Causes and Cures of Stress in Organizations

1993, David S. Walonick, Ph.D.

Job stress in organizations is widespread. About half of all American workers feel the pressures of job-related stress. Extensive research shows that excessive job stress can adversely affect the emotional and physical health of workers. The result is decreased productivity, less satisfied, and less healthy workers. This paper will first discuss the symptoms and causes of stress, and then explore ways in which managers might reduce stress in themselves and their subordinates.

Definition of Stress

Stress is an imprecise term. It is usually defined in terms of the internal and external conditions that create stressful situations, and the symptoms that people experience when they are stressed. McGrath (1976) proposed a definition based on the conditions necessary for stress.

So there is a potential for stress when an environmental situation is perceived as presenting a demand that threatens to exceed the person's capabilities and resources for meeting it, under conditions where he expects a substantial differential in the rewards and costs from meeting the demand versus not meeting it. (p. 1,352)

McGrath's definition implies that the degree of stress is correlated with a persons perceived inability to deal with an environmental demand. This would lead to the conclusion that a person's level of stress depends on their self-perceived abilities and self-confidence. Stress is correlated with a person's fear of failure.

Arnold and Feldman (1986) define stress as "the reactions of individuals to new or threatening factors in their work environment." (p. 459) Since our work environments often contain new situations, this definition suggests that stress in inevitable. This definition also highlights the fact that reactions to stressful situations are individualized, and can result in emotional, perceptual, behavioral, and physiological changes.

Williams and Huber (1986) define stress as "a psychological and physical reaction to prolonged internal and/or environmental conditions in which and individual's adaptive capabilities are overextended." (p. 243) They argue that stress is an adaptive response to a conscious or unconscious threat. Like McGrath, they point out that stress is a result of a "perceived" threat, and is not necessarily related to actual environmental conditions. The amount of stress that is produced by a given situation depends upon one's perception of the situation, not the situation itself. In other words, stress is a relativistic phenomena.

In Gestalt Therapy Verbatim (Real People Press, 1969) Perls proposes a more general definition, where stress is a manifestation of thinking about the future. Anxiety is created by focusing attention away from the "here and now". It is created by expectations of the future--the tension between the now and the later. According to Perls, there is no difference between good stress and bad stress. They are both created by thinking about the future. When anxiety finds an outlet, we say that the stress was motivating; when it doesn't, we call it debilitating.

French, Kast, and Rosenzweig (1985) also emphasized the idea that stress itself is not necessarily bad. "The term stress can be considered neutral with the words distress and eustress used for designating bad and good effects." (p. 707) They propose a model that defines an optimum range of stress in terms of its effect on performance. Stress levels that exceed an optimum level result in decreased performance and eventual burnout. Stress levels below a minimum level result in decreased performance and "rust-out".

Symptoms of Stress

Selye (1946) was the first to describe the phases that the body goes through in response to a threat. The general adaptation syndrome model states that the body passes through three stages. The first stage is an alarm reaction. The body prepares for a potential emergency. Digestion slows down, the heart beats faster, blood vessels dilate, blood pressure rises, and breathing becomes rapid and deep. All bodily systems work together to provide maximum energy for fight or flight. The second stage is resistance. If the stress continues, the body builds up a tolerance to its effects. The body becomes habituated to the effects of the stressor, however, the bodies adaptive energies are being used as a shield against the stressor. The third stage is exhaustion. When the body's adaptive energies are depleted, the symptoms of the alarm reaction reappear, and the stress manifests itself as an illness, such as ulcers, heart ailments, and high blood pressure. During the first or second stages, the removal of the stressor will eliminate the symptoms.

