Targets Suffer from Loss of Control

A recent study helps explain why bullying in the workplace can cause a target to suffer severe psychological and physical damage.

Targets of bullying often have virtually no control over their situation  – especially when their complaints are ignored – and this lack of control causes stress.

A recent study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences concludes people in leadership positions experience lower levels of stress than nonleaders –  even as they face increasing demands –  because they have a heightened sense of control.

The article, Leadership is associated with lower levels of stress, surveyed participants enrolled in the Executive Education program at Harvard University, a program designed for senior-level officials in the public sector.

The participants, including military officers and government officials, had lower levels of the stress hormone cortisol than nonleaders and reported lower levels of anxiety.

Furthermore, leaders holding more powerful positions exhibited lower cortisol levels and less anxiety than leaders holding less powerful positions, a relationship explained significantly by their greater sense of control.

The study concludes that control is a psychological factor that has powerful stress-buffering effects.

“Altogether, these findings reveal a clear relationship between leadership and stress, with leadership level being inversely related to stress,” the study concludes.

The study authors are Gary D. Sherman, Jooa J. Lee, Amy J. C. Cuddy, Jonathan Renshon, Christopher Oveis, James J. Gross, and Jennifer S. Lerner.

Bullies, who often are supervisors, characteristically seek to exercise undue power and control over their targets.

Targets suffer  a range of short-term health problems, including anxiety, sleeplessness and depression. They also may suffer long-term health problems. It is estimated that up to 23 percent of heart disease related deaths per year could be prevented if the levels of job strain in the most stressful occupations were reduced to average levels seen in other occupations.

The United States lags far behind Europe and other industrialized countries that have addressed workplace bullying through occupational health and safety laws and other civil and criminal measures.  Private sector  non-union workers in the U.S. currently have little or no protection against workplace bullying. 

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