We all experience stressful moments in our lives. The reasons why stress occurs will differ for each of us. However, many of them can be grouped in a few categories only, with hierarchy and lack of control probably being the most common one encountered in work situations.  

Some frequent causes of stress

Do you recognize some of these stressors?

  • Tight deadlines
  • Too many tasks at the same time
  • Managers calling and emailing you outside working hours
  • Having to do tasks that you really don’t want to do
  • Receiving unpredictable criticism

These examples seem to be all different at first, but if we look closer at them, we can see a common denominator: hierarchy and, associated with this, lack of control. Deadlines, having to multitask, needing to check emails and doing things you shouldn’t be doing occur because of the wishes of others. Others are typically the CEOs of a company or more senior colleagues and managers. They determine how much you work, what type of work you will be doing, when you will be doing it, and criticize you at times for no obvious reason.

Managers and employees are not equal within an organization. Typically, managers decide, and employees will do what has been decided for them. Many companies and governmental institutions have a hierarchical organization, in which employees depend on their superior provokes tension in employees. This is because they cannot control the work they do, they may not even understand how their work contributes to the bottom line of the company, and they cannot control the time they can allocate to a certain task.

Such lack of control, typically observed in hierarchical structures, is known to cause stress.

Who suffers most from stress: the manager or the employee?

For a long time it was believed that company leaders experience the most stress. After all, they bear the greatest responsibility for their employees and the success of the company. However, as you may have guessed from the text above, nothing could be further from the truth. Scientific studies have shown that leaders have generally speaking the lowest levels of stress. The employees who are the lowest in rank experience most of the stress. The explanation for this perhaps surprising observation is that the high-ranking staff indicated that they felt in control of their work most of the time. They knew what they had to do to bring the vision and strategy of a company or institution to life, and how they would spend their time. On the other hand, study participants who found themselves in low positions sensed a lack of control. They could not decide how to spend their time or what their working day would look like. The lack of control over the work has turned out to be an important cause of stress.

The link between hierarchy and stress has particularly been studied in the well-known Whitehall study in England. Whitehall is the name of a street in London and houses the UK Government Centre. The health of over 28,000 people has been studied here for 40 years. Within the civil service, each function has a precisely defined position in the hierarchy. This is an ideal scenario for looking at the relationship between stress and hierarchy within the organization. Indeed, it turned out that a low hierarchical position increases the risk of heart disease and other illnesses. People at the top had the smallest risk of disease that those just below the top. One level lower on the hierarchical ladder increased the risk for disease further, and so forth and so on. Employees who find themselves at the lowest position are the most at risk of developing stress-related health problems.

Governmental institutions generally have a hierarchical structure, in which the leaders have less stress than their employees.

These results were later confirmed by an American study in which the researchers examined whether leadership is associated with lower stress hormone (cortisol) levels in the blood and with less anxiety. The study was conducted among military personnel and civil servants, who, given their profession, almost by definition work in a hierarchical structure. Again, there appeared to be a strong connection between the position in the hierarchy on the one hand, and the amount of cortisol and the degree of anxiety on the other hand: the higher the rank, the less stress and anxiety.

The army is a prime example of a hierarchical organization, in which stress is mostly found among the soldiers, not the generals.

Hierarchy and stress in animals

The link between hierarchy and stress has also been observed in animals living in groups, for example in baboons, rats, mice and the white-throated bunting (songbird from North America).

However, in some species, such as African wild dogs and ring-tailed lemurs from Madagascar, the leaders, known as the alpha animals, are most susceptible to stress.

There is a particular reason for the difference in stress susceptibility between high and low ranking individuals: the stability of the hierarchy. This basically reflects how much effort the alpha male has to make to maintain his leading position. Stability of the hierarchy within a group depends on the one hand on the species and on the other hand on the personality, health and age of the alpha animal.

In groups with an unstable hierarchy, in which the leader is constantly challenged, or attacked by intruders from another group, the leader will have to fight continuously to remain number one. These leaders have as many stress hormones in their blood as those at the bottom of the hierarchical ladder. In such cohabitations, usually the number two, the beta animals, have the least stress. This is because they don’t have the stress of fighting, and are in the position of dominance over the other group members.