Ivancevich and Matteson (1980) point out that during the early days of our evolution, we needed the fight-or-flight response for our survival. "The problem we encounter today is that the human nervous system still responds the same way to environmental stressors, although the environment is radically different. The tigers are gone and with them the appropriateness of the fight-or-flight response." (p. 10)

Reitz (1987) writes that individuals in modern society often substitute other psychological reactions for flight-or-flight. Substitutions for fighting include negativism, expression of boredom, dissatisfaction, irritability, anger over unimportant matters, and feelings of persecution. Substitutions for fleeing include apathy, resignation, fantasy, forgetfulness, inability to concentrate, procrastination, and inability to make decisions. (p. 239)

Short-term stress has served a useful purpose in our survival. Long-term stress, however, involves increasingly higher levels of prolonged and uninterrupted stress. The body adapts to the stress by gradually adjusting its baseline to higher and higher levels. For example, workers in stressful jobs often show an increased "resting" heart rate. Pelletier (1977) believes that the deleterious effects of stress are created only by unrelieved long-term stress. Albrecht (1979) also believes that the effects of stress are cumulative in nature. Ulcers do not just happen overnight in a high stress situation; they are generally the result of long extended exposure to stress. "The health breakdown is simply the logical conclusion of a self-induced disease development over a period of 10 to 20 years." (p. 119)

Job stress can have a substantial negative effect on physical and emotional health. Williams and Huber (1986) provide a comprehensive list of the symptoms of stress. These are: "constant fatigue, low energy level, recurring headaches, gastrointestinal disorders, chronically bad breath, sweaty hands or feet, dizziness, high blood pressure, pounding heart, constant inner tension, inability to sleep, temper outbursts, hyperventilation, moodiness, irritability and restlessness, inability to concentrate, increased aggression, compulsive eating, chronic worrying, anxiety or apprehensiveness, inability to relax, growing feelings of inadequacy, increase in defensiveness, dependence on tranquilizers, excessive use of alcohol, and excessive smoking." (p. 246) Furthermore, job stress can make people more susceptible to major illnesses. High stress managers are twice as prone to heart attacks as low stress managers. (Rosenman and Friedman, 1971)

Excessive job-related stress is not a small or isolated problem. Over one-third of all American workers thought about quitting their jobs in 1990. One-third believe they will burn-out in the near future, and one-third feel that job stress is the single greatest source of stress in their lives. Nearly three-fourths of all workers feel that job stress lowers their productivity, and they experience health problems as a consequence. (Lawless, 1991, 1992) Furthermore, this is not exclusively a United States phenomena. A Japanese poll conducted by the Health and Welfare Ministry in 1988 indicated that 45 percent of workers felt stress from their jobs. (Asahi News Service, 1990)

Recent studies have found evidence of dangerous physical changes attributed to prolonged stress. One New York study reported a twenty gram increase in heart muscles of those suffering from job stress. There was a significant "thickening of the heart's left ventricle, or chamber, a condition that often precedes coronary heart disease and heart attacks." (Pieper, C., 1990) Omni magazine (March, 1991) wrote about a series of experiments with rats to examine the physiological effects of prolonged stress. The researchers found that there was actually a loss of neurons in the hippocampus section of their brains. The article concluded with a warning that there is some evidence of a similar neuron loss occurs in humans.

Many researchers have studied the effects of stress on performance. McGrath (1978) reported that mild to moderate amounts of stress enables people to perform some tasks more effectively. The rationale is that improved performance can be attributed to increased arousal. However, if the stressor continues, it eventually takes its toll, and results in decreased performance and deleterious health consequences. Furthermore, workers are aware of the toll that stress has had on their own performances. Half of all workers say that job stress reduces their productivity. (Lawless, 1992)

Causes of Stress

Stressors can be divided into those that arise from within an individual (internal), and those that are attributable to the environment (external). Internal conflicts, non-specific fears, fears of inadequacy, and guilt feelings are examples of stressors that do not depend on the environment. Internal sources of stress can arise from an individual's perceptions of an environmental threat, even if no such danger actually exists. Environmental stressors are external conditions beyond an individual's control. Bhagat (1983) has reported that work performance can be seriously impaired by external stressors. There are many aspects of organizational life that can become external stressors. These include issues of structure, management's use of authority, monotony, a lack of opportunity for advancement, excessive responsibilities, ambiguous demands, value conflicts, and unrealistic work loads. A person's non-working life (e.g., family, friends, health, and financial situations) can also contain stressors that negatively impact job performance.

