Why it’s good to be in charge

Back during the whole Marissa-Mayer-is-pregnant dust-up this summer, I mentioned that being the CEO is actually a great job for the mom of small kids. If you’re late to a 9 a.m. meeting, people will wait for you. If you don’t want to work from 5:30-8 p.m., people will take your calls at 8:30. They fly to see you. Such accommodation means that you’re less stressed.

It turns out that there’s some research backing this up. A new study from several Harvard researchers, published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, found that reported stress levels — and levels of cortisol — are lower for people at the top than those who haven’t made it.

Why? The researchers theorize that it’s about control. People at the top control their time. When you control your time, you feel like you have more of it. You’re probably making good money, so you’re in control of your financial life. If you want something to change, you have a lot of levers to push to make that happen, and you’re accustomed to pushing those levers. A sense of control — that you can customize your world — apparently corresponds with feeling pretty calm.

Now, to be sure, people at the top don’t always stay at the top. Just look at the revolving door of Yahoo CEOs lately. It would seem that having people constantly gunning for your job could be nerve-wracking. But what this study shows is that it’s important to keep this in perspective. As Duke University stress expert Nichole Lighthall (who was not involved in this study) told the Los Angeles Times, chief executives can rest assured that “they’ll keep their position in society, their superiority, their lifestyle and their income” even if the organization over which they preside tanks. Recall Bob Nardelli’s $200 million exit package from Home Depot, and you soon realize that a family making $460/week would probably love that kind of stress. 

In what kind of job have you felt the least stressed?



27 thoughts on “Why it’s good to be in charge

  1. I think I might be just the opposite! Having people report to me stresses me out. My favorite and least stressful jobs are where I have a high degree of autonomy and am working on my own project rather on something as part of a big “collaborative” team.

    I also do better when my work time is definitively scheduled – ie, I’m in the office at these times, and I’m going to work from home at these specific times.

    For a while I had a more “fluid” schedule where my office days were well defined, then I had to fit in 5-6 hours of work at home “sometime during the week”. Well, without defining those blocks of time, it was hanging over my head and really stressful.

    In that case, I first ended up scheduling a few hours per night when I had childcare, and then eventually just ditched the “extra” hours. Being able to (mostly) “leave work at work” made me MUCH less stressed out.

  2. I didn’t read the study but I think this is a case that for people who enjoy the top-level jobs and want that level of responsibility/prestige, it is less “stressful”. They can buy flexibility and people must work around their schedule in many ways. At the same time, I also think it’s highly stressful to be the one held responsible for success / failure of major projects. When I head projects, I take work home with me. Even if I don’t have to do work after hours, I still think about it way more often. I honestly prefer not to think that much about work!

    1. @OilandGarlic – I had a year-long internship after college at USA Today. I found it much less stressful than anything I’ve done since, partly because I didn’t have much real responsibility, and also because I could leave my work there. When I came home, I was done. I could relax. I haven’t felt that way since, working for myself, when there’s *always* something else I could be doing.

  3. This reminded me of an article about President Obama’s behind-the-scenes work coordinating the European/American response to a potential slaughter in Benghazi, Libya. Obama realizes that the US is the only country with the firepower to immediately do the bombing that is necessary, but he doesn’t want another Iraq/Afghanistan- he wants France involved in the ensuing issues, since Libya is (partly) a French-speaking country.

    So Obama has his people call France (it’s 3 AM in France, but he’s trying to avoid slaughter in Benghazi) and ask Sarkozy to call him back as soon as possible. Sarkozy was apparently expecting the call, because it was 3 AM in France and he insisted he was still up.


  4. The least stressful job I have ever had is my current one – as a high school teacher. This may seem counterintuitive, but because it is the first job I have where I have had some autonomy, I feel much less stressed, even though by definition it is a stressful job. I found stints that I had working in retail, hospitality and call centres more stressful because I had very little say over my day to day life and there was no onus on anyone (even the customers) to treat me with respect and acknolwedge that I had something to contribute.
    Another issue about being in a top job, is that you receive more acknowledgement when you do work hard and get results. I am looking to transition into something else education related (something along the tutoring/social entrepreneurship line) because then I will have even more autonomy over my role. As a teacher I always intended to work really hard, but it doesn’t get acknolwedged as much as it should. If you are running your own project, you get to do things how you like and the results speak for themselves (rather than getting buried as they can in a school system – or worse, you can be looked down on by other teachers for being ‘uppity’!)

