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How Hierarchy Affects Stress Levels

Updated on January 16, 2013

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One very interesting aspect of stress perceptions has to do with hierarchies, in other words, where you are on the imagined ladder of success and how much control you pereive that you have in your life situation (job, marriage, etc.)

In essence, among animals and people who live within a social hierarcy, it appears that stress is greatly reduced among the aggressive and dominant. Where do you rank in your social circle(s)?

Our Social Standing Determines our Susceptibility

Robert Sapolsky, Neuroscientist and Professor of Biology, Neuroscience, and Neurosurgery at Stanford University confirms, through his many years of studying baboon social hierarchies, that social standing makes us more or less susceptible to disease.

A very interesting and entertaining video on the subject was developed by National Geographic, and appears here:

Hierarchy and the Immune System

As rats, monkeys, and humans experience negative stress, their body's ability to heal itself shuts down. When in 'fight or flight mode,' our body automatically directs all of its resources to that objective. While our entire cardiovascular system ramps up, our digestive system stops; while our body secretes hormones such as epinephrine, nor-epinephrine, and cortisol, all 'non-essential' bodily functions are shut down, such as our immune system, reproductive system, and more.

These physiological functions increase our susceptibility to illness and disease, seen much more frequently in the submissive members of the baboon and human groups.

Workers with a lower perception of control have higher stress levels that can lead to poor health and an increase in missed work days.
Workers with a lower perception of control have higher stress levels that can lead to poor health and an increase in missed work days. | Source

The Whitehall Study

The first phase of the Whitehall study began in 1967 and future phases continue into our day. British civil servants were studied to compare rank as correlated with stress levels and health outcomes.

The Whitehall studies conclude(d) that the subordinate group (those with little seniority) experienced the most intense cases of psychological stress and resulting poor health. Further studies noted that the results were related to how the subordinate perceived the level of control they had in their job. The lower the perceived control over the situation, the higher the incidences of stress-induced illness.

All other factors, such as access to health care, were leveled for this study.

Perceiving control and feeling that you're making a positive difference is a challenge in this type of work environment.
Perceiving control and feeling that you're making a positive difference is a challenge in this type of work environment. | Source

Perception of Control

Both direct (physiological) and indirect (behavioral) models explain why health risks are reduced when workers have a sense of greater control in the workplace. Research shows that those with a greater sense of control tend to engage in healthier behaviors and avoid health-damaging behaviors, that is, when they believe their work in particular or their work role in general make a difference. In contrast, those who feel helpless and don't see a correlation between their actions, their job role, and ultimate outcomes, these individuals are more prone to illness and disease, perhaps because they don't see the need to participate in health-promoting behaviors.

Change our Hierarchy by Changing our Values

Unfortunately, our society does not value stress relief; we admire those high-achieving, high-earning, multi-tasking people. Actually, we would be better served to admire the opposite: lives focused on stress reduction and those who understand a balanced and serene life.

The Solution to Hierarchal Anxiety

Remember this basic concept: All stressors are self-created. How we view, perceive, and evaluate a stressor determine how it will affect our health.

Society continuously flashes in our faces where we rank in the social status - chronic exposure to self-imposed stresses to accomplish more, be more, look better, own more - are linked to negative health outcomes and shorter life expectancy.

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