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Study Shows Leaders Experience Lower Stress

By Eliza R. Pugh, Contributing Writer

Leaders with higher levels of responsibility experience lower stress levels than their peers with less on their shoulders, according to the results of a recent study published by researchers at the Harvard Kennedy School, the Harvard Business School, Stanford University, and the University of California at San Diego.

The research team, led by Harvard Kennedy School professor Jennifer S. Lerner, conducted two studies to measure the levels of stress indicators in different populations.

The team—which also included Gary D. Sherman, a postdoctoral fellow at the Business School, and Business School associate professor Amy J. C. Cuddy—compared these metrics between leaders and non-leaders and then designed a second experiment to measure stress levels among leaders of varying responsibility.

The first study worked with a diverse range of volunteer participants from the Boston community active in a variety of different industries. The researchers found that the levels of the stress hormone cortisol, as measured with saliva samples, were lower for the leaders—defined as those who manage other people—and higher for the non-leaders. Self-reported anxiety followed a similar pattern.

“It is important to stress that when we talk about stress, it’s not when students walk around saying ‘I’m so stressed out’—that’s a subjective feeling,” said Lerner. “These are biologically measured differences in stress hormone levels.”

The second study was performed with only pre-defined leaders—the majority of whom were government officials and military officers—in order to determine if there are differences in stress among groups of leaders. Those with higher levels of leadership, as measured by the number of subordinates, were found to have lower cortisol levels.

The research team also began to explore why there was this discrepancy between different leaders.

“We found it is because of perceptions of control,” Lerner said.

The results indicate that leadership responsibilities provide one with a greater sense of control. However, since the study measured only a correlation between leadership and stress, Lerner said that the opposite may be true as well.

“Of course, it’s quite possible that the reverse causal direction occurs as well—people may rise to positions of leadership because they have a skill for insulating themselves from the stresses that go with increased responsibility,” Lerner said in the press release.

Lerner, who is currently teaching a class on “emotional influences on decision making,” said she plans to weave in the ideas behind this study into her teaching in the future. She also sees ways to incorporate the findings of this study into everyday life.

“The more a student can take control of his schedule, the better,” she said.

The results of the study were released online on Tuesday and will be published this week in the early edition of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

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ResearchHarvard Kennedy SchoolHarvard Business School