Science of Self ™ Knowledge Centre

The Main Cause of Job Stress is Not What You Expect

May 1, 2016


Who has more stress? A CEO or an administrator? You would think the CEO has more to worry about, right? After all, those on the corporate ladder who occupy the highest rungs are required to shoulder greater responsibilities than those at the bottom.


More responsibilities = greater stress.

If, like most people, this is your first instinct, then your gut is missing something crucial. The demands of a job are only one part of the picture, and not in and of themselves the major cause of stress-related illness.

So what is the major cause? Decades of research have now clearly isolated the culprit: it’s the combination of high demands and low control.

Let’s assume you’re a CEO with a heart of pure evil and you’re interested in the recipe for stressing your employees to the max. Want to know the secret to creating the pressure cooker from hell? It’s very simple. Here’s what your organisation will need: 1) jobs with high workloads and tight deadlines, overseen by a legion of demanding managers; and 2) employees placed into said jobs who get to have little to no say over how decisions are made that affect their work.

This combination—high demands and low control—more than anything else, creates the perfect purgatory for destroying the health of your workforce.

How do researchers know this?

In 1967, a landmark study was undertaken by the UK government, which would later become known as the first Whitehall study (Whitehall I). This study examined the health of 18,000 males aged between 20 and 64 over a 10-year period who were employed in the British civil service. Because public servants in the UK work in a highly stratified employment hierarchy and all receive the same level of health care, it makes the perfect scientific testing ground for determining the types of environmental factors that have the most significant impact on employees’ health and well-being. Whitehall I identified a link between hierarchical status and mortality—in particular from cardiovascular disease. The results were conclusive: the less senior one was in the employment hierarchy, the shorter the life expectancy.


Above: Data from the Whitehall II study (Marmot et al., 2004). People with intermediate or low job control had over twice the incidence of coronary heart disease as people with high job control.

The second Whitehall study (Whitehall II) was launched in 1985. This study examined over 10,000 civil servants aged between 35 and 55 (two-thirds male and one-thirds female), with the first phase of research completed in 1988. Whitehall II showed the same social-mortality gradient in women as well as men from the first study. Crucially, the data from Whitehall II confirmed that it is the combination of high job demands and low control that is the major cause of stress-related illness.

This hierarchy “death slope” not only applies to humans. Stanford neurobiologist Robert Sapolsky has conducted over 20 years of research on baboons and was the first to validate the findings of the Whitehall studies in another primate species. Again, this runs counter to many people’s basic intuitions. Alpha males are not only responsible for protecting the group from predators and rival troops, but must also deal with internal competition from younger males. You would think that’s got to be more stressful than being one of the gang. Yet the research clearly shows that high-ranking baboons in a stable dominance hierarchy have lower stress-hormone levels than their subordinates.


The perception of psychological control is key. The more powerless you feel, the more stress hormones in your bloodstream will tend to rise. The more stress hormones are increased, the greater the wear and tear on your body. Persistent stress leads to impairment of the immune system, which makes you more susceptible to illness and death. On average, you’re more likely to die from heart attack, stroke, and a range of other diseases.


Above: Robert Sapolsky, as featured in the 2008 National Geographic documentary, "Stress: Portrait of a Killer."

Many researchers and writers have described autonomy, freedom, and self-direction as basic human needs. What most people in the workplace don’t realise, however, is that a fundamental lack of control in their jobs is—quite literally—killing them.

As if you didn’t already have enough to worry about this week…

Topics: Human Resources

Theo Winter

Theo Winter

Client Services Manager, Writer & Researcher. Theo is one of the youngest professionals in the world to earn an accreditation in TTI Success Insight's suite of psychometric assessments. For more than a decade, he worked with hundreds of HR, L&D and OD professionals and consultants to improve engagement, performance and emotional intelligence of leaders and their teams. He authored the book "40 Must-Know Business Models for People Leaders."


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