Stress and Health - New Insights on Work and Social Status

Have you heard the news reports on how your levels of stress and health seems to be related?

Stress is a normal physiological response to events or conditions that upset your mental or physical balance or make you feel threatened. 

The changes that take place in your body tend to speed up your reaction time, increase your strength and stamina, and heighten your focus and concentration.  These changes include a faster pulse, more rapid breathing, an increase in your blood pressure and sharpened senses, among others. 

Your body's stress response can actually be quite beneficial.  It can help protect you from real or perceived danger.  It can help you maintain focus and keep you alert.  And, if you're in an emergency situation, it can even help save your life. 

For example, by decreasing your reaction time, your body's stress response can enable you to slam on the brakes quickly enough to avoid being in an automobile accident.  So, stress isn't necessarily a bad thing.

Chronic Stress, Work and Health

Once your stress levels reach a certain point, stress can start having an adverse impact on your health, not to mention your work productivity, your relationships, your mental wellbeing and your overall quality of life. 

You might be under the impression that the highly-paid CEO's of most major corporations are under a great deal more stress than most of us, and that as a result of the stress they encounter every day, their health is poor and they lead miserable lives. Naturally, this impression is fostered by some of those same CEO's as a justification for their enormous salaries.

Actually, though, research on the interplay of social standing, stress and longevity has led to some findings that might be surprising, especially if you remember the way things used to be portrayed. 

For example, in the old days we often saw pictures of corporate CEO's that showed them in an unflattering light - some noticeably overweight, others smoking cigars with ashtrays overflowing on their desks.  Still others were shown enjoying a sip of expensive single malt Scotch whisky. 

These images were intended to show us that an unhealthy lifestyle was an almost inevitable companion of the heavy responsibilities shouldered by high-level corporate executives, and part and parcel of an "elevated" socioeconomic status.

The images we saw of blue-collar workers often provided a stark contrast to the pictures we saw of the same company's highly-paid executives.  In most cases these blue-collar workers, free of the pressures and stresses of executive life, were shown in a much more favorable light than their bosses. 

Working-class men, members of a lower socioeconomic class than corporate executives, were often depicted wielding various tools instead of alcohol and cigars.  And, they usually sported beautifully bronzed, muscular physiques instead of excess poundage.  

Anger management treatment was often seen as sometimes needed for the managers, not so much for the workers.

The juxtaposition of these two sets of images was intended to teach us that high-level responsibilities, social standing and stress are bad for our health, while physical labor and less responsibility (and stress) is almost inevitably much better for our health.

New Stress and Health Insights

The information revealed by the more recent stress research beg to differ with what we thought back then about stress and health effects. 

This research indicates that high-level corporate executives who have the ability to set their own work schedules and organize their own work are less likely to experience cardiovascular problems than blue-collar workers who are told what to do and when to do it. These high-level corporate executives are also likely to live longer.

It seems that the ability of corporate CEO's and other high level executives to set their own work schedules allows them to schedule time for exercise and working out, which is an important benefit for their health. 

But the research also indicates that despite their sometimes crushing responsibilities, the very fact that executives have the freedom to organize their day in whatever way they wish has a positive effect on their health. 

That's a significant finding about stress and health.  These people have the freedom to let a lunch meeting run long or go jogging at lunch, if that's what they prefer.

These findings about the health effect of stress have been confirmed by Sir Michael Gideon Marmot, professor of Epidemiology and Public Health at University College, London.  Sir Michael is also the author of The Status Syndrome:  How Social Standing Affects Our Health and Longevity. 

If you're interested in this topic about stress and health effects, we discuss it at greater length in a separate article which addresses how stress factors impact people at the lower end of the socioeconomic ladder and increase their likelihood of experiencing heart attacks.

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