Albrecht (1979) argues that nearly all stressors are emotionally induced. These are based on peoples' expectations, or ". . . the belief that something terrible is about to happen." (p. 83) Thus, emotionally induced stress arises from one's imagination. Albrecht believes that our society's number one health problem is anxiety, and that emotionally induced stress can be classified into four categories: 1) time stress, 2) anticipatory stress, 3) situational stress, and 4) encounter stress. Time stress is always created by a real or imaginary deadline. Anticipatory stress is created when a person perceives that an upcoming event will be unpleasant. Situational stress can occur when a person is in an unpleasant situation, and they worry about what will happen next. Encounter stress is created by contact with other people (both pleasant and unpleasant).

Many situations in organizational life can be stressful. These include: 1) problems with the physical environment, such as poor lighting or excessive nose, 2) problems with the quality of work such, as lack of diversity, an excessive pace, or too little work, 3) role ambiguities or conflicts in responsibilities, 4) relationships with supervisors, peers, and subordinates, and 5) career development stressors, such as lack of job security, perceived obsolescence, and inadequate advancement.

Adverse working conditions, such as excessive noise, extreme temperatures, or overcrowding, can be a source of job-related stress. (McGrath, 1978). Reitz (1987) reports that workers on "swing shifts" experience more stress than other workers. Orth-Gomer (1986) concludes that when three shifts are used to provide around-the-clock production, major disturbances in people may be unavoidable. One source of environmental stress ignored in the organizational literature is non-natural electromagnetic radiation. Becker (1990) reports that the two most prominent effects of electromagnetic radiation are stress and cancers. Modern offices are filled with electronic devices that produce high levels of radiation. These include computers, video monitors, typewriters, fluorescent lights, clocks, copying machines, faxes, electric pencil sharpeners, and a host of other electronic devices. Human sensitivity to electomagnetic fields is well-documented, and the design of future office equipment will most likely involve a consideration of emitted radiation.

Arnold and Feldman (1986) emphasize the deleterious effects of role ambiguity, conflict, overload and underload. Role ambiguity is often the result of mergers, acquisitions and restructuring, where employees are unsure of their new job responsibilities. Role conflict has been categorized into two types: intersender and intrasender. (Kahn, et al., 1964) Intersender role conflict can occur when worker's perceive that two different sources are generating incompatible demands or expectations. Intrasender role conflict can arise when worker's perceive conflicting demands from the same source. Overload is frequently created by excessive time pressures, where stress increases as a deadline approaches, and then rapidly subsides. Underload is the result of an insufficient quantity, or an inadequate variety of work. Both overload and underload can result in low self-esteem and stress related symptoms, however, underload has also been associated with passivity and general feelings of apathy. (Katz and Kahn, 1978)

Poor interpersonal relationships are also a common source of stress in organizations. Arnold and Feldman (1986) cite three types of interpersonal relationships that can evoke a stress reaction: 1) too much prolonged contact with other people, 2) too much contact with people from other departments, and 3) an unfriendly or hostile organizational climate.

Personal factors are often a source of stress. These include career related concerns, such as job security and advancement, as well as financial and family concerns. Holmes and Rahe (1967) constructed a scale of forty-three life events, and rated them according to the amount of stress they produce. The most notable feature of their instrument is that many positive life changes (i.e., marriage, Christmas, vacations, etc.) are substantial sources of stress. Generally, stress appears to be a result of any change in one's daily routine.

French, Kast, and Rosenzweig (1985) believe that any situation that requires a behavioral adjustment is a source of stress. However, a situation that is stressful for one person might not be stressful for another. Older workers seem to be less strongly affected by stressful situations. (Parasuraman and Alutto, 1984) Individuals with high self-esteem and a tolerance for ambiguity are less prone to stress-related illnesses. (Arnold and Feldman, 1986). There is also considerable evidence that a person's susceptibility to stress is dependent on their personality types. Type A personalities (those that seek out fast-paced, challenging situations) often react to stress with hostility and anger, while Type B personalities seem to be have an immunity to the same stressors (Albrecht, 1979; Friedman and Rosenman, 1974; Matthews, 1982; Organ, 1979).