    1. @Nadia- That’s pretty much in line with the study’s findings… it’s not that your job is non-stressful, it’s that having autonomy makes it all feel much more in control. You are in charge– and so there’s less stress. Looking forward to hearing more about the career transition…

  5. Thanks for your interest! The career transition is very much in the ‘contemplation’ stage right now, as I realise that I have a lot to learn if I am going to be an entrepreneur of any description. However, reading this blog and your books has made this prospect seem possible. It had never occurred to me that I could be a business person (I didn’t think that I would be suited to this). However, with the casualisation of the workforce, this is definately the way the world is going (as you point out) and as time goes on I believe that I have more ability in this area than I originally thought.

    Also, I really like the idea of creating something where there wasn’t anything before. I believe that as a teacher in a low socioeconomic area (in Australia) actually having entrepreneurial skills that I can demonstrate to students would be of great value – the line that gets played in this area is that “There are no jobs for people”. However, why not move the conversation to “How can we help students learn how to create jobs, both in their local area and in cyberspace?” (and not just by opening a shop in a local shopping centre!)

    As you may remember, I expressed concern about the concept of a computer writing first drafts of articles. I believe that this is because I was operating from a non-entrepreneurial mindset, whereby if a computer takes a job, that means less jobs for real people (again, this has been influenced by my experience working in a low socioeconomic area which has been badly affected by the movement offshore of manufacturing jobs and the many jobs that have been made redundant because of computers). However, I now see that your mindset is much more positive, in that it puts enough faith in people that they will be able to compete successfully with machines. While there is a long way to go for many of my students to be able to do this, it is certainly something positive to aim for.
    This transition will definitely be a long term project and will take many hours of work (I am currently on school holidays for 2 weeks and have spent the last two days researching options), but I like being in control of what I do. Also, as I learned from your first book, I have more time than I think!

  6. Autonomy is great. But so are limits on the amount you work and when you work. Autonomy and control and power alone don’t set the limits; it is very personal and challenging.

  7. I think everybody needs to be true to him/herself in terms of picking the career path that will bring them the most satisfaction, including reducing stress. I changed jobs in February to a much more senior position in a new company. While it was quite stressful at first and I certainly felt the weight of being responsible for things, I am the type of person who likes to be in control and responsible. So, now that I’ve settled in, I feel much less stress at this job – where many people accomodate my schedule rather than the other way around – even though the expectations of my performance are much higher.

    But I know that would not necessarily be the case with everybody. My best childhood friend is super proud of me but always tells me she would never in her life want that much work responsibility. So to each her own, I guess! Not sure you can make a general rule about it…

    1. @Rinna- this has been an interesting realization for me too, that not everyone places the same importance on professional success. And not just because they’re making a trade-off for time with small kids, which is more obviously understandable (even though yesterday I realized I spent 5-9 am with kids, 9-5 working, then 5-9 pm with kids — not quite sure any of us would have gained from spending more time together!) They just don’t have the same interest in ambition. I tend to look at this and think that the farther you climb up, the more control you have over your time, money and life, but not everyone sees it this way.

      1. @Laura- I agree, it’s been a bit of an eye-opener for me as well! A significant percentage of my friends from childhood (well over 50%) do not have a Career with a capital C. A couple of them don’t work outside the home at all, but most do something, but it’s more like the Taco Bell job somebody described in a comment below. You come to work for specified hours, you do your thing for those hours only and you leave. They have no aspiration for more in their professional lives.

        In truth, a few of them lead pretty rarified existences – very high earning husband, full-time nanny, big house, etc. And I will admit to sometimes wondering if I might have the same ambition if I were in their situation. I think so, but maybe not…Their lives are just so much simpler!

        The rest of my non-Career friends, though, have to pinch pennies and worry about affording fairly basic things (for example, having to shop at multiple grocery stores to get the best overall price on food). Their husbands work like dogs to keep the family financially stable and spend less time than they’d like with their children. And, honestly, I find that lifestyle so much more stressful than having to work in my capital C Career. But, like I said, to each her own!

      2. Your comments about ambition are very interesting to me! It’s something I’ve been thinking about a lot lately, and not sure what it means. But maybe I’m also viewing through the lens of having small children and that’ll change over time.

