Work under capitalism is a brutal psychological gauntlet—low pay, long hours, and little to no safety net. But bosses usually expect you to take some solace in the fact that you're not doing their (supposedly more difficult) job, even if they make more money.
Some part of you might think that's bullshit, but hey, what do you know? Well, according to new work from researchers from the University of Manchester, University College London, and the University of Essex, it probably is bullshit.
According to their study, published on Friday in the Journals of Gerontology, people lower on the corporate ladder are, on average, more stressed than people higher up. Worse, according to the study, the elevated stress continues into retirement for average working people.
"Workers in lower status jobs tend to have more stressful working conditions—they have lower pay, poorer pension arrangements, less control over their work, and report more unsupportive colleagues and managers," Tarani Chandola, a professor of medical sociology at the University of Manchester and one of the paper's authors, wrote me in an email.
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The researchers tracked levels of cortisol in British public sector throughout their workdays. Cortisol is a stress hormone that is elevated when people encounter stressful situations, but by the end of the day cortisol levels normally dip down. However, the researchers found that cortisol levels in people lower down the corporate ladder didn't dip as far as people higher up—they were more stressed.
"I am pretty confident in saying that the physiological stress levels (as measured by cortisol) of bosses are lower than their employees—in other words, the bosses are not as stressed as the employees they manage," Chandola wrote me. "This is shown not just by my study, but loads of other studies that show exactly the same results. Stress levels increase (not decrease) as we go from the top of the occupational ladder to the bottom."
To many people toiling on the lower rungs of the workplace, this was probably already intuitively obvious—but good luck getting anybody to take you seriously. Now, the science is there to back up the claim. The question now is: What the hell do we do about it? For Chandola, the solution isn't clear, but the impetus is obvious.
"High levels of cortisol are associated with a whole range of health problems, so it is in the best interests of both employers and workers to reduce levels of stress in the workplace," he wrote.
Thankfully, though, we're living in a time where people are seemingly open to new and previously unthinkable solutions. For example, the Canadian province of Ontario is about to launch a pilot study on the effects of a basic income for everybody, regardless of employment status. The idea of a basic income is being driven primarily by concerns over the effects of widespread job automation, which would itself reduce the social need for labour.
But there's no guarantee that any of this will make workers less stressed, or less exploited, at least not without action on the part of workers. It's up to us to make things better, because your stress-free boss isn't going to do it.
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