Who has more stress, execs or entry-level govies?

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This topic contains 22 replies, has 13 voices, and was last updated by  Mark Hammer 9 years, 2 months ago.

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  • #141400

    Wall St. Journal yesterday referred to studies of British feds showing that “people in the lowest ranks had many more health problems and were three times as likely to die as the highest-grade administrators in a 10-year period, even though they all had access to health-care services.”

    What do you think? Who has more stress and why? How do you handle it?

  • #141444

    Mark Hammer
  • #141442

    I think it depends on the person. Some people are only happy when they’re responsible for a lot and super-busy – and they actually thrive on driving for change despite endless challenges. Others are in a leadership role but the daily hassle is too much for them.

    On the other side of the coin, some people are happier not having the pressure of a leadership role; others, especially at the entry-level, get totally stifled and frustrated at not being empowered.

    My two cents.

  • #141440

    Mark Hammer

    1) Unless one is a dictator, people with authority over you always have someone in authority over them. Managers and executives in government regularly report harassment from their managers too.

    2) I was only being a little facetious with my executive monkey link. This is a topic that has been around for decades, and the Brady study started it all off. What eventually came to be agreed upon is that it was never the decision-making, but rather being in a circumstance where one had to take action over something that was uncontrollable and unpredictable AND important. By definition, executives have more authority than underlings so they should be able to do something about a challenge. But they may not always have control over it, even though some decision-making power rests with them. I’m reading a lovely book on theories of public sector performance at the moment, and one of the points made is how many interveners and stakeholders can exist that affect the performance that an organization or a manager is held to account for. Responsibility and accountability does not always add up to control. At the same time, being an underling, and absorbing the impact of those things management has insufficient control over is no picnic either.

    In short, there are many sources of frustration at all levels in organizations, and many sources of unpredictability and loss of control. I’m not convinced that there is anything that consistently comes along with the role of being on top or underneath. “Stress” will depend on the circumstances. Executives may make unreasonable demands on others, but circumstances may also require them to grapple with unreasonable demands themselves, while the people below them just shrug it off as more overtime pay or more pensionable hours.

  • #141438

    My wife and I were just watching a documentary called “Killer Stress”:


    It sounds like that particular study was featured in the movie…

    Don’t forget that people in higher positions often must bear a greater amount of pressure and stress…and that often they are more aggressive, “Type A” folks…who would be more prone to hypertension and other maladies that could lead to lower life expectancy.

  • #141436

    Jay Johnson

    “Uneasy lies the head that wears a crown.” Henry IV – Shakespeare

  • #141434

    Mark Hammer

    I don’t know if I’d agree with that assessment. They certainly put in more overtime, that’s for sure.

    But one of the things I will add is that, if you look at the performance measurement and accountability literature, one of the thngs you see is that managers are often held accountable, in performance assessment regimes,for things that are entirely out of their control.

    My own manager has far more sick days than I do; like 4-5x as many. A lot of that IS because he is in way over his head, and on the hook for tons of stuff he can’t do anything about. He frequently tells me that I was the smart one in not applying for the job when it originally became available.

  • #141432

    Steve Ressler

    I remember when I was a GS-9 and wanted more responsibility, my boss at the time said enjoy it while you can. And that eventually I’d grow into leadership role and get more responsibility.

    And honestly my best low-stress years were as a GS-9. I had no blackberry, couldn’t check my email outside of work, and I was not on the hook for the success/failure of the project.

    But as a Type A, I wanted more and got it 🙂

  • #141430

    Mark Hammer

    I don’t want to get off-track here, but don’t confuse ambitiousness with Type A. The latter are prone to hostility, impatience, and frustration, as an outgrowth of their high need to achieve. Plenty of folks set the bar high for themselves and reach it in easygoing and patient steps. Type A is not about where you set the bar for yourself; its about how you respond when you don’t reach the bar right away. You certainly wouldn’t be involved with GovLoop in the manner you are if you weren’t ambitious. But if there is any propensity towards easy frustration, impatience, and hostility on your part, you have yet to tip your hand to us, Steve.

  • #141428

    Allison Primack

    I definitely agree that it depends on your own personality/preferences. So far on the GovLoop Facebook poll on this topic this morning, there were more votes for execs having more stress.

  • #141426

    Megan Dotson

    I’m not familiar with this exact study – but from the blurb you have provided it appears as though they are talking about health in general (not necessarily due to stress). I feel as though the lower ranks are less likely to take time off work to go to the doctor and probably don’t have the same amount of money in their bank accounts to handle the prescriptions, co-pays and other things involved with taking care of yourself. Though the health insurance is the same at both levels…the other variables eventually come into play.

  • #141424


    Me too!

  • #141422

    If stress is the gap between what you expect and what you get then midlevel mgrs do (agree w/ Mark) b/c the expectation is extensive authority and control, but there are constraints in every direction on what they can do.

  • #141420

    It depends on where you’re stationed too. The stress level in a front line office like mine is nothing like a backoffice.

