Who wants to be boss?

We just went through a big election to determine the “leader of the free world.”

Arguably, as they say in Italian, “capo di tutti capi,” or boss of all bosses. From politics to corporations, many people seek to become the boss.

Even more appealing to a lot of people is the idea of being your own boss—working for  yourself, or being self-employed. (Although that is becoming harder and harder given government taxation and other policies. Not to mention government take-over of more and more of the economy, as well as the growing corporatization of what little remains of the private sector in America).

So, why do so many people want to be the boss? Well, there are many benefits in terms of material rewards, social status, and working conditions, of course. But now scientists are finding another surprising benefit. Believe it or not, bosses are actually under less stress than the rest of the workforce.

How can that be?

Stress is puzzling. It seems that one man’s meat may be another man’s poison when it comes to sources of stress in the work or social environment. For example, flying experimental aircraft at very high speeds might be considered the epitome of stress for the average person. But after WWII, test pilots with the “right stuff” were found not to undergo stress when performing these dangerous trials. On the other hand, when they were forced to sit at a desk doing paperwork, that was found to increase their stress.   (Clearly they weren’t cut out to become government bureaucrats).

Roll forward to the U.S. manned spaced program and there were similarly surprising and puzzling observations when it came to gauging stresses among astronauts (many of whom actually had been test pilots from Air Force and Naval Aviation). 

So, while NIH and other medical research entities twirled their thumbs in trying to discover and understand the role of stress in health, it was actually the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) that finally began funding relevant studies on stress in the 1960’s and 1970’s.

During 1977-1979, I worked as a clinical applications chemist (for McDonnell Douglas, now Boeing) on the Skylab and Space Shuttle projects to help develop and test analytical equipment that is now used for determining the identity and purity, as well as blood levels, of organic chemicals like nutrients, for example. I quickly became familiar with the NASA Human Centrifuge Lab at University of Southern California where they did stress research and  tests on astronauts withstanding the intense G forces of being spun around at high speeds. (Yes, this was really used in the Space Program—not just in James Bond movies.)

To delve deeper to understand the physiology of stress reactions in the body, the Director of the Human Centrifuge Lab, Dr. James P. Henry, developed elaborate colonies of laboratory mice to model stress reactions by measuring effects on circulation, hormones, and the central nervous system.

We found that overcrowding was a source of stress in all animals. But in more specific experiments, the following factors consistently increased stress levels:

(a)    a high level of demands on sensory processing and reactions

(b)   inability to regulate or influence this level of demand

(c)    lack of control over environmental circumstances

(d)   lack of predictability over changes in circumstances

Meanwhile, back here on earth, in the corporate environment, psychologists in the 1970’s began to describe the Type A and Type B personalities, and tried to associate them with health outcomes (though not always clearly).  

The Type A personality was seen as the hard driving, relentless, aggressive, deadline-driven person, while Type B was more laid back. But contrary to what you might expect, Type As didn’t always suffer the most from stress and associated heart disease.

Then, the Type C personality emerged. This type felt pressures, but internalized them. And it became said of the Type A personality, “I don’t get heart attacks, I give them” (likely to Type Cs).

So, when we understand stress along these lines, suddenly the benefits of being boss become clearer. Sitting at the top of the hierarchy, the boss has a better sense of control  over his or her life and circumstances, given all the benefits of material resources, authority, and status. And perceived control and predictability are keys to keeping stress low. 

But not everyone can be the boss. And the rest of you need effective ways to manage the stress we encounter on a daily basis. This aspect of health has been ignored for far too long when it comes to preventing—and treating—conditions like high blood pressure, heart disease and many cancers and other chronic diseases.

Some corporations have hired management gurus and lifestyle coaches to help their employees deal with everyday stress more effectively. But what do these so-called “experts” really know about the physiological effects of stress?

Not much, which may be why working Americans encounter such messes in trying to work it all out. I’ll tell you more about some of the chaos perpetrated by these egomaniacal management “gurus” in my next Dispatch. In the meantime, to find out more about your own Type, check out my book with Mike Jawer, Your Emotional Type. In it, you’ll learn about how various personality types process emotions and stresses and how it can impact your health. And you’ll also discover which therapies will actually work best to help you manage it. You can find Your Emotional Type at your local bookstore or at https://drmicozzi.com/books/your_emotional_type.