Dr. Scott Schieman, University of Toronto – Health, Stress, and Workplace Authority

Aug 22, 2013

In today’s Academic Minute, Dr. Scott Schieman of the University of Toronto explains why greater workplace authority can undermine the health benefits that usually come with higher social status. 

Scott Schieman is a professor of sociology at the University of Toronto where his research interests include sociological questions surrounding religion, health and medicine, and stratification within the workplace. He is currently engaged in a national survey in Canada that will investigate the social causes and health consequences of stress in the lives of adults. He holds a Ph.D. from the University of New Hampshire.

About Dr. Schieman

Dr. Scott Schieman – Health, Stress, and Workplace Authority

Sociological research on social patterns in health and well-being has a long tradition of documenting the benefits of higher socioeconomic status for individuals. Simply put, people with more social and economic status tend to have better health, fewer symptoms of distress, and overall greater life satisfaction. And yet, one pattern stood out in my own research that seemed to go against the grain of conventional thinking (and evidence): My own research on Americans and Canadians seemed to suggest that people with more authority and power at work didn’t seem to fare any better than those without it. I became curious about the reasons for this.

My efforts led to the development of a new theoretical perspective that I’ve called the “stress of higher status.” In a nutshell, this view suggests that some higher status conditions—like job authority—tend to come with several key “pressure points” or stressors that, taken together, seem to offset or counterbalance the benefits that accrue to those with greater job authority. Four of these stressors are particularly problematic: longer work hours, greater job pressure, more interpersonal conflict at work, and greater work-to-family interference or spillover. Collectively, these four stressors seem to detract from the otherwise beneficial effects of greater authority or power at work.

This research provides a new way of “unpacking” the good and the bad that come with higher status—and articulate a vision of how stressors aren’t simply a problem for individuals at the lowest rungs of the socioeconomic ladder. However, it is also important to underscore that this isn’t a story about how rough elites have it. Rather, it is a case for the challenges of “higher” (not “high”) status, and how these patterns inform our understanding of health inequalities across the entire socioeconomic spectrum.

Production support for the Academic Minute comes from Newman’s Own, giving all profits to charity and pursuing the common good for over 30 years, and from Mount Holyoke College.