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Feeling in control of your work and having the autonomy to do things your way is a classic formula for relieving job stress. But there's a downside in having too much of a good thing, a University of Toronto study has found.

"People talk these days about being 'crazy busy' and not having enough time to do all the things at work that need to get done. But being 'crazy busy' isn't randomly distributed in the population," sociology professor Scott Schieman concluded from a national survey of 6,004 Canadian workers.

People who have the highest socioeconomic status: executives and professionals with the most responsibility, highest educational levels and incomes were the most likely to say they feel overwhelmed by the challenges they face, the study found.

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"This demonstrates an unexpected price for higher socio-economic status and authority at work –and that price is excessive pressure in the workplace," Prof. Schieman says.

To measure levels of job pressure, he asked study participants questions such as: "How often do you feel overwhelmed by how much you had to do at work?" "How often do you have to work on too many tasks at the same time?" and "How often do the demands of your job exceed the time you have to do the work?"

He found that roughly a third of Canadian workers report that they "often" or "very often" feel overwhelmed by work or that the demands of their job exceed the time to do the work. Four out of 10 workers report having to work on too many tasks at the same time "often" or "very often."

As expected, he found that more job autonomy is seen as a stress reliever by most workers. But as titles and management responsibilities climbed, people reported feeling overwhelmed by things like having too many challenges to solve at once, having to continually learn new things and stress from having to make decisions that affect others, Prof. Schieman found in the study that appears in the March issue of Social Science Research.

Questions in the survey were designed to identify areas that made people feel overwhelmed. Key pressure points were having to work on to many tasks at the same time, feeling like there's never enough time to do everything and fear that the continual swirl of responsibilities will lead to poor decision making.

The symptoms of excessive job pressure were higher levels of anxiety, loss of sleep and frequently feeling overwhelmed.

The study also found that the higher the executives' education level, the higher their levels of excessive pressure. "People say that education is a strong indicator of better health but this finding suggests the benefits can come with health risks as well," Prof. Schieman says.

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"Nobody would deny that executive jobs are not at their base good, but our challenge will be how to make these good jobs even better in the future," Prof. Schieman says.

He plans to do a follow up series of in-depth interviews with some of the study participants in high-pressure positions about what specifically causes their high levels of pressure and whether they can suggest ways to be less "crazy busy."

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