— Here's the scene: You've just settled in for your day's work and the boss is already scurrying around, trying to stay one step ahead of disaster, looking like a mental breakdown is just around the corner. But in your heart of hearts, you know you're under a lot more stress than that busy exec, even if all you've got to do is stuff a few envelopes and type a few letters.
It turns out that you're probably right, according to a new study showing that workers on the lower rungs of the socioeconomic ladder suffer more stress on the job than their superiors.
Various stress tests revealed that high and intermediate level supervisors in the British civil service system suffered less stress throughout the work day than their worker bees, both men and women, although the picture is a bit murky for women.
Women Execs Have More Stress
Researchers from several European universities monitored 202 clerical workers and supervisors for a day, measuring their blood pressure and pulse every 20 minutes from the time they woke up in the morning to the end of the day. Both blood pressure and pulse are reliable indicators of stress.
In addition, the researchers stuffed cotton balls in the mouths of their subjects every 30 minutes to collect cortisol, a stress hormone present in saliva, and that's what clouded the results.
Both blood pressure and pulse were higher for both men and women among the worker bees, and lower among the managers and executives.
But for women, the cortisol was higher in female executives than in their charges. In a paper published in the current issue of Psychosomatic Medicine, the researchers say they don't know why the results should have been different for men than women in the cortisol test.
One "relevant factor may be the experience of women working in higher status jobs," the researchers speculate in their paper, authored by Andrew Steptoe of the University College London, and colleagues from The Netherlands and Germany. That suggests that women who had to claw their way past the glass ceiling, and fight like the dickens to stay there, are under more stress than men who have achieved equal status.
Mornings More Stressful
But it doesn't explain the fact that the two other tests for stress — blood pressure and pulse rate — remained lower for executives of both sexes than it did for the workers farther down the socioeconomic ladder.
The researchers picked civil servants for their project because they wanted to reduce the chances that physical labor might skew the results. Heavy lifting also causes blood pressure and pulse rates to rise, and since there usually isn't a lot of that among clerical workers, they became the fodder for this study.
The scientists say they had expected the worker bees to suffer more stress than their bosses, because that result has been seen in some other studies, but they didn't expect to see the difference among men and women in the cortisol test. And they were in for another surprise as well.
Both blood pressure and pulse went through the roof during the morning hours for those at the very bottom of the socioeconomic scale, and dropped as the day wore on. The researchers say they are a bit mystified over that result. Why should stress be higher as the workday begins, and lower as the day wears on?
More research is needed on that topic, they say, but common sense might suggest one possible answer. Maybe worker bees are a lot less excited about going to work than their bosses.
That reminds me of my friend, Jerry Belcher, a reporter known for his wit and talent at the San Francisco Examiner and the Los Angeles Times prior to his death a few years ago. We were discussing his constant warfare with his editors one day when he offered this comment on how he started each day.
"I get up each morning," he told me, "wondering what they're going to do to me today."
Maybe in addition to not being all that happy about trudging off to a job that isn't all that rewarding, worker bees are a bit uneasy about the tasks that the boss may have lined up for them that day.
Of course, that's just speculation, since the study didn't address that unanticipated result of the research.
Solution? Exercise Exercise Exercise
The scientists are confident that the stress tests were accurate, since they found no significant difference in heart rate, pulse and cortisol when the participants were not at work. And none of the participants had a prior history of heart disease, or high blood pressure. Allowances were made for such things as alcohol consumption and smoking.
So it has to be the work.
But we all have jobs to do, so what do we do about it?
Another study just released by the University of Missouri at Columbia offers a possible solution. Scientists there found that exercise helps, and the more the better. Although previous studies have found that modest exercise eases anxiety, the Missouri researchers found that high-intensity exercise continues to hold down stress levels long after the exercise is over.
So the answer seems to be fairly basic. Head for the gym and work your buns off.
Lee Dye’s column appears weekly on ABCNEWS.com. A former science writer for the Los Angeles Times, he now lives in Juneau, Alaska.