In groups with a stable hierarchy, such as that of baboons, the leader hardly ever has to fight to defend his position. He maintains his position by intimidating the subordinates. The number two in rank, in turn, intimidates the animals that are ranked lower than itself, but has to watch out for the leader. This process of intimidation of subordinates in rank works throughout the hierarchy, so that everyone else in the group will bully those who are at the bottom of the hierarchy ladder.

In baboons, the leader of the group does not have to fight a lot to keep his top position. Intimidating the others is usually sufficient.

Unpredictability is the biggest stressor

In hierarchical structures, be they in the animal kingdom or at the workplace, the leaders often maintain their position through intimidation of the other group members. In animal groups, the alpha animals intimidate the others by making use of their superior physical strength. They can beat up everybody else without having much risk of being attacked themselves. In human working situations, physical intimidation only rarely occurs. Instead, leaders maintain their position by psychological tricks. These are based on the dependence of their employees on the leaders to receive their monthly paycheck or to get promoted. Employees can feel fear and stress when they are being threatened with financial measures or with measures that will stop their ascent within the company. Employees will thus try to work hard and please the boss to avoid these threats.

While these threats are stressful by themselves, there is still another aspect to this that makes stress even bigger. This is the unpredictability of when intimidation will occur. In animal groups and human work situations alike, the subordinates have no control whatsoever over when aggression and intimidation take place. They also cannot control the intensity of the intimidation behavior. In groups of baboons living on the savannah of Africa, the alpha males can kick other group members out of a tree at any moment of the day, for example. At work, an employee can hardly predict when their managers insinuate that he or she seems hardly motivated to work for the company and should work harder.

The result of such unpredictability is that group members will remain in a state of alert and long-term psychosocial stress. This has negative consequences for their health. Subordinate baboons have higher concentrations of the stress hormones cortisol and adrenaline in their blood, a faster heartbeat, higher blood pressure, poorer reproductive capacity, and their immune system is less active. Health of chronically stressed employees will likewise be in jeopardy. For example, there is a risk for the development of arteriosclerosis (plaques in the arteries), which will impede blood flow. As a result of chronic stress and the high levels of stress hormones (especially adrenaline) in the blood, blood pressure rises, causing damage to the artery wall. This can be dangerous, because during stress the arteries cannot expand sufficiently and the heart will not get enough blood. This increases the risk of having a heart attack. In addition, employees who are lower in rank appear to have more abdominal fat than people with higher positions. It is astonishing that stress is one of the factors that influences fat distribution and that the social position in the hierarchy therefore partly determines weight gain around the waist!

Hierarchy and stress in different types of organizations

In the army and within the civil service, everyone's positions are clearly defined and once a high position is reached, one can generally hold on to it. It is for this reason that the studies we mentioned on the influence of hierarchy in the workplace on stress were conducted with employees in these professions. After all, the organizations involved have certain stability.

However, we have also seen in animals living in groups that when the leading position of the alpha animals is threatened frequently and when the hierarchy is maintained through fighting, the leaders experience the most stress. In commercial companies, competition, both external and internal, is generally much greater than among civil servants and in the military. Within commercial enterprises, the hierarchical structures are not as rigid, and many opportunities to climb (or to descend) on the hierarchical ladder may unfold. This could potentially affect the position of the leaders of a company. Would business leaders experience more stress as a result?

Unfortunately, this question cannot be answered yet, because no scientific research has been done on the subject. However, one could speculate that stress levels among leaders may vary from person to person, based on whether leaders consider young, energetic colleagues with refreshing ideas as competitors for their position or not. If leaders do, then they will consider their energetic or innovative colleagues as a threat, and will experience more stress as a result. If leaders are enthusiastic about the work and ideas of their collaborators, they are more likely to give them every opportunity to move forward for the benefit of the company.

Other threats to established leaders include reorganizations, privatizations and relocations. For example, more than 1,000 civil servants from the Whitehall study were transferred from the public to the private sector. These people reported more frequently prolonged illness, were more stressed than those who remained in their posts as civil servants, and were more likely to have high blood pressure. Changes in the work environment lead to uncertainty on several working conditions (different working methods, different colleagues, sometimes a different hierarchical structure, different culture) and this results in more stress and more illness.

