Blog: It’s official: Your boss is less stressed than you!

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It’s official: Your boss is less stressed than you!

A scientific study has sought to understand different occupational grades and retirement with respect to how much stress we take.
It’s official: Your boss is less stressed than you!

You’ve always suspected it, discussed it feverishly with your colleagues, and have been able to see through the ‘pressure’ your boss is supposedly under.  A scientific study has vindicated every employee who thinks his/her boss has it easy, according to a report.

What is the study?

Researchers from University of Manchester, University College London and the University of Essex sought to the relationship between retirement and socioeconomic differences in diurnal cortisol in British civil servants. Confused? In other words, they tracked the stress levels in a variety of individuals, as cortisol is a stress hormone that shoots up when people are in stressful situations. Published in the Journals of Gerontology, the objective of the study states, “This study examined whether retirement is associated with more advantageous (steeper) diurnal cortisol profiles, and differences in this association by occupational grade.”

How did they conduct the study?

Data from different phases of London-based Whitehall II civil servants was used. Effectively, this gave the authors access to data from thousands of individuals, at different intervals in time; and working at different positions. 

The study explains, “Cortisol is a stress hormone that follows a diurnal profile, peaking around 30 minutes after awakening, and returning to very low levels by bedtime. Stress disrupts the diurnal profile of cortisol, resulting in elevated levels of cortisol and a flatter diurnal slope from the awakening response to bedtime.”

What did the study find?

Workers who are towards to bottom of the corporate ladder tend to have more stressful working conditions – lower pay, lesser pension, less control over their work, unsupportive colleagues etc. Thus, cortisol levels in people who worked at lower positions didn’t go down as far as those who had top positions (the levels go down naturally by the end of the day); indicating that they were perpetually stressed. 

This has led the authors to conclude that bosses are not as stressed as the employees they manage. Tarani Chandola, an author of the study has been quoted saying, "I am pretty confident in saying that the physiological stress levels (as measured by cortisol) of bosses are lower than their employees—in other words, the bosses are not as stressed as the employees they manage. This is shown not just by my study, but loads of other studies that show exactly the same results. Stress levels increase (not decrease) as we go from the top of the occupational ladder to the bottom."

The study notes, “Employees working in the lowest grades had lower cortisol values on awakening but higher cortisol at bedtime in both periods. This suggests that the low-grade employees had flatter diurnal slopes at both phases.” In other words, those working at the bottom were more stressed than others. 

The study also analyses the impact of retirement, and how it affected stress levels. Those who retired on a high grade were significantly less stressed than those who did on a low grade.

Even high grade retired respondents had a steeper curve (less stress) than those who were still employed at a high grade. It says, “Retirement was associated with steeper (more advantageous) diurnal slopes compared to those who remained in work; however, there was no difference in the retirement slope by occupational grade. Retirement was not associated with more advantageous cortisol profiles for those formerly employed in the lowest grades in comparison to their peers who were still working... Rather than retirement being associated with lower levels of biomarkers of stress for those at the bottom of the occupational hierarchy, this period of the life-course appears to reinforce existing inequalities and widen the gap between occupational groups. ”

How does it impact me?

Other than scientifically proving the fact that your boss is actually less stressed than you are – the study contains several important insights. The relationship between early old age, retirement, socioeconomic factors and stress is essential to understand, and as shown by the study; unless you retire at the top of your game, stress is likely to accompany you for the rest of your life. When you progress in the hierarchy, salary, pension, stability, working conditions, and work satisfaction – everything increases, and these factors have a tangible impact on how you live your life. The study concludes, “Occupational grade differences in a biomarker of stress were larger among the retired compared to those currently employed. Employees in the highest grades appeared to benefit the most from retirement in terms of steeper diurnal cortisol slopes, whereas there was no apparent benefit of retirement among those working in the lowest grades. These biological differences associated with transitions into retirement for different occupational groups may partly explain the pattern of widening social inequalities in health in early old age.”

Progression in terms of rank and title is obviously an important indicator of your success and capabilities, but the fact that it is decisive to overall health, happiness and security in the future is something that this study shows. On a lighter note, it also equips you with scientifically-backed data to show that you boss has it easier than you!

Topics: Watercooler, Life @ Work

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