        I don’t quite have a “Taco Bell” job since my work projects actually require me to think, but the part-time hours mostly let me compartmentalize work so I’m not always thinking about it.

        But I’m not sure exactly what “ambition” means. Does it mean getting promoted and making more money? At some point, what if you get to a place/role/salary where you’re just happy to BE? Does that mean you’ve lost your ambition? For me getting to a place of contentment is actually a GOAL so I’m not always eyeing the “next step up”.

        It must be different for everyone, but I wonder about this a lot.

  8. I thought this had been shown before? Or maybe it was just that wealthier people are less stressed than poorer ones (which seems sort of obvious to me, but it is good to have data I suppose).

    I’m reading Cal Newport’s book “So Good They Can’t Ignore You” and he summarizes the data on what makes people happy at work. Autonomy and control are right up there.

    1. @Cloud- I think the point of this study was not so much about the wealth of the people involved (though it was nothing to sneeze at). It’s that they were leaders — that is, people in charge of things. Often, we think being in charge would correspond with stress, but apparently it’s more stressful *not* to be in charge.

      1. I’d like to think that it’s not a zero-sum game, that good managers can keep their own stress levels down without doing that at the cost of stressing out the people they manage. But I had one boss about whom it was said, “she always seems calm herself but she spreads stress wherever she goes.” If that were me, I’d have a hard time feeling good about myself.

        That seems to be a real danger of making a habit of doing things like making people wait for you to start meetings, or calling them at inconvenient times like 8:30 pm. You will start to be seen as a diva who is hard to work for and who disrespects other people’s time and money. I’m reminded of Jane Swift’s behavior when she was acting governor of Massachusetts. She got the state helicopter to fly her around for a while, but she didn’t get re-elected.

  9. The job where I felt the least stressed was probably working part-time at Taco Bell in high school. I knew what was expected of me, down to how much cheese (to the gram) I was supposed to put on each burrito. And I didn’t have to take work home with me or even think about it at all outside of work. All the “real” jobs I’ve had have suffered from lack of control, unclear expectations, or both. And the combination is a double whammy, because it’s *really* stressful to be held accountable by others for something that wasn’t made clear to you in the first place. I’m contemplating a career change into teaching, so it’s interesting to me to see what the poster above had to say about the degree of autonomy and control in teaching.

    1. Hi Karen, I just wanted to clarify a few things about my post (I don’t want to put you off a career in teaching because it is a great job!) May I ask your concerns about my post in relation to your possible career change? Keep in mind that I work in Australia which is quite different to the United States system (education is run by state governments rather than by local districts – in fact even though Australia’s population is tiny compared to the US I work in one of the largest school systems in the world). Also, in my experience teaching is as autonomous as you want it to be – In the Australian system each school creates their own program which you can follow to the letter ( and teachers who do don’t seem very stressed) however, I like doing things my own way, which is allowed as long as you stay within syllabus guidelines. I just would like even more control because I like doing things my own way, but it sounds like that that isn’t really what you are after. I would reccomend talking to lots of teachers to see what they think. I would love to work in a charter school in America as what I’ve read about them is exactly what I am into – approaching the needs of low socioeconomic students from a non traditional direction, but sadly this concept has not (and I’m pretty sure never will) take off in Australia.

      1. Nadia,

        I found your post interesting in a positive way, and encouraging. I want more autonomy and, especially, clearer expectations than I had in my last job, and I liked what you said about working hard and having some autonomy. I know teaching has its stresses and unpredictabilities, but at least if you plan to teach a particular class to a particular group of students, you won’t have your principal telling you the next morning, at the last minute, to go teach a different subject to a different group of students.

        I like a little recognition, but I think really reaching a few students a year would satisfy that need.

        1. I’m glad to hear you took it in a positive way 🙂 getting through to the kids makes up for all the stressful parts of the job.

  10. It depends on the quality of the workers you supervise. I managed a halfway house for a year and hated it because I had a ton of responsibility, but little control. Several of my staff caused more problems than the clients did. Now, I work independently and love having more control over my day.

  11. Have you seen the Newsweek article this week about why women have it all wrong? I’m interested in your take on this.

    1. @Linda- uh oh, another article with sad baby photos? 🙂 My first thought is that Newsweek has sensed that stories on whether women can have it all sell magazines. But I’ll have to read the piece and get back to you.

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