The power of control and reducing stress at work

For many, work means stress and as we all know, too much stress can lead to ill health. But research showing that people in positions of power are not very stressed, may hold clues for how workplaces can…

Organisational leaders have demanding roles and face intense scrutiny of their performance. Dave 77459/Flickr

For many, work means stress and as we all know, too much stress can lead to ill health. But research showing that people in positions of power are not very stressed, may hold clues for how workplaces can help reduce stress for all employees.

The difficult economic climate means many of us are being asked to “do more with less”, adding to the costs associated with the stress this creates. A critical challenge facing organisations then, is how to help employees effectively manage their stress, while maintaining optimal levels of performance and engagement.

One key strategy is enhancing psychological resources, such as control, social support, performance feedback, and access to information, which help employees meet their work demands. This issue is highlighted in a study published in the peer-reviewed journal PNAS that focuses specifically on the stress experienced by leaders.

Organisational leaders have demanding roles and face intense scrutiny of their performance. So it’s reasonable to expect them to experience the highest rates of work-related stress. But the authors of the PNAS paper demonstrate that leaders actually report lower levels of stress in comparison to other workers.

And they found this to be the case even after taking into account the sex, age, education, income, and mood of the study participants. Previous research has similarly established this counter-intuitive finding. So, why do organisational leaders report less work-related stress and ill-health?

The power of control

The authors of the study attributed lower levels of leadership stress to the greater capacity of leaders to exercise control over their work. They then conducted another study demonstrating that leaders who report a higher level of authority and have larger numbers of subordinates and direct reports, perceive a higher level of control over their work relationships. This sense of heightened control results in lower levels of stress.

These results are in line with research demonstrating that work-related demands are not uniformly stressful. And that facing more demands doesn’t necessarily equate to more stress. One of the key determining features of whether someone perceives a work demand as stressful or challenging is that person’s access to work-related and psychological resources, such as control, social support, feedback, and self-efficacy.

Indeed, research has consistently demonstrated that the highest levels of work-related stress are experienced by people who don’t have sufficient levels of control at work. In contrast, jobs that provide a positive environment and optimal health outcomes are not those with low demands, but demanding roles with sufficient access to control.

So while leaders undoubtedly face intense work pressure, greater responsibility, and a high-level of scrutiny over their work performance, they simultaneously possess a greater capacity to exercise control over their work environment. And control acts as a buffer against the otherwise adverse effects of high-level demands on work-related stress.

Control acts as a buffer against hair-tearing stress. stuartpilbrow/Flickr

Intervention strategies aiming to increase control over how and when to undertake certain tasks and increase participation in decision-making are likely to reduce stress among workers. But sadly, increasing control and authority is neither possible nor desirable in many workplaces.

Protective forces

There are several other resources that are also beneficial for buffering against the adverse impact of job demands and for promoting positive outcomes, such as employee engagement, learning, and development.

Our research has demonstrated that support from supervisors and colleagues reduces burnout and psychological strain, while career-related support provided by mentors increases employee engagement over time.

People are also happier at work when they feel their organisation cares for and is concerned about its staff. They are more positive when good work by employees is adequately recognised, and when there are positive relationships between managers and staff.

Most significantly, the extent to which workers understand their organisation’s strategic priorities and their awareness of how their job helps the workplace achieve strategic objectives is linked with optimal employee outcomes, regardless of whether that person is a leader.

Leadership positions are naturally imbued with access to greater resources such as authority, control, support, and access to information. And leaders have greater capacity to influence the strategic direction of the workplace and shape their own personal roles to more effectively meet needs and manage demands.

Access to such resources for employees at all levels within an organisation is beneficial for managing work-related stress. And intervention strategies that focus on enhancing such access is likely to reduce the long-term economic and personal costs of work-related stress.