by Meridith Levinson

Stress Hurts: How Your Baboon of a Boss is Killing You

Oct 05, 2009

Your social or professional rank influences your level of stress and your health.

Why is your boss like a baboon? Research shows that whether human or baboon, your social or professional rank—your place on the torment or be tormented scale—influences your level of stress and your health, for better or for worse.

About two weeks ago I got drawn into a program on PBS about stress. Killer Stress traced the research of Robert Sapolsky, a Stanford University neurobiologist who’s spent 30 years studying stress and illness in baboons to better understand the effects of stress in humans. Sapolsky studies baboons because they experience the same kind of social and psychological stress that humans experience. Everything that stresses us—traffic, work, bad relationships—is socially constructed. The same is true for baboons. 

To say that the program was enlightening is an understatement. For me, it was a wake-up call. We all live with stress—so much, in fact, that we accept chronic stress in our lives as a given, an inescapable force to which we’re powerless. We feel we have no control over our stress, and indeed, our stress controls us—our behavior, our emotions, our health.  Some people go so far as to wear stress as a badge of honor. Their stress level, they believe, testifies to their importance, their valor and their work ethic. (See How to Avoid Stress and Burnout.)

By accepting chronic stress as a fact of life, we fail to realize that our resigned attitude toward this biological response will kill us. I’m not being dramatic. If I learned one thing while watching Killer Stress it’s that chronic stress is an epidemic in American society that takes a devastating—even deadly—toll on our bodies.

Chronic stress impairs our memory and brain function: We can’t think straight when we’re stressed out. It debilitates our immune system and makes us more susceptible to illness. It elevates our blood pressure, causes our arteries to harden and leads to belly fat—all of which increase our risk of heart attack. It can lead to ulcers, and it hinders our reproductive functions. And then there are the headaches and backaches, the insomnia and impotence that stress causes. (For more on the physiological effects of stress, see Managing Your Stress.)

What’s worse, Sapolsky notes, we seem to have lost our innate ability to shut off our stress response. We’re stressed out all the time. Everything from deadlines to awkward social situations causes our bodies to produce elevated levels of stress hormones that never seem to abate.  Even after we’ve met the deadline, we allow a new stressor to enter our lives and replace it.

Our rank at work and in society also impacts our stress level, perhaps not surprisingly. Sapolsky’s research suggests that the amount of stress we experience is directly related to our social status. He observed this in baboons: By taking blood samples from them and screening them for stress hormones, Sapolsky found high levels of stress in submissive baboons and low levels of stress in dominant baboons. The reason the dominant baboons had low levels of stress was because they had a lot of leisure time. The reason the low-ranked baboons had high levels of stress was because the dominant baboons spent their leisure time tormenting them.

Sound familiar? I’m sure you’ve observed similar behavior—and its consequences—where you work. Ever feel like your boss’s primary role is to make your life miserable? Perhaps he has too much time on his hands.

A study of British civil servants corroborated Sapolsky’s findings on stress and rank. The British study, which examined the health of British civil service workers, found that low-level civil servants had higher stress levels and were more prone to illness than high-ranking civil servants despite the fact that they all had access to the same healthcare.

Extrapolating from this research we can conclude that lower-level IT workers experience more stress and illness than CIOs, while CIOs are more stressed and sickly than CEOs.

I know I need to better manage my stress. What are you going to do about yours? Please let me know because I need some ideas.