Being the Boss Might Make You Sick

A new study finds that the healthy benefits of a high-powered job may be totally offset by health-crushing stress in the workplace.

November 4, 2009

Unhealthy at the top: The benefits of being an executive can be undone by the stress that comes with the job.

RODALE NEWS, EMMAUS, PA—Maybe it's not good to be the king. A study of stress in the workplace published this week in the medical journal Social Science & Medicine revealed that people in positions of authority often experience particular stressors that can negate the health-enhancing perks of being the boss, such as higher earnings, job autonomy, nonroutine work, and control of their own schedules.


THE DETAILS: Using data from a 2005 national telephone survey of 1,800 American adults working in a broad cross-section of occupations and job sectors, researchers from the University of Toronto set out to examine the links between job authority, stress in the workplace, and physical and psychological health. Participants were asked questions about each of these "health measures," as well as interpersonal conflict at work and interference of work with home life. They were also questioned about their job authority, their personal income, their autonomy on the job, their work hours, and a host of other particulars about their work life.

What the researchers found was that people in high-powered positions report significantly higher levels of interpersonal conflict at work, and that their work is much more likely to spill over into family and leisure time. And these two factors alone increase their stress levels to a degree that the health benefits from having a higher income and a flexible schedule, among other things, are canceled out.

WHAT IT MEANS: While higher-status jobs carry with them loads of perks that should contribute to reduced stress and improved health, people in higher-status positions aren’t likely to have better health, thanks to some stress in the workplace that's unique to jobs at the top.

Consider, for instance, the challenges execs and business owners face in the current economic climate, points out David Ballard, PsyD, assistant executive director for corporate relations at the American Psychological Association (APA) and head of its Psychologically Healthy Workplace Program. "The recession has forced many leaders to make tough decisions about layoffs, hiring freezes, pay cuts, and the elimination of other benefits," he says. Some managers have to contend not only with their own job insecurity, but also the anxiety their staffs are feeling. "Employees are understandably worried about how they’ll be affected and what's coming down the pike, so tension in the workplace is running high—and not just for the people with little control over their work situations. It's running high for the people with all the control, too," Ballard says.

Here’s how to better control the stress associated with a primo job, and improve your health in the process:

• Know what stress feels like. "People experience stress in different ways," says Ballard. "You may have a hard time concentrating or making decisions, feel angry, irritable or out of control, or experience headaches, muscle tension, or a lack of energy." Take note of how your body and mind react during a stressful situation. Learning your own stress signals is the first step to getting stress under control.

• Revise your reaction. In other words, take a look at the choices you make when dealing with stress. "Do you engage in unhealthy behaviors such as smoking, drinking, or eating poorly to cope with your stress?" asks Ballard. "Do you lose patience with your children, spouse, or coworkers when you feel overwhelmed by work pressures?" If so, you need to work on replacing coping strategies that undermine your health—such as eating junk food, smoking, or drinking alcohol—with health-enhancing behaviors like exercising, talking with friends and family, or even meditating. Keep in mind that unhealthy behaviors develop over time and can be difficult to change, he adds. Take it slow. Focus on changing just one behavior at a time. And seek the help of a licensed professional such as a psychologist if you become frustrated with the pace of your progress.

• Take short breaks. If you're a workaholic, you probably tend to keep slogging through the pile of work in front of you until you're done. But taking breaks will actually make you more productive, not to mention more energized and less stressed. Take a minute or two periodically throughout the day to stand up, stretch, breathe deeply, and shake off the accumulating tension. "Breaks between tasks can be particularly effective," says Ballard, "helping you feel as though you’ve wrapped up one thing before moving on to the next." Take a 10- to 15-minute break every few hours to recharge, and avoid the temptation to work through lunch. "The productivity you gain will more than make up for the time you spend on break," Ballard says. If you can swing it, you should even consider taking a nap at the office.

• Turn off and tune in to the moment. Communication technology can enhance your productivity, but it can also allow work to creep into family and personal time, undermining your opportunities to recharge your batteries. "Set rules for yourself, such as turning off your cellphone or BlackBerry when you get home, or establishing certain times of day when you return calls," suggests Ballard. "Just be sure to communicate those rules to others, so you can manage their expectations."

• Make being healthy a priority. Maybe you tell yourself that your schedule leaves no room to exercise—and maybe you're not trying. "The modern workplace is embracing flexibility in terms of when, where, and how work is done, and people in high-level positions have considerable control over these aspects of their jobs," notes Ballard. "Use this flexibility to your advantage." Schedule exercise sessions, family time, and doctor visits just as you would your business meetings. Take regular vacations. Make your physical and mental health a priority by including it in your daily planning.

• Stay socially connected. It's easy to become isolated in a high-level position. "As you climb higher in an organizational hierarchy, you typically have fewer colleagues who are at the same level," says Ballard. "And as a result, you may have to work harder to maintain peer relationships"—but do it anyway, it's well worth it. Stay connected with friends and trusted colleagues. Make time to build mutually beneficial relationships and maintain those connections. Research shows that touching base with friends just a few times a month, even with a short phone call, greatly increases the chances you'll still be in contact a year later.

• Welcome help. Even the boss needs a hand every now and then. "Your employer may have stress-management resources available through an Employee Assistance Program, including online information, available counseling, and referral to a mental health professional, if needed," says Ballard.