Is is better to be at the top or the bottom of the hierarchy?
The Whitehall Studies were a set of experiments conducted by Micheal Marmot into social determents of health.
Carried out amongst tens of thousands of British civil servants, the first study lasted from 1967–1977 and the second from 1985–1988.
Chief amongst the findings was the evidence that our relative position in the job hierarchy impacts our health.
It found that levels of the stress hormone cortisol rose in response to the degree people were ordered about resulting in an increased risk of cardiovascular disease. Indeed, the studies found that workers in the lowest grade had a mortality rate three times higher than that of those in the highest grade.
Reasons for job stress included a “lack of skill utilisation,” “workplace tension,” and a “lack of clarity” in tasks assigned.
Conversely, the higher an individual climbed the hierarchy the more their health improved.
Even after normalising for the fact that the lowest employment grades were more likely to have many of the established risk factors of coronary heart disease (e.g a propensity to smoke, less leisure time etc), the lower employment grades were still at a much greater risk of suffering a heart attack.
In his excellent book Genome, Dr. Matt Ridley commented on the study by saying, “Somebody in a low-grade job, such as a janitor, was nearly four times as likely to have a heart attack as a permanent secretary at the top of the heap.”
So it’s clear then.
When it comes to stress in the workplace the status of our job matters. It really isn’t as ‘tough at the top’ as we’ve been lead to believe.