How Stress Harms Leadership

Stress is sadly a dominant factor in many of our lives, with our work a major contributory factor in that.  Previous studies have suggested that our status plays a major role in how stressed we feel at work.

A classic example are the Whitehall studies.  They looked at the health of those working in the civil service, and found that rank was strongly correlated with health.  In particular, the higher ones rank in the civil service, the lower ones mortality rate.

It’s a point of view that’s supported by a recent Stanford study that suggested that higher rank was associated with both lower levels of stress hormones and less anxiety.

“We live as social beings in a stratified society,” says James Gross, a Stanford University psychology professor. “It’s our relative status in a group that disproportionately influences our happiness and well-being.”

When leaders are stressed

Whilst leaders may be stressed less than their peers lower down the organization, the impact of a stressed leader is considerable.  A recent study from the University of Alabama examines the impact stress has on our leadership style.

The study assessed over 150 different studies conducted in 25 different countries, and the results are quite clear.  A stressed boss has a significant negative impact on both the morale and performance of their employees.  What’s more, a stressed boss would act more aggressively towards their team and generally behave in a toxic manner.

“If you have an abusive or toxic boss, you should contact HR,” the authors say. “Most companies want to do the right thing and will want to avoid legal problems, but they might just be unaware of the problem unless you bring it up.”


So how can you help matters?  Whilst there are a huge range of stress busting tips out there, one of my favorites emerged in a recent Yale study, which suggests that the best way to beat stress is to help other people.

It suggests that when we help others, be they colleagues, friends or even strangers, it helps to buffer the build up of stress.

“Our research shows that when we help others we can also help ourselves,” the authors say. “Stressful days usually lead us to have a worse mood and poorer mental health, but our findings suggest that if we do small things for others, such as holding a door open for someone, we won’t feel as poorly on stressful days.”

It’s fairly well accepted that having a shoulder to lean on in stressful times can do wonders for our own wellbeing, but the new study suggests that the reverse can also be the case.

Maybe the key to being a chilled leader is to be a true servant leader?