High / Low Status Workers and Stress Levels

Work Presenteeism
Knowledge Center

Chloe Xu
Director, Australia

High / Low Status Workers and Stress Levels

It has long been debated over whether high-status or low-status workers find their job more stressful. Some studies suggest that the former work longer hours and endure increasing demands, and therefore tend to be under greater pressure than the latter at the workplace. However, as research on the subject so far has been based on after-the-fact recollections, it has been difficult to tell if this point of view is correct.

Conducted by Pennsylvania State University, a new study captured real-time impressions. Strong support was found for the “stress of higher status” hypothesis. 115 interviewees were required to rate their mood and stress when prompted by audio signals several times a day for three days. They also answered survey questions about “momentary perceptions” of their jobs – how they felt at the time of the prompt rather than in general. In addition, the researchers collected saliva samples, so that the research team could measure their cortisol levels – a biological marker of stress.

Although the facts accounting for the elevated stress of high-status workers are not entirely clear, it is clear from the study that certain immediate feelings correlate with stress and mood: In moments when workers thought they had sufficient resources or felt positive about their work and colleagues, they reported they were happier and less stressed.

The study also indicates that stress is closely related to how demanding a job is, but the picture is murky. High-status workers more often feel they are under-qualified for what they are doing, but in moments when their co-workers said they were succeeding, they felt less happy and became more stressed, accordingly to both of their self-evaluations and cortisol levels.

Based on the above findings, the study suggests that supervisors should pay close attention to if their talented employees feel able to meet the demands of their jobs and have the resources needed to succeed.

⇒ As a manager, do you recognize these findings? How do you handle this situation?

High Status, High Stress. (2016). Harvard Business Review, 94(July-August), p.24.


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