Managing Workplace Stress: Sundry Concepts
While practitioners of psychology and academicians do not seem to have a consensus on the definition of stress there is clearly a growing consensus on the definition of stress as a psychological state with both cognitive and emotional components. Cox (1993) suggests that stress is caused by a number of reasons associated with work, and there now appears to be little doubt that one of the major adverse influences on job satisfaction and work performance and productivity, and absenteeism and turnover is the incident of stress at work and are some of the key features of the stress process (Cooper, Dewe & O‘Driscoll, 2001).
Guttman (1998) suggests that workplace stress may cause productivity losses through poor worker performance, increased absenteeism, diverted administrative and management time, poor morale, and increased staff turnover.
Numerous factors may be categorized as stressors. Factors which may be perceived as stressful by some individuals may not be similarly perceived by others. What determines whether something will be a stressor depends to a large extent on the important and the perceived degree of controllability of the situation. Very broadly, these stressors may be categorized into personal and organisational stressors (Cox, 1993).
Personal stressors deal with non-work concerns such as family, intimate relationships, marriage, divorce, health issues