If hierarchy and having control over the work to be carried out are indeed important for getting stress, it can be expected that factors that cause stress at work have their origin in a lack of control. We already gave a few examples at the beginning of the article. Here are a couple more.

A conflict between a manager (ranking high in the hierarchy of a company) and an employee (ranking low in a company) is an obvious example of stress related to hierarchy. The manager is in a dominant position relative to the employee, and can therefore exert pressure to force his or her point of view through. The employee, on the other hand, is dependent on the manager and therefore has much less control over conflict situations than the manager. The threat of dismissal as a result of the conflict with the superior is a strong stressor for the subordinate.

Another common source of stress related to hierarchy is a lack of autonomy and low involvement in decision-making. People who bear a lot of responsibility, but have few resources or powers to control their work (for example, due to insufficient rights of participation, inadequate information provision or insufficient personnel management qualities), are at great risk of long-term psychological stress and resulting illnesses such as cardiovascular disease, depression and burnout. Australian research has shown that middle managers are relatively often in this position. When they are not involved in decision-making, they are completely dependent on what the higher management of the company decides. As a result, they have insufficient control over their work, which makes it more difficult to motivate and direct their collaborators, especially if they have not been trained in people management.

Uncertainty about the tasks to be performed and, related to this, poor communication, is a well-known stressor. Someone who does not have a clear picture of what the tasks entrusted to him or her involve, is more likely to experience stress. For many, lack of clarity leads to uncertainty and uncertainty is almost by definition a source of tension and stress.

Moreover, lack of clarity can lead to a lack of motivation (one does not see the usefulness of the work to be carried out) and thus reduces productivity. The higher management is responsible for ensuring that everyone knows what his or her work involves, and lack of clarity about this is therefore a problem that is closely linked to hierarchy.

Stress also occurs when the amount of work cannot be controlled, especially when the amount of work cannot be finished within regular working hours. This can be considered as excessive work pressure. This is a common stressor, again related to hierarchy. In many professions, regular working hours are insufficient to complete all, often parallel, projects.

The consequence is that work is taken home to be finished in the evening. The modern means of communication such as e-mail, internet and smartphones, facilitates this. There is no need to be at the office, so that working from home outside regular working hours can easily be done. The office is no longer the space in the company building, but extends into the car and home. Working at home outside the agreed working hours blurs the boundaries between work and private life. Many employees report a lack of time for family, relatives, friends and themselves. This causes a lot of frustration and stress. It seems reasonable to assume that this leads to tension and stress among the other family members as well.

On the other hand, current telecommunication also offers possibilities to organize your own working day. For example, some people may want to start later at the office to avoid traffic jams or bring their children to school in the morning. Others like to work during the quiet evening hours and therefore like to start some time in the afternoon. Still others would prefer to be home early in the afternoon for whatever reason, and go to work early. If good agreements can be made about this between bosses and employees, more control over the work, and thus less stress, can be achieved.

Pressure and lack of time are partly due to the quest for ever-increasing efficiency in order to stay ahead of the competition. In the construction industry, for example, many components are already assembled in the factory, so that employees on site can easily and quickly place or install the components. This improves efficiency and reduces costs. However, the savings are already taken into account in the quotation in order to be able to submit the most favorable bid to the client. This temporarily gives an advantage over competitors. In order to maintain the lead, the pressure to work increasingly efficiently will increase. Employees experience this as time pressure. Moreover, the employee has less and less control over the result of the work to be carried out, which is also a source of stress. On the other hand, a lot of craftsmanship and creativity is required in the development of the components and this offers those who are interested in this type of work an inspiring working environment.

Stress reduction in organizations

As shown above, scientific studies on animals and humans have shown that the lack of control is one of the main causes of stress. The starting point in developing an effective way to prevent stress is therefore to give everyone in the organization, no matter what their hierarchical positions are, the feeling that exercising control is possible.

