Stress and Big Business

A couple years ago I watched a PBS special called “Stress: Portrait of a Killer,” apparently also called “Killer Stress”. It was an interesting look at how primates deal with stress. It contained interviews with humans about how stress had affected their lives, but much of the special focused on Dr. Robert Sapolsky’s research on how stress affected other primates (mostly baboons).

One of the things he found was that stress has a lot to do with a baboon’s place in its social hierarchy.  In general the higher a baboon is in its local hierarchy, the less stress it has. The special suggests this is the case for humans also, although I can certainly think of situations where the head of an organization would have considerably more stress than a member of a lower rank.  But for the sake of argument let’s accept for now that it’s generally true that the higher up in the power hierarchy one is, the less stress one has.

One of the factors contributing to this is the “shit rolls downhill” principle (not PBS’s words). But this behavior was observed in baboons.  A baboon would experience something that hurt/angered it, and the baboon would subsequently hit or harass a baboon lower on the social hierarchy.  Then this baboon would in turn abuse another one with even less power (sometimes baby baboons).

It stands to reason that humans react similarly. I’d venture a guess that people who withstand abuse from those above them in a social hierarchy (say, at work) are statistically more likely to abuse those who they perceive to be below them on the social hierarchy (spouse, children, etc).

Now consider our country, where large corporations are growing and eliminating many of our small businesses.  There are many reasons why this can can be devastating for communities (destruction of social capital, wealth being siphoned out of a community and consolidated somewhere else, etc) but those are whole other issues. For now, I just want to consider how those ideas about stress and hierarchy could fit in with this business climate with a very simple thought experiment.

Consider two scenarios, A and B:

Scenario A: 100 workers in the community work for 10 small retailers, 10 at each business. 1 person at each business is the owner/boss, making for 10 owners.

Scenario B: 100 workers in the community all work for 1 large retailer that sells everything the 10 smaller retailers in Scenario A does. 1 person is the boss of this retailer, and even this person answers to a larger national office.

In Scenario A, there are 10 owners that are at the top of their work hierarchy. In scenario B, 1 person is at the top of their work hierarchy, and that person is part of another work hierarchy in which they’re lower on the totem pole than people in charge of the national office.

Also in Scenario B there are more levels of hierarchy necessary since there are many more people in the organization, so there are more people that are further down on their work hierarchies than in Scenario A.

So could structuring organizations more like Scenario B lead to more stress in people’s lives?  Or perhaps can breaking larger organizations into wider hierarchy trees rather than deeper ones alleviate stress, by simulating many small organizations?

Also, studies have shown that people are often willing to take paycuts to be able to be their own boss.  Given two jobs of the same income, we’re happier at the one where we’re our own boss, rather than the one where we’re lower on the totem pole of a larger organization.  So even if the same amount of people are getting paid the same amount of money in Scenarios A and B, would there be a greater level of happiness in A because more people are their own boss?


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