Being the boss can take its toll on health: study

NEW YORK Wed Oct 28, 2009 11:21am EDT

NEW YORK (Reuters Life!) - Being the boss might mean more money and challenging work but it can also take a toll on physical and mental well-being, according to a Canadian study.

For years studies have shown people in lower-status jobs generally have higher rates of heart disease and other illnesses and die earlier than those in higher-status positions while job authority has shown no association with workers' health.

But University of Toronto researchers, using data from 1,800 U.S. workers, found the health of people in higher positions is affected by work as they are more likely to report conflicts with co-workers and say work intruded on their home life.

However the positive aspects of having a power position at work, such as higher status, more pay and greater independence, seemed to cancel out the negative aspects when it came to people's physical and psychological health.

"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," researcher Scott Schieman, a professor of sociology, told Reuters Health.

"This isn't to suggest that having authority is 'bad' -- in fact, we show it has benefits ... but it is important to identify the downsides and deal with them."

These latest findings, reported in the journal Social Science & Medicine, 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.

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.

Schieman said 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 said.

He said while research has typically focused on the negative health effects of lower-status work, it was also important to recognize the "stress of higher status."

(Reporting by Amy Norton of Reuters Health, Editing by Belinda Goldsmith)

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