Leadership Roles Reduce – Rather than Increase – Perceived Stress

Animal studies suggest that high status roles are associated with lower stress levels, but fewer human studies that show a causal connection between status and health.

Hannah Kuper

Hannah Kuper

Geoffrey Rose

Geoffrey Rose

The longitudinal Whitehall Studies of British Civil servants suggest that lower status individuals had higher stress and poorer health outcomes that higher status workers, according to Geoffrey Rose of London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine and University College London’s  Hannah Kuper and Michael Marmot.

Columbia University’s Modupe Akinola collaborated with Wendy Berry Mendes of the University of California, San Francisco, to re-examine the relationship between organizational status and health outcomes.

Michael Marmot

Michael Marmot

Akinola and Mendes asked police officers to rate their status relative to their colleagues and to other people in the United States.
Then, each volunteer participated in a stressful role-play used by many police departments to help decide which officers should get a promotion.

In this scenario, the officer was asked to placate a disgruntled citizen, played by an actor, who claimed that another officer had verbally and physically abused him.

Modupe Akinola

Modupe Akinola

Researchers measured each heart rates, blood circulation, and testosterone levels as measures of “thriving” stress response or “adaptive” stress response to the role-play.

Officers’ perceptions of their social status were significantly associated with their style of stress response.
Those with higher self-perceived status were more likely to have an adaptive stress response.

Wendy Berry Mendes

Wendy Berry Mendes

In a related study, Akinola and Mendes placed civilian volunteers in high-status or low-status roles to play a complicated, fast-paced video game with a partner.
The researchers again measured participants’ cardiovascular responses and testosterone levels during the task.
Findings with civilians mirrored those with police officers:  Participants placed in the higher-status leader role had more adaptive hormonal and cardiovascular reactions during the high-pressure task.

Those assigned higher status leader roles:

  • Performed more quickly and accurately than supporters
  • Allocated more resources to their partners
  • Expressed more positive perceptions of partners.

Opposite trends prevails for those in lower-status supporter roles:   They had less adaptive responses to the stressful task, did not perform as well on the task, and evaluated the leader more negatively.

Akinola and Mendes suggest that managers may be able to mitigate these negative effects of followership by suggesting paths to workplace advancement.

However, some individual contributors may be more interested in flexible work practices, salary, and time off, than career advancement.
Managers may foster greater employee engagement by tailoring rewards and recognitions to individual priorities.

-*How are role status and stress levels related in your work environment?

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6 thoughts on “Leadership Roles Reduce – Rather than Increase – Perceived Stress

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