  • #141418

    Steve Ressler

    Hi Christopher –

    Well, I was almost getting ready to agree with you until I thought about Information Technology e.g. help desk. Think of all of the times people call this line asking for crazy stuff. From the mundane “can you help me turn on my computer?” to “can you help me create a PowerPoint presentation?” I am sure they can tell us some stories and I am sure they get burn out too.

    In the end I don’t think it matters where you are but if you are dealing with customers internally and externally there is stress. So, it could be PR, IT, Government Relations, Sales, Procurement, Marketing, Business Development, HR (Talent and Acquisition) and Customer Service it’s all stressful and a huge cause for people getting sick. Also, there are some other positions that people take that they are not aware has customer facing duties but they take it and find out they have to meet customers. Have you ever had that friend call you and they have said “I didn’t see that in my job description?” not in a bad way but as an irritant. It just caught them off guard because communication skills were not there forte and they had brush up on them. Not only that but now their boss is asking them to network before and after work by going to functions in their field and network virtually. Plus work-life balance. I really think you have to be passionate about what you do in your field and when you feel that itch of getting stressed out or burn out switch it up a little.


  • #141416

    I suppose I should narrow my comments down to ‘field offices that help people who are in bad situations”

    I think FEMA is a good example – its one thing to try to get a PC to work, but it’s quite another to try and help get a whole town to work.

    Another example is public aid offices – they have to deal with people who are one step away from being on the streets. (or already there) It’s not the end of the world if I have to wait for a tech to come out and fix the hard drive on my PC. It’s much different if the whole system that keeps assistance checks going out crashes.

    Oftentimes, it is entry level govies that have to have enough customer service skill to deal with a claimant whose agitated about an issue that can effect if they can make rent that month or not.

  • #141414


    Who has the most stress? Easy answer, given this last year. There’s a third group you didn’t mention (or rather which is a cross-cutting of those two groups you did mention) which easily “wins” that title: Anyone working in an agency-HQ-level budget office.

  • #141412



    Even within those “back office” functions though, there are some jobs whose impact is so far-reaching and all-encompassing that failure or success at their particular mission or a given task literally means the difference between the entire agency being able to try and meet their mission or the agency being entirely and definitely unable to meet its mission (ie, a gov’t shutdown, a catastrophic funding cut, an appropriations bill that kills off critical agency programs, etc etc). When you work in one of those positions (below the executive level they’re rare, but agency HQ budget office [deals with Congress, OMB, Administration, etc] is one example), you are eternally aware that all those things down the line hinge on your performance and your success or failure at the task laid before you. It can be a tall order and a daunting one, and is extremely stressful…so I’d argue that whomever staffs, say, the FEMA HQ budget office, probably has an incredible amount of stress in their life that equals if not exceeds the people sitting at the claims desk (both are still sub-executive level positions, of course; I’m simply arguing that certain HQ posts can be as bad or worse than field posts, for stress level).

    At the same time, however, for those capable of hacking it in that type of environment, it’s also one of the most rewarding things one can do; as you basically have the satisfaction of knowing that everything your agency was able to accomplish stemmed in part from a job well done on the part of you and your colleagues; and that makes all the stress more than worthwhile.

  • #141410

    Steve Ressler

    Yes indeed!

  • #141408

    I agree with that

  • #141406

    power girl

    what is a Type A? I have been a GS-9 step 10 for three years. My employer refunses to give me a GS-11. No particular reason. It take me 3 hours to get to work in the morning from the time I wake up until I enter the office. Two hours to get home. I prefered telework because I saved time. My task is surfing internet and printing. I have an MBA and MIS degree.

  • #141404

    Robert Bacal

    The Psychology research on this goes back a ways (do a search for executive monkeys), and it would suggest things are a bit more complex, and that those that must make decisions tend to suffer more.

    It’s good to remember that stress isn’t something that results from events outside of us, but has to do with how we PERCEIVE the events outside of us.

    So, that’s why different people in similar external situations, vary so much in terms of their reactions. I’d suggest that as you go up the hierarchy, there would be a tendency for those who have gotten to the higher levels, to be relatively stress immune, or they simply wouldn’t have gotten up the ladder.

    Certainly, my interactions with top level government executives suggest to me that these folks are “special cats”, have amazing coping mechanism to deal with difficult situations.

    Robert Bacal

    Bacal & Associates

  • #141402

    Mark Hammer

    I’d be curious to know if coping ability in government executives is connected to their tenure and speed of career progression. Following on the traditional notion of “stress” as the gap between perceived challenges and perceived resources that can be brought to bear, you have to wonder if a slow simmering career progresson renders one more able to accurately identify what challenges are easily met, and what sorts of resources can be brought to bear, including time, information, “stalling tactics”, etc. In other words, if you know the job and the system well enough, then it may be more likely for those persons to perceive the various challenges that arise as more manageable. The coping comes not from having authority, but from knowing what you have at your disposal, and sizing up the challenges more accurately.

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