Sense of control acts as a buffer against stress for top managers.
We are currently facing an unprecedented challenge due to the coronavirus pandemic and that is affecting all employees, from the top to the bottom of organizations. We are physically exhausted by the pandemic and that comes at a cost. The costs related to mental health can be very high and detrimental to organizations. These costs can be direct, such as those that relate to health insurance, medical appointments, treatments or medications, or indirect, such as loss of motivation, absenteeism, decrease in productivity or poor judgement and decision making. The latter aspect is particularly worrisome if it is conducive or threatening to the organization’s survival
Stress occurs when individuals are unable to cope with the demands they face and that affects their well-being. In the workplace stress arises due to intensive job demands, time pressure or lack of control. During these periods, individuals experience an increase in the cortisol, an arousal hormone released by the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis. This is coined as physiological stress. In tandem with this, individuals also have the tendency to be more vigilant and respond to perceived environmental threats with anxiety, or in other words, they experience psychological stress.
Stress-related illness can occur at any hierarchical level of the organization. However, there is the perception that top managers face more pressure.
On the one hand, top managers are subject to elevated psychosocial demands on a regular basis because they bear more responsibilities while managing the firm, often subject to limited or scarce resources. They also need stamina to deal with physical demands, such as constant meetings, travel, time constraints and managing conflicts. One particular challenging demand is to deal with a high number of subordinates that, although brings more power and prestige, also confers more responsibilities and need to manage the potential conflicts that may arise from the interaction between all subordinates and hierarchies. To add to this, there are the reputational concerns related to the loss of power, prestige and source of (high) income. Unsurprisingly, these can create high levels of stress.
But on the other hand, top managers have larger decision latitude, more autonomy and job control of what they do and when to do. When hierarchies are stable and subordinates do not challenge the top ranks, moving up in the hierarchy brings greater control and power over resources and job tasks. For example, top managers may decide to delegate some tasks and, thus, alleviating their workload and responsibilities, which may translate into lower levels of stress. In light of these conflicting views, which organizational hierarchies experiences more stress and who deals with it better?
In order to answer this question, two complementary studies looked at Portuguese employees in different hierarchical positions and tested whether top managers experience more stress than those in the lower ranks. The results are quite bewildering. On the one hand, those lower in the hierarchy experience lower physiological stress (cortisol levels) relative to those higher in the hierarchy. On the other hand, top managers have fewer levels of anxiety (psychological stress).
The key to dealing with stress relies on how managers deal with situations. This is known as sense of control and it varies depending on the nature and circumstances of the stress. For example, possessing greater amount of authority and autonomy will enable top managers to delegate some tasks, managing their agenda in terms of workload, pressure and intensity of demands. In other words, possessing a high sense of control acts as a buffer against stress and is related to proactive behavior and positive psychological outcomes, such as lower anxiety levels and feeling healthy.
Conversely, those lower in the hierarchy are less able to leverage their sense of control to lower stress. For example, they may not have the autonomy to alleviate their workload or decide what tasks to do and in what circumstances.
Overall, the findings demystify the perception that being at the top is always more stressful. The position an individual has in the hierarchy does not determine stress. It is the combination of several factors that affect the mental health of managers. More importantly, the findings show that managers should seek to find a balance and chose the correct individuals for the jobs/tasks and apply coping or adaptation mechanisms to handle stress.
Organizations should develop awareness strategies and wellbeing programs to deal with stress health issues as to avoid impacting the organization’s performance.