We analyzed data from 1,182 women and 485 men relating to stress, gender and leadership. Here's what we found.


May 8, 2020

By Caitlin Mullen

Women who hold top executive positions are some of the least stressed in a company, while women in mid-level roles are more stressed than any of their colleagues.

That’s according to a recent report from The Myers-Briggs company, which analyzed data from 1,182 women and 485 men relating to stress, gender and leadership. Researchers found those who sit at the top or bottom of an organization appear to be the least stressed.

The coronavirus pandemic has only increased stress levels for all workers, and it’s damaging managers’ psyches, Jacob Hirsh, assistant professor at the University of Toronto, told the Harvard Business Review.

Some have had to handle layoffs or inform employees of pay cuts; others are struggling to work from home with no end in sight.

“This is a period of great uncertainty. As a manager, you aren’t sure what you’re supposed to do and how you’re supposed to do it,” Hirsh told the HBR.

Overall, Myers-Briggs found stress levels for women were more extreme than those for men, per the report. For women, stress levels peaked for those at the senior management level, but dropped significantly among those at the executive level.

Among men, there was less variation in stress at different levels of an organization.

Both women and men at the owner or CEO level had the lowest stress levels, although the report notes many in that category were self-employed, rather than working at large organizations, per the Myers-Briggs report.

Senior and middle manager roles felt the most stress, regardless of gender.

The pattern also was evident when women and men were asked how much they agreed with the statement, “Work is quite stressful at the moment.” Women at senior and middle management levels felt that the strongest, while men had a flatter relationship between organizational level and stress.

Middle and senior level managers might be more stressed as they feel they need to prove themselves as leaders, the report points out. Or women who make it to executive levels could be those who best deal with stress.

The report notes three things tend to affect stress levels at work: how great the demands placed on you are, how much control or choice you have and how much support or time you are afforded.

COVID-19 has upended many of those things for managers.

Rich Fernandez, CEO of the Search Inside Yourself Leadership Institute, told HBR quality of leadership in such times depends on “how you perceive stress and how well you’re able to adapt to, and navigate, adversity.”

Experts told the HBR managers should practice self-compassion and self-care, reflect on your greater purpose despite loss of control over the future, find silver linings and celebrate small victories, be human and don’t hide that from employees, and seek outside support if you need it.

As leaders consider what workers returning to the office will look like, many expect they’ll need to manage ongoing worker stress and anxiety. One-third of Americans have felt high levels of psychological distress during the COVID-19 outbreak, Pew Research Center has found.

Regardless of the stress they’re experiencing, working women provide the same level of emotional support to their spouses and colleagues, researchers have found. Men tend to provide less emotional support when feeling more stressed.