United States and World Politics

The Myth of Executive Stress

How tough is it, really, to be the boss?

By Keith Payne

It’s tough to be the boss. A recent Wall Street Journal article described the plight of one CEO who had to drag himself out of bed each morning and muster his game face. It would be a long day of telling other people what to do. It got so bad, we are told, that he had no choice but to take a year off work to sail across the Atlantic Ocean with his family.

Forbes agrees: “many CEOs have personal assistants who run their schedules for them, and they go from one meeting straight to another with barely a moment to go to the bathroom.” The indignity! And even worse than the bladder strain is having to fire people: “You may think a CEO can be detached when deciding who to lay off, but generally that couldn’t be farther from the truth. Having to make tough decisions about the people all around you can hit very hard.” Take heart, those of you who have lost your job in these turbulent economic times. At least you didn’t have to fire somebody.

This type of silliness usually cites research from the 1950s on “executive stress syndrome.” The research was not on executives, but rhesus monkeys. In a famous experiment, neuroscientist Joseph Brady subjected one group of monkeys to regular electric shocks every 20 seconds for six hour shifts. Another group of “executive monkeys” had the same schedule, except that they could prevent the shocks by pressing a lever in each 20-second period. The “executive monkeys” quickly learned to prevent the shocks by pressing the levers. This situation sounds awful for both monkeys, but decidedly worse for the monkeys with no escape. And yet, it was the “executive monkeys” with greater responsibility and control who started dropping dead from stomach ulcers. These results seemed to suggest that being responsible for making important decisions was so stressful that it posed a serious health risk. Executive stress syndrome was born.

There are of course two problems with an executive monkey: the executive and the monkey. For Rhesus monkeys are not people, and controlling electric shocks is not making business decisions. We can do better.

In fact there are hundreds of studies on the relationship between stress, health, and power. And they virtually all show the opposite of the executive monkeys. Biologist Robert Sapolsky has studied baboon troops in Africa. He finds that the lower the baboon’s rank in the pecking order, the more likely it is to have high levels of stress hormones and stress-related illnesses. But a high-ranking alpha male, who can mate with any female he chooses and take out his aggression on any lower ranking male, has much lower stress. If executive apes exist, these are the ones.

Evolutionary psychologists often talk about the brain as a Swiss Army knife, with a particular gadget “designed” by evolution to solve each evolutionary problem. But the stress response is no Swiss Army knife -- it’s a sledge hammer. The stress response is an all-purpose Code Red that reacts in a similar way to different kinds of threats. The hyena charging from behind the grass elicits the same kinds of bodily responses as the boardroom full of bosses evaluating your PowerPoint presentation. The brain triggers a release of stress hormones including adrenaline and cortisol, causing the heart rate to spike. Glucose floods the system to release energy. All that energy is diverted to muscles in the arms and legs as the body shuts down non-essential activities like growth and digestion. That’s great for running or fighting, but no help for remembering your opening joke.

If you are a zebra on the savannah running from the hyena, that adrenaline rush will either save your life or you will become breakfast. Either way, the stress response will be over in a few minutes. But humans are endowed with the ability to remember every flubbed joke in the past and to lie awake in bed imagining, in excruciating detail, the disasters that might await in the months ahead. When the stress response is activated for months at a time, it is toxic. The cardiac workout turns into heart disease, the glucose flood sinks into diabetes, and the overworked immune system gives in to infections. The stress response that evolved to save our lives now threatens it.

How does the stress response work in a human chain of command? A recent study by psychologist Gary Sherman and colleagues provides the most direct test yet of the difference in stress between leaders and followers. They studied full time workers in either business or the military who were taking executive education classes at Harvard’s business school. They first classified the participants as either leaders or non-leaders. Leaders were defined as those whose job required them to manage other people. On both surveys of anxiety and biological measures of cortisol, the leaders showed substantially lower levels of stress than the non-leaders. The results were the same in both business and the military. Leadership has its privileges.

These results echo a massive study of British government employees that has been going on since the 1960s. The British civil service has an exquisitely detailed hierarchy with clearly defined job grades all the way from cabinet secretaries down to administrative assistants. People in this study are all employed and they all have health insurance. Nonetheless, Physician Michael Marmot has found that each rung down the ladder is associated with more stress-related health problems including the biggest health problem of all, death.

When the executive or the general complains that they are “stressed,” we have to pay careful attention to what exactly they mean. 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.

People so crave control over their lives that when control is scarce they will manufacture it. In studies by psychologist Aaron Kay and colleagues, people made to feel that they lacked control believed more fervently in a controlling God. They believed also in a controlling government, conspiracy theories, and superstitions. Someone has to be in control. Lacking control is associated with higher blood pressure, lowered immune function, and a host of stress-related diseases. Control is the essence of power, the linchpin binding status to stress.

So why did the executive monkeys drop dead of ulcers if control protects against stress? It turned out that the study had a fatal flaw. The monkeys were not assigned to be in the executive or helpless groups at random, which is the cornerstone of an experiment. The monkeys who learned how to use the lever to prevent shocks the fastest were “promoted” to executives. Those fast learners may have learned fast because they were especially upset by the shocks. If so, then it was not control that doomed them but their heightened stress response to being shocked. There is a lesson here, and not only in the scientific method. If you are trying furiously to control a situation because you are terrified of what would happen if you don’t, you are not really in control at all.

I don’t doubt the sincerity of professionals who say they feel stressed. Everyone feels overwhelmed at times. But “stress” has become a clichè. It is a buzzword so overused that it has come unbound from its scientific meaning. The professional class may be stressed in their way. But the powerless are stressed in the way that kills.

Scientific American, September 24, 2013