Several studies have found that individual's who believe they have control over their own fate (internals), perceive less stress in their work than those who believe their future is determined by other factors (externals). Genmill and Heisler (1972) reported that "internals" had more job satisfaction and perceived their jobs as less stressful than "externals". They also found that a managers perceived stress was unrelated to education, length of time in their career, or their level in the hierarchy. Another study looked at managers of businesses in a community that had recently been destroyed by a hurricane. (Anderson, Hellriegel, and Slocum, 1977). These researchers found that "internals" experienced less stress from the catastrophe, and that their perceived locus of control was a more important factor than their insurance coverage, the amount of the loss, or the duration that the company was out of business. Lawless (1992) reports that ". . . job stress is a consequence of two key ingredients: a high level of job demands and little control over one's work." (p. 4)

Some studies have reported that males seem to be more prone to stress-related illness than females. Men report more ulcers and have a higher rate of heart attacks than women (Albrecht, 1979). Other studies have found no differences. Friedman and Rosenman (1974) found that Type A women suffered from cardiovascular diseases and heart attacks as often as their male counterparts. Women in managerial positions suffer heart attacks at the same rate as men in similar positions. (Albrecht, 1979) In a recent study, Lawless (1992) reported that women suffered fifteen percent more stress related illnesses than men. They also thought about quitting their jobs more often, and reported a higher incidence of burnout. Lawless proposed that this is the result of unequal pay scales and a failure of organizations to adopt policies sensitive to family issues. As more women enter the work force, the effects on their health are becoming increasingly apparent. It may be that past differences between males and females are the result of their experience in the work force, and unrelated to gender per se.

Lawless (1991) identified the five most common causes of worker stress: 1) too much rigidity in how to do a job, 2) substantial cuts in employee benefits, 3) a merger, acquisition, or change of ownership, 4) requiring frequent overtime, and 5) reducing the size of the work force. Over forty percent of the work force experienced one or more stress-related illnesses as a result of these five stressors. Single or divorced employees, union employees, women, and hourly workers reported greater stress levels, and a higher likelihood of "burning out". (p.6-8) In a follow-up study, Lawless (1992) found similar results except that there was no significant difference between married and unmarried workers. However single women with children were more likely to burn out than married women with children. "Single parenthood compounds the stress women face in juggling work and child care responsibilities, especially when overtime hours are required." (p. 11)

The current recession is, to some degree, responsible for increased stress in America's work force. "Private sector workers feel more pressure to prove their value because of the recession." (Lawless, 1992, p. 6) Nearly half of all workers and supervisors blame the recession for higher stress levels and lower productivity. Both are being asked to achieve higher goals with a reduced work force. Supervisors reported slightly more stress than workers, however, they were no more likely to experience job burn out. Lawless proposed that supervisors' higher salaries and more having more control over their jobs, partially counteracted the negative effects of stress. Employees who earned less than $25,000 reported less stress, but they were more likely to burn out because they had less control over their work. Over half of the college graduates in this income category reported feeling burned out.

Managing Stress

Mangers of organizations have a dual perspective of stress. They need to be aware of their own stress levels, as well as those of their subordinates. Most of the literature focuses on ways of reducing stress. However, a more appropriate approach might be to examine ways of optimizing stress. French, Kast, and Rosenzweig (1985) state that the challenge is to minimize distress and maintain eustress. They point out that the conditions of organizational life create a series of paradoxes, that demonstrate the need for balance and equilibrium.

1. Uncertainty can lead to distress, but so can certainty or overcontrol.

2. Pressure can lead to distress, but so can limbo or lack of contact.

3. Responsibility can lead to distress, but so can lack of responsibility or insignificance.

4. Performance evaluation can lead to distress, but so can lack of feedback concerning performance.

5. Role ambiguity can lead to distress, but so can job descriptions that constrain individuality. (p. 708)

The role of management becomes one of maintaining an appropriate level of stress by providing an optimal environment, and "by doing a good job in areas such as performance planning, role analysis, work redesign/job enrichment, continuing feedback, ecological considerations, and interpersonal skills training." (p. 709)

