the leaders and especially the “top” leaders felt less stressed because they had a high feeling of control in their lives, and the non-leaders were stressed-out because they were being controlled by others. This is consistent with some monkey studies. The monkey at the top, the “alpha male”, often has lower cortisol levels than the low-level males, who are controlled by the alpha male.
How can you use this research in your life to help lower your cortisol level and stress, especially if you are not a “leader” in your work?
Of course you can strive to be a leader, a high-level manager at work, but easier, you can seek out leadership roles in any groups or clubs your belong to, or for social or educational events—you can seek to be the one in control, the one who makes the decisions.
Try it and see what happens! Even if you make small moves to take leadership in some areas of your life, maybe the greater sense of control will give you better self-esteem, and less stress!
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