Of course, leaders of the organization will remain leaders and should have an important influence on which sort of work needs to be done and in which time frame. However, by involving (some of) the employees in deciding on the strategy to be followed to ensure profitability of a company makes the employees feel more in control.

This might sound simple at this point, but this and other techniques and approaches can indeed easily be adopted to enhance motivation and involvement of employees. We will write more about this in other articles. For now, suffice it to say that involving employees in decision making, and aligning the company’s objectives with those of the employees are great approaches to adopt.

An example from the animal world: elephants

In many animals that live in social groups, dominance is derived from power based on physical strength. The strongest and most aggressive animal is the leader. In elephants, dominance does not seem to be based on physical strength, but rather on age and experience. In addition, a female is the leader of the group; young males leave the group and usually live alone or in small groups.

Elephant groups are led by a dominant female, who has acclaimed her position on the basis of age and experience, not brute force.

Elephants have a rich repertoire of sounds to communicate. For example, they can use sound to indicate when they want to move on. Every elephant in the group can do this, but when the leader indicates she wants to leave, the herd is more likely to move. Yet this is not always the case. Sometimes the leader has to convince the others of her idea to move on. The other way around, a subordinate animal too can try to persuade other group members to move on. In this way the subordinate animals have a voice in the decision, and the leader is not in charge alone. Her vote, however, bears the most weight and will likely be followed.

Human leaders in organizations could follow a similar, democrating, system of taking decisions for the benefit of organization as a whole.

The position of a leader is based on power or on knowledge and experience, depending on the species and often also on the circumstances, such as availability of food, water, partners or territories. A leader who rules on the basis of power can put his own interests before the interests of the group and keep scarce food for himself. Just as in institutions or companies, where the leader manages an organization on the basis of power, problems then arise. Employees may jointly turn against the leader if he or she is out to his or her own advantage. The style of leadership, based on power or competence, therefore has a major influence on the atmosphere and culture in the workplace, and ultimately stress.

So, for managers who are reading this, be an elephant and not a baboon! Your employees will thank you for it, and so will the bottomline of your company.

What employees can do to regain control

We have touched upon what managers can do to reduce stress in their organization. Now it is time to look at what employees can do.

If you experience a problem that gives you stress, you should talk about it with your manager. Or when that doesn’t work, perhaps there is a confidant in the company you work for. When you discuss your problem, talk from your own perspective, from the situation that you experience. Then you continue by saying what effect this has on you.

An example: “I see that you give me more and more tasks to do (the observation). I thank you for the trust you put in me (make your problem sound positive), but I have come to realize that it is hard for me to keep the quality of my work up to the standards (the effect the work overload has on you).”

During the discussion, you could put some emphasis on where some bottlenecks may be in the organization of the work. This could mean that work has not been organized properly, so that some employees find a lot of work on their desks, whereas others seem to have time for coffee breaks all day long. If you manage to present this as a problem to the company, your manager may be more inclined to think along with you and change your stressful situation. After all, if your manager can optimize the workflow better, he could perhaps reduce costs or finish projects quicker. Both contribute to the company’s bottom line, so the manager will be interested in discussing things further with you.

We will have more articles on this topic, but turning your problem that gives you stress into a company’s problem can do wonders for you to reduce your stress levels.

Conclusion

Hierarchy and control are only one of the most common causes of stress. There are still many others that we have identified on the basis of scientific literature and experiences in our own practice. We have written several articles on this topic for you, so that you do not have to browse through expensive and difficult to understand scientific journals. For only 27 USD per month, you have access to vital information about stress, which will help you to understand, manage and reduce stress effectively.

Here are our top 10 articles on causes of stress:

  1. Why teaching is in the top three of most stressful occupations (and what can be done about it)
  2. Negative culture causes stress and reduces productivity
  3. Do open office plans increase employee stress?
  4. Financial stress
  5. Expecting stress is as stressful as experiencing real stress
  6. Social stress and the sense of belonging
  7. Common causes of relationship and how to solve them
  8. Unhealthy lifestyle worsens stress
  9. Low socioeconomic status as an overarching cause of stress
  10. The implications of the COVID-19 pandemic for stress