There are essentially three strategies for dealing with stress in organizations (Jick and Payne, 1980): 1) treat the symptoms, 2) change the person, and 3) remove the cause of the stress. When a person is already suffering from the effects of stress, the first priority is to treat the symptoms. This includes both the identification of those suffering from excessive stress, as well as providing health-care and psychological counseling services. The second approach is to help individuals build stress management skills to make them less vulnerable to its effects. Examples would be teaching employees time management and relaxation techniques, or suggesting changes to one's diet or exercise. The third approach is to eliminate or reduce the environmental situation that is creating the stress. This would involve reducing environmental stressors such as noise and pollution, or modifying production schedules and work-loads.

Many modern organizations view the management of stress as a personal matter. An effort to monitor employee stress levels would be considered an invasion of privacy. However, Lawless (1991) found that nine out of ten employees felt that it was the employers responsibility to reduce worker stress and provide a health plan that covers stress illnesses. She emphasized that "employees have no doubt that stress-related illnesses and disability should be taken seriously. Employees expect substantive action by their employer and hold their employer financially responsible for the consequences of job stress." (p. 12)

Lawless (1991) reported that four different employer programs were effective in reducing job burn out, where the percent of people reporting burn out was reduced by half. Furthermore, when these programs were offered, there were also half as many stress related illnesses. They are: 1) supportive work and family policies, 2) effective management communication, 3) health insurance coverage for mental illness and chemical dependency, and 4) flexible scheduling of work hours. This study also reported that the success rate for treating stress related disabilities was considerably less than the average for all disabilities, and that the average cost to treat stress related conditions was $1,925 (both successful and unsuccessful).

Managers can take active steps to minimize undesirable stress in themselves and their subordinates. Williams and Huber (1986) suggest five managerial actions that can be used to reduce stress in workers.

1. Clarifying task assignments, responsibility, authority, and criteria for performance evaluation.

2. Introducing consideration for people into one's leadership style.

3. Delegating more effectively and increasing individual autonomy where the situation warrants it.

4. Clarifying goals and decision criteria.

5. Setting and enforcing policies for mandatory vacations and reasonable working hours. (p. 252)

Establishing one's priorities (i.e., value clarification) is an important step in the reduction of stress. The demands of many managerial positions cause the neglect of other areas of one's life, such as family, friends, recreation, and religion. This neglect creates stress, which in turn affects job performance and health. Value clarification is linked to time management, since we generally allocate our time according to our priorities. By setting personal priorities, managers and subordinates can reduce this source of stress. It is typically the first step in any stress reduction program.

Many sources of stress in organizations cannot be changed. These might include situations like a prolonged recessionary period, new competitors, or an unanticipated crisis. Organizational members generally have little control over these kinds of stressors, and they can create extended periods of high-stress situations. People who adjust to these stressors generally use a form of perceptual adaptation, where they modify the way in which they perceive the situation.

Other sources of stress in organizations can be changed. One particularly effective way for managers to minimize employee stress is to clarify ambiguities, such as job assignments and responsibilities. (Arnold and Feldman, 1986) Employee stress is directly related to the amount of uncertainty in their tasks, expectations, and roles. Managers can encourage employees to search for more information when they are given unfamiliar tasks, or when they are uncertain of their roles. Another way to reduce employee stress is to incorporate time management techniques, as well as setting realistic time schedules for the completion of projects.

There are many other successful ways of dealing with stress. These include stress reduction workshops, tranquilizers, biofeedback, meditation, self-hypnosis, and a variety of other techniques designed to relax an individual. Programs that teach tolerance for ambiguity often report positive effects. One of the most promising is a health maintenance program that stresses the necessity of proper diet, exercise and sleep.

Social support systems seem to be extremely effective in preventing or relieving the deleterious effects of stress. Friends and family can provide a nurturing environment that builds self-esteem, and makes one less susceptible to stress. One study found that government white-collar workers who received support from their supervisors, peers, and subordinates experienced fewer physical symptoms of stress. (Katz and Kahn, 1978) Managers can create nurturing and supportive environments to help minimize job-related stress.

