Job Stress

The presence of job stress in the workplace is a major concern for both employees and organizational managers—stress can take an immense toll on the physical and emotional health of individuals, as well as the bottom lines of organizations.

Understanding What Stress Is

Stress involves an interaction between a person and the environment that is perceived to be so trying or burdensome that it exceeds the person’s coping resources.

In a more basic sense, stress is aroused when a person is confronted with an opportunity, a constraint, or a demand.

  1. An opportunity is a situation in which a person stands to gain additional gratification of his or her significant values or desires, as in a new work assignment or promotion.
  2. A constraint, on the other hand, threatens to block additional gratification; for example when a job promotion is denied.
  3. A demand threatens to remove a person from a currently gratifying situation, as when one is fired from a job.

A particular situation can simultaneously represent an opportunity, a constraint, and a demand. A new, challenging work assignment, for instance, may represent an opportunity to develop skills and acquire needed exposure, but it can also constrain one from spending more time with family, and can become a demand if it overloads one to the point that work effectiveness and satisfaction suffer.

A situation—be it an opportunity, constraint, or demand—is stressful when it exceeds or threatens to exceed the individual’s capacity to handle it.

For stress to be aroused, the individual must care about the particular outcomes of a given situation, but lack control over the circumstances or have a week system of support.

If a person is indifferent toward future advancement within the work organization, then a new work assignment probably would not produce a significant amount of stress since the outcome (future advancement) does not hold a high degree of importance to the individual.

Uncertainty, unpredictability, and fear of the unknown breed stress. If one knows for certain that a new job will be satisfying and stable, it will be far less stressful than if there is a degree of uncertainty about how satisfying the new job will be. In this sense, a person has to be emotionally involved in an uncertain situation for it to be stressful. Consider the case of Christie, a recent MBA graduate:

Christie had spent several sleepless nights contemplating her first new product proposal before the executive management team of her employer. She had spent day and night for the last three weeks preparing the report and her presentation. She viewed the proposal as the first real test of her contribution to the organization, and if she succeeded, she would be considered as having managerial potential. Christie’s presentation lasted 5 minutes and was followed by about 10 minutes of questions from the management team. Christie was thanked for making a fine presentation and was then dismissed from the meeting by the company’s president. As she left the room, she felt cold and realized she was sweating profusely. She quickly went to the nearest women’s restroom and in a release of tension, shook uncontrollably.

Indeed, stress can lead to such negative consequences as depression Opens in new window, burnout Opens in new window, physiological and psychosomatic illnesses, and low job satisfaction.

Each year, stress causes hundreds of billions of dollars in additional cost to American business due to increased absenteeism and turnover, employee burnout, lower productivity, higher medical costs, and worker compensation claims.

The incidence and magnitude of stress experienced in today’s organizational life continue to escalate with associated physical symptoms such as fatigue, headaches, upset stomach, and muscle tension.

Pressures emanate from several sources including long hours and poor communication at work, greater job demands with little control over one’s work, conflicts with coworkers, personal financial worries, and the balancing of work and family lives.

Of course, not everyone who experiences stress will develop these strain symptoms.

Some people have a naturally high capacity to handle stress. In addition, effective coping skills can help protect people from the ravaging effects of extreme stress.

Further, the availability of support from others can help keep stress within manageable bounds so that people do not experience such negative reactions to stressful situations.

Extensive strain can reduce job involvement and productivity, and increase dissatisfaction, absenteeism Opens in new window, and turnover Opens in new window. In short, extensive work stress may not only prove dangerous to one’s physical and emotional well-being, but may also produce dysfunctional consequences for the organization.

Exposure to stress over a long period of time can be so debilitating that it has a significant impact on both health and productivity, and may result in burnout. Moreover, research has found that excessive stress is strongly related to workplace deviance Opens in new window and aggression Opens in new window.

It is important to recognize that stress per se is not necessarily harmful. In fact, many researchers have concluded that a moderate level of stress enhances performance and health.

  • Extreme levels of stress (low or high) can be distressful because they serve either to understimulate or overstimulate.
  • Optimal levels of stress can be challenging and produce eutress (positive feelings and high involvement) rather than distress.

Current thought suggests that management should encourage employees to consider challenges as eutress.

This perspective could create a positive interpretation of the challenges presented and therefore minimize the distressful situation. Therefore, stress must be managed so that a proper balance is created, based on each employee’s interpretation, that allows for optimum functioning for the individual and the organization.

Type A Behavior as a Source of Stress

As noted earlier, personal needs, motives, and behavior patterns can produce stress. One such personality-related behavior pattern, known as Type A, is characterized by:

  • a hard-driving competitiveness,
  • a sense of extreme impatience and time-urgency,
  • the desire to live a fast-paced lifestyle,
  • a preference for performing many activities simultaneously, and
  • a constant striving for achievement and perfection.

In contrast, the Type B pattern has been characterized as having low or moderate levels of competitiveness, a higher degree of patience, and a less intense need for accomplishment and perfection.

It is believed that the Type A pattern is produced by certain beliefs and fears that people hold about themselves and the world. For example, Type A individuals have higher perceptions of their intellectual ability, morality, and self-worth than Type B’s.

In addition, Type A’s tend to base their sense of self-worth on their attainment of material success. On the positive side, Type A employees tend to be involved in their jobs and hold high levels of occupational success and self-esteem Opens in new window.

