The boss may seem to have everything figured out, but it might actually be more stressful at the top than you think — and that corner office could mean higher health risks for the person sitting in it.
A boss’s challenges go beyond common workplace stressors, whether it’s dealing with job scarcity at their level, the potential effects of sacrificing personal relationships for professional success, or the unique position of dealing with demands from both above and below. Being a boss makes for a unique and often challenging position in the job market.
“Management and leadership are not innate skills; they’re learned,” Lauren Laitin, founder and principal at Parachute Coaching said in an interview. “But once you get that under your belt, you start to ask yourself: what’s next? When you’re already in a management role, the answer tends to be murky. One, because you don’t know what opportunities will be available next, and two, you don’t know who your competition is.” (Related: Engaging millennials in the workplace)
Stress is everywhere, whether a manager is new to leadership or searching an uncertain job market for the next best career opportunity.
And although it seems like stress ought to be more pronounced the higher you are on the totem pole, it’s not just chief executives who feel the heat. A 2015 study suggests that the folks in the middle of any hierarchy seem to have higher rates of anxiety and depression than those at the top or the bottom.1
The health hazards of stress
A little stress in life is normal. But prolonged, excessive stress has been linked to a host of health hazards, both physical and psychological.
It can start small, in ways you’ve probably felt yourself — distraction or the inability to focus, headaches, irritability, and changes in sleep patterns. But it gets more insidious than that.
"When people experience stress, they often stop doing some of the healthy coping strategies that usually help keep their mood on track," Alice Boyes, a psychologist and contributor to Psychology Today, wrote in the magazine. She suggested stress follows a path of lowering someone's mood, which leads to that person skipping activities and practices that help regulate mood, which leads to more mood problems.2
Skipping normal coping mechanisms can lead to unhealthy ones, like drinking or substance abuse, or getting into arguments at the drop of a hat just to let off some steam. Those things, in turn, can put strain on relationships, which can cause — you guessed it — more stress.
Stress has been connected to physical problems like high blood pressure, and those who turn to fatty, sugary comfort foods to cope may also be inviting an increased risk of heart disease, according to the National Institute of Mental Health.
Research suggests that women in stressful roles may also contend with higher rates of fertility problems that can spiral into a frustrating, potentially devastating infertility cycle.4
Even without physical symptoms, chronic stress can lead to psychological conditions like depression and, if left long enough, burnout, according to Psychology Today.5
Workplace stressors: boss edition
You’re probably no stranger to workplace stress yourself, no matter your pay grade.
If you work in an office, you might feel chained to your desk, or dread the long hours, long commute, or tense workplace relationships. Those in other workplace settings might cite odd shifts, dangerous conditions, or work that requires intense emotional or physical responses as factors that contribute to personal and professional stress.
Bosses have to deal with all that and more.
Unique to managers is the two-way pull. Anyone who’s not in a supervisory role has only to deal with what their boss expects of them. A boss, though, almost always has a boss of his or her own, whether it’s someone higher up the organizational ladder or — in the case of CEOs, entrepreneurs, and small-business owners — customers, stockholders, a business partner, or a board of directors.
Bosses deal with demands from above just like anyone else. At the same time, they need to make sure the folks who report to them have the resources they need to get their projects done, sometimes within time and budget constraints that can seem uninformed at best and unreasonable at worst.
It’s a delicate balance indeed, and can be especially tough when bosses in their peak-earning years face things like age discrimination: the firing of older, more experienced workers in favor of bringing in younger — and less expensive — blood.
And let’s not forget the personal side. Leadership Development coach Lea McLeod always asks her clients how work issues are affecting home life.
“Without exception,” she said in an interview. “I will hear about how spouses are frustrated or exasperated with how long and hard my clients work. They feel neglected.” (Related: Do you and your partner need financial therapy?)
All too often, clients note they are separating from their significant other or are in the midst of a divorce. “Work-related issues aren’t the only factors that drive personal problems, but certainly people feel like it’s hurting their ability to be there for others,” said McLeod.
Luckily, not all stressors are as insurmountable as they might seem. Age discrimination, for example, may be more in the eye of the job seeker than you might think.
According to Laitin, experience tends to be valued, so while businesses sometimes go for the younger, less expensive option, there are also plenty of situations where a company will jump on hiring an older, more experienced candidate they don’t have to spend time or resources training.
“When I see age discrimination come up with clients, it’s often in their own fear that it’s going to happen,” Laitin said. “So they stay put in an unfulfilling job for fear they won’t be able to find something else. Or, if they do interview, their fear of being ‘aged out’ can keep them from effectively showcasing the energy, expertise, and value they bring.”
Handle stress … like a boss
So what’s the solution for stressed-out workers — regardless of rank?
Sometimes, it can be as simple as changing your perspective. Take a step back. Ask yourself how much of your situation is due to things you can’t control, and how much stems from your response, which you can control.
This can be particularly powerful for employees at a more senior level who are stressed because it seems like every new opportunity pays less than what they’re making now.
“People come in thinking financial security is such a big deal without having done the math on what they actually need,” Laitin says. “In a higher salary bracket, the incremental dollars tend not to be as meaningful. There are many ways to measure wealth and value, and people don’t necessarily need to be making all that money to be happy.”
If the perspective-check exercise still leaves you with pent-up stress that doesn’t stem from your reaction to workplace situations, it may be time to brainstorm solutions.
When your stressors are truly external, it’s likely that you’re not the only one feeling the pain. Sitting down with your teammates and manager to work through ways to improve a process or situation could end up benefitting not just you but your entire team and internal relationships as well.
If you need tips for dealing with workplace stress, the American Psychological Association offers some high-level ideas, like setting general boundaries and taking time to relax, for employees at any level.
The Positivity Blog, maintained by Swedish life coach Henrik Edberg, lists stress-management tips in smaller, more action-friendly steps, like keeping your to-do list short, taking one thing at a time, and asking instead of guessing.
Stress happens to everyone, and chronic stress can lead to very real physical and emotional illness. How you choose to deal with stress often means the difference between lemons and lemonade – no matter what level of an organization you’re at.
So if you’re stressed at work, take a step back, breathe deep, and start thinking about what you can do to improve your daily routine. And if your boss is doing an awesome job despite the unique pressures he or she faces, take a minute on Boss’s Day to say thanks.
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This article was originally published in October 2016. It has been updated.
1 Sociology of Health & Illness, “Anxious? Depressed? You might be suffering from capitalism: Contradictory class locations and the prevalence of depression and anxiety in the United States,” 2015.
2 Psychology Today, “Why Stress Turns Into Depression,” March 7, 2013.
4 Boston University School of Medicine, “Stress reduces fertility in women”, October 1, 2018.
5 Psychology Today, “The Tell Tale Signs of Burnout…Do You Have Them?”, Nov. 26, 2013.