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Every year, thousands of people take the plunge, create a company and become their own boss. It can be a huge transformation from working as an employee to being lord of all that you survey in your company and for many, it is the culmination of a long-held dream.

It can also be associated with a huge amount of worry, stress and the realisation that being the boss entails managing a lot of different demands, and often many long hours at work. So is leadership all that it’s cracked up to be? Is being in charge worth all that worry and stress?

There has been a lot of discussion about the amount of stress executive bosses are subjected to. The average lifespan of a CEO (in work terms!) is apparently only 4-5 years. They have a huge amount of responsibility to be seen to “deliver the goods” to their company and be seen to be capable, effective and good leaders.

But are they under enormous stress?

Perhaps, perhaps not.

In another great article by David Rock in the Harvard Business Review he looks at the findings of a new study conducted by James Gross at Stanford University, which suggests it is the senior managers who actually experience more stress than the boss. David Rock then neatly explains why this should come as no surprise, if you examine the neuroscience of leadership and how this fits into his SCARF model.

Having just spent 18 months studying the neuroscience of leadership which included David Rock’s model, it is fascinating to see how new research is substantiating this thinking.

In this study, it was revealed that if a leader has the perception of a higher level of control, this buffers the effects of experiencing higher levels of stress. In their first study, they measured cortisol levels in “real” leaders, which included military officers and government officials and found they had

a) lower levels of cortisol and

b) reported lower levels of anxiety compared to non leaders.

In a second study those leaders of more powerful positions exhibited lower cortisol levels and less anxiety than leaders holding less powerful positions. The researchers explain this as being because they have a perceived greater sense of control

But is it actually new science?

Back in 1967, a very important study examining mortality rates in 18,000 male British civil servants looked at the effect of social position within the civil service network and the incidence of heart disease. This was the Whitehall Study. What they expected to find was that those in higher positions of authority, who had the greatest responsibilities and hence possibly the highest levels of stress would be the ones most likely to have more heart attacks.

What they found was the opposite – it was those in the lower ranks who were actually at greater risk.


It turns out it was connected to status. If you don’t feel your status is acknowledged this causes a huge threat to the brain and our stress levels.

Even taking into account levels of obesity, physical fitness and exercise, it was perceived status that mattered the most.

A second Whitehall Study (1985-88) was undertaken by Professor Marmot (that included women) to examine the implications of social class on stress and health and confirmed a connection between psychosocial factors, perception about work status and environment and poor health outcomes.

Robert Sapolsky is a well-known researcher into stress. He explains how we are adapted to survive through our stress system “Flight or fight”, but it is those non-life threatening stressors that are the ones that do us damage; by suppressing our immune system, and increasing our risk of developing diabetes and high blood pressure. When subjected to ongoing stress our stress hormones remain elevated, which causes us harm.

We experience psychosocial stress if we lack predictability, lack control of the environment or an outlet for our frustrations. It makes sense that you can, therefore, mitigate that effect by ensuring you do have good social support, feel related to your work environment, have a sense of control (autonomy), feel you are being treated fairly and enjoy certainty through an understanding of what your work requirements and bosses expectations are.

All of these factors are covered in the SCARF model and it is by applying these five human endeavours to all of our social interactions that everyone can then benefit from a lower level of stress and increased sense of purpose, achievement and fulfilment.

The main thing is to ensure that it is you who is the one in control of the “joy-stick” of your work and life.



AND OTHER ANIMALS (2004) Annu. Rev. Anthropol. 33:393–418

doi: 10.1146/annurev.anthro.33.070203.144000

Dr Jenny Brockis

Dr Jenny Brockis is a medical practitioner and internationally board-certified lifestyle medicine physician, workplace health and wellbeing consultant, podcaster, keynote speaker and best-selling author. Her new book 'Thriving Mind: How to Cultivate a Good Life' (Wiley) is available online and at all good bookstores.

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