Moreover, they can be more productive than their Type B colleagues, largely because of their internal belief of self-competence, ability to juggle multiple projects, and tendency to develop high performance goals.

On the other hand, studies of Type A personality Opens in new window have found that employees who exhibit this trait also experience comparatively higher levels of job stress and health-related problems such as coronary heart disease, and report lower job satisfaction Opens in new window and organizational commitment Opens in new window and higher turnover motivations.

Programs have been developed to help Type A’s alter their more harmful behaviors. Many of these intervention programs involve self-appraisal, a reorientation of one’s philosophy of life, behavior therapy, and psychotherapy.

Might the reduction of Type A behavior, however, render the employee less productive on the job?

Some researchers think not. Studies suggest that most intervention techniques can allow for alteration of the negative components of Type A behavior. Results indicate that interventions can achieve increases in the time devoted to relaxing with a related improvement in psychosomatic symptoms.

The implications are that employees who successfully reduce their competitiveness and impatience, and who increase their control over pressing demands, can reduce the likelihood of poor health under stressful situations without impairing their level of job performance.

Career Transitions as a Source of Stress

Career transitions involve changes either in role characteristics—as when a person takes a first job, is promoted, or changes employers—or in orientation to a role currently held, as illustrated by alterations in attitudes toward a job due to changes in job duties, colleagues, or one’s own behavior.

All career transitions involve changes and contrasts between old and new settings. For example, a recently transferred and relocated employee has many adjustments to make:

  • a new job,
  • a new boss,
  • a new group of colleagues,
  • a new office,
  • maybe even new work norms and expectations.

There also is a different home in a different community, new neighbors, and, if there are children, new schools to enter and new friendships to form.

While career transitions usually require adjustments to new tasks, relationship, and expectations, do they really produce extensive stress?

One form of transition, job loss, has been linked to such strain symptoms as poor health, depression Opens in new window, insomnia, irritability, low self-esteem Opens in new window, and a feeling of helplessness.

Beyond job loss, when do career transitions produce high levels of stress?

  • Undesirable career transitions are more likely to be stressful than desirable transitions. Most employees desire promotions and the salary increases that generally accompany them. As was indicated above, job loss and unemployment, on the other hand, can be devastating to one’s financial security and sense of self-worth. Life transitions that have negative connotations produce more psychological distress. In fact, several researchers have discussed how individuals who see career plateauing as a “career failure” will experience job-related stress over time. Also, the reasons why employees plateau can affect the amount of stress they experience. For example, individuals who choose not to pursue a promotion experience less stress than those who believe that they plateaued because the organization didn’t see them as worthy of a promotion.
  • Career transitions that involve extensive changes, such as changing organizations or occupations or relocating to another geographic region can produce more stress and a greater need to cope than transitions that involve fewer or smaller changes.
  • Sudden, unexpected transitions may produce more shock and stress than gradual transitions. Also, uncertainty and fear over the effect of the transition can produce stress. Expected changes with more certain consequences allow the individual to prepare for the transition and develop more constructive coping responses.
  • Career transitions accompanied by other life transitions (e.g., marriage, divorce, birth of a child, serious illness in the family, financial hardship) are likely to be more stressful than career transitions unencumbered by other major life alterations.
  • Transitions that are forced on an individual may be more stressful than those under the individual’s control. A forced transition is probably less desirable than a self-initiated one, and the timing of such a change may be beyond the control of the individual. Transitions can be more stressful when the individual cannot control the onset or duration of the stress-producing situation. Involuntary career transitions, such as the loss of one’s job or the transfer to a different geographic area, can be stress-inducing events.

In sum, transition-induced stress is likely to vary with the specific characteristics of the career transition, simultaneous life stresses, and the support and psychological resources available to the individual. Individual coping strategies can also help people deal with the changes and adjustments associated with transitions.

Organizational Actions to Reduce Employee Stress

Organizations have developed a variety of programs to reduce the level of employee stress. Using the distinction among the three types of coping responses, organizations can either alter the stressful environment, work with employees to change their interpretation of the environment, or help them manage their strain symptoms.

Illustrations of these approaches are shown in Table X-1.

Table X-1 | Illustration of Organizational Actions to Reduce Employee Stress
Reducing Stressors
  1. Eliminate racial/gender stereotypes, biases, and discrimination
  2. Redesign jobs to be more in line with employee’s capabilities and interests
  3. Clarify employee expectations through goal-setting program
  4. Provide constructive performance feedback
  5. Build supportive work groups
  6. Train supervisors in interpersonal skills
  7. Eliminate noxious elements of physical working conditions
  8. Help employees with problem-solving/coping skills
  9. Develop flexible work schedules
  10. Develop programs for transitioned (e.g., relocated) employees
Changing the Meaning of Stressful Situations
  1. Offer counseling services to employees
  2. Run programs to ameliorate Type A behavior, burnout
  3. Run programs on time management
  4. Run social support groups for employees
Managing Strain Symptoms
  1. Provide relaxation programs (e.g., meditation)
  2. Provide facilities for physical exercise
  3. Provide counseling and medical treatment
  4. Provide comprehensive “wellness” programs
    Research data for this work have been adapted from the manual:
  1. Career Management By By Jeffrey H. Greenhaus, Gerard A. Callanan, Veronica M. Godshalk