Having authority negates health benefits of higher-status positions, finds study

Employers should manage conflict, improve work-life balance to boost well-being
By Shannon Klie
|Canadian HR Reporter|Last Updated: 11/15/2009

While managers enjoy several perks of the job, such as higher income and more flexibility, the negative stressors of being in a position of authority counteract any potential health benefits, according to a University of Toronto study.

Were it not for higher levels of interpersonal conflict and poor work-life balance, people with more job authority — those who have power over other workers’ pay, the ability to hire and fire and supervisory control over workers’ activities — would be healthier and happier than subordinates, said Scott Schieman, a professor of sociology and co-author of the study.

“The costs of job authority are important to keep in mind for overall well-being. While there are benefits, it is worth attending to key stressors like conflict and work-to-family interference because of their health impact on higher-status workers,” he said.

“Job Authority and Health: Unraveling the competing suppression and explanatory influences,” published in the journal of Social Science & Medicine in October, analyzed data from a 2005 Work, Stress and Health survey of 1,800 adults in the United States.

The typical worker with high job authority is well paid, has more control over his schedule and has more autonomy over his work, which is less routine. However, he also works longer hours and reports more interpersonal conflict and work-to-home interference.

When these job characteristics are looked at individually, people who experienced interpersonal conflict and work-to-home interference also experienced more physical symptoms (such as headaches or stomach pain), psychological distress (such as feeling sad or anxious) and anger (such as being annoyed or critical of others), found the study.

But respondents with higher income and non-routine work reported lower levels of all of those symptoms.

So, on the whole, bosses fare no better than their subordinates when it comes to well-being, found the study.

This goes a long way to explaining why other research has found better health and higher levels of well-being among people with higher job status but not, paradoxically, among those with higher levels of job authority when compared to people with less job authority, said Schieman.

Part of larger study

The study is part of a larger grant to investigate the level of interpersonal conflict workers in the U.S. experience and the impact on health, said Schieman.

“When people talk about the most common sources of stress in their lives, they often identify the workplace,” he said. “A lot of people say (the cause of the stress is) relationships. It’s also the nature of the work, sometimes, but so often it comes from other people.”

While the study only looked at the connection between job authority and health at a particular time, other studies have established the impact of poor work-life balance and interpersonal conflict on physical and mental health over time, said Schieman.

“Intuitively, people will tell you, ‘Bad relationships at work are wearing away at me and causing problems in my sleep patterns, and that’s making me more irritable the next day,’” he said.

“Even anecdotally, we have a good sense that stressors do wear away at health over time.”

To reduce the negative stressors of job authority and boost the health benefits of higher status, organizations should do more to understand and address the causes of interpersonal conflict and poor work-life balance, said Schieman.

“By addressing the causes, the exposure and impact can be minimized,” he said.

Conflict conundrums

Tactics for resolving conflict with others

Create an effective atmosphere: Preparation, timing and place for discussion are key. Choose a time when the other person will be relaxed.

Clarify perceptions and define the conflict: It is important to:

• describe the conflict in clear and concrete terms

• describe behaviours, feelings, consequences and desired change — try to start sentences with “I” not “you”

• focus on behaviours or problems, not people

• define the conflict as a problem for both of you to solve together.

Focus on individual and shared needs: Recognize you both need to be part of the solution to successfully resolve a conflict. Be concerned about the needs of the other party, as well as your own needs. Take a step back from the situation and try to imagine how the other person sees things.

Look to the future, then learn from the past: Don’t dwell on past conflicts or you will not be able to deal effectively with the future — but learn from past mistakes.

Explore alternative solutions: Ask for the other party’s options. To help choose the best solution, consider the positive and negative outcome of each approach. Try to come to an agreement on the best solutions.

Monitor progress: Once you have carried out your plan, your work is not over. You will want to check in and see how the solution is working.

Be humble: Don’t be afraid to admit you made a mistake.

Be respectful: Treat the other party with respect.

Source: Conflict in the Workplace, Ceridian Canada

Finding balance

Initiatives to help workers find work-life balance, improve health and well-being

The higher up the corporate ladder an employee climbs, the more likely she will have trouble balancing work and family demands. This imbalance can lead to health problems and psychological distress, according to “Job Authority and Health: Unraveling the competing suppression and explanatory influences” from the University of Toronto.

The following are examples of workplace initiatives to help employees find better work-life balance and improve their well-being:

• on-site child care

• emergency child-care assistance

• seasonal child-care programs (such as March break or Christmas)

• eldercare initiatives (may range from a referral program, eldercare assessment, case management, a list of local organizations or businesses that can help with information or products, or seminars and support groups)

• referral program to care services and local organizations

• flexible working arrangements

• parental leave for adoptive parents

• family-leave policies

• other leave-of-absence policies such as educational leave, community-service leave, self-funded leave or sabbaticals

• employee assistance programs

• on-site seminars and workshops (on topics such as stress, nutrition, smoking and communication)

• internal or external educational or training opportunities

• fitness facilities or financial assistance with fitness membership assistance.

Source: Workplace Health and Wellness Guide 2008, Canadian Centre for Occupational Health and Safety

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