Albrecht (1979) hypothesized that there are eight relatively "universal" factors that come into play when evaluating the balance between stress and reward (job satisfaction) in organizations. These are: 1) workload, 2) physical variables, 3) job status, 4) accountability, 5) task variety, 6) human contact, 7) physical challenge, and 8) mental challenge. Each individual has a "comfort zone" for the eight factors. The goal of management is to find the "comfort zone" for each employee that results in optimal performance without producing undesirable side effects. Albrecht's taxonomy is important because it recognizes the necessity of balance. For example, Taylorism stresses the ideas of maximum output, minimal task variety, and continuous supervision. The predicted effect of these imbalances would be stress and a reduction in job satisfaction. Perhaps many of today's organizational problems with worker stress are the result of the effective application of Taylorism.

The social climate of an organization is often viewed as a cause of stress. However, social climate is a relativistic concept, and "the social climate of an organization is whatever most of the people think it is." (Albrecht, 1979, p. 167) There are three factors that need to be examined when evaluating social climate. The first is the degree to which employees identify with or alienate themselves from the organization. Employee attitude surveys are an effective method of measuring this factor. Identification can be measured through employees pride in membership, and the extent to which they take initiative and offer constructive suggestions. Alienation can be detected by examining whether members openly criticize the organization, or the degree to which they oppose change. The second factor of organizational climate is the degree to which labor and management are polarized. One of the most effective ways of dealing with this problem is to make all levels of management more visible and accessible. Employees are less likely to criticize management who they see on a regular basis. The goal is to change to perception from "they" (the managers) to "we" (the members of the organization). The third factor is the perceived social norms of the organization. Social norms are abstract organizational values, such as trust, fairness, and respect. Interviews and questionnaires can be used to ascertain organizational social norms, but corrective action involves setting up management programs that clarify organizational values, and may involve replacing certain managers when necessary.

Quick and Quick (1984) suggest several diagnostic procedures for determining stress levels in organizations. Interviews allow in-depth probing, but they are time consuming and depend primarily on the listening skills of the interviewer. Questionnaires have the advantage of being able to process higher volumes of data, but they often lose the "flavor" or feel of the responses. Observational techniques (both medical and behavioral) can be either quantitative or qualitative. Quantitative techniques might involve gathering company records, such as the rates of absenteeism, tardiness, turnover, and production. Qualitative techniques involve observing workers for signs of stress-related behavior.

Job engineering and job redesign are recent concepts that attempt to minimize job-related stress. Job engineering takes into account the values and needs of the worker, as well as the production objectives of the organization. (Albrecht, 1979) It involves a six-step cyclical process, beginning with defining the job objectives. This initial step makes statements about "accomplishing something of recognized value." (p. 159) The second step is to define the job conditions. This step specifies the physical, social, and psychological characteristics of the job. The third step is to define the job processes, equipment, and materials. Processes are often presented in a flow chart to show the sequence of operations. The fourth step is to re-evaluate the design from the perspective of the worker, the goal being to achieve a balance between job satisfaction and performance. The fifth step is to test the job design. Employees often experience problems not anticipated by job engineers. The evaluation should look at the "total combination of person, equipment, materials, processes, and surroundings as an integrated whole, and you must measure both productivity and employee satisfaction before you can say the job is well designed." (p. 162) The sixth step involves the ongoing re-evaluation and redesign of the job. Employee attitudes and values change, and new technology provides alternatives to the status quo. Job engineering attempts to be sensitive to these changes, and to modify job descriptions as necessary.

Sevelius (1986) describes his experience implementing a wellness education program at a large manufacturing plant. Several successful techniques were used. Booklets on specific health subjects were place in "Take one" bins conveniently located around the plant. The booklets were positively received and increased employees awareness and knowledge. Campaigns were undertaken to highlight the specific themes in the booklets. Group lectures were tried and found to be ineffective because less than ten percent of the employees attended them. In addition, the lectures were video taped, but employees did not take the time to view them. Medical examinations generally did not reveal hidden illnesses, however, they were found to be of considerable value because they gave employees the opportunity of individual medical counseling. Sevelius suggests that peer support systems might also be successful in the workplace.


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