A new study on job authority and health suggests that the top is not only lonely, but can also take a toll on physical and mental well-being.
Using data from 1,800 workers, researchers found that the negative aspects of having a power position at work seemed to cancel out the positive aspects when it came to people's physical and psychological health.
That is, while job authority generally meant higher pay and more engaging work - both associated with health benefits - people in these positions were also more likely to report conflicts with co-workers and to say that work intruded on their home life. And both of those factors, the researchers found, were related to more health complaints and higher levels of anger.
The findings, reported in the journal Social Science & Medicine, help explain a paradox in research on work life and health.
Poor job, poor health
For years, studies have shown that people in lower-status jobs generally have higher rates of heart disease and other ills, and die earlier, than those in higher-status positions. In particular, work with high demands but little to no decision-making power has been linked to poorer health.
Yet, job authority - which often goes hand-in-hand with higher status, more pay and greater independence - has generally shown no association with workers' health.
Pros and cons of authority
These latest findings suggest that the pros and cons of authority positions essentially cancel each other out - giving the general impression that job authority has no health effects.
"One way to view it is, were it not for their greater exposure to interpersonal conflict at work and work-to-home interference, individuals with higher levels of authority would tend to report fewer physical symptoms, symptoms of psychological distress, and less anger," explained lead researcher Dr Scott Schieman, a professor of sociology at the University of Toronto in Canada.
"This isn't to suggest that having authority is 'bad' - in fact, we show it has benefits," he told Reuters Health in an email.
"But," Schieman added, "it is important to identify the downsides and deal with them."
For the study, the researchers surveyed participants about various aspects of their work life and well-being. Job authority was gauged based on whether a person managed other employees and had power over hiring, firing and pay.
Physical health complaints included problems like headaches, body aches, heartburn and fatigue; psychological complaints included sleep problems, difficulty concentrating and feelings of sadness, worry and anxiety.
For people in authority positions, conflicts with co-workers or intrusion of work into home life may chip away at physical and mental well-being by creating chronic stress.
"These are key stressors that can tax individuals' capacity to function effectively," Schieman noted.
While research has typically focused on the negative health effects of lower-status work, he said, it is also important to recognise the "stress of higher status." - (Amy Norton/Reuters Health, October 2009)
SOURCE: Social Science & Medicine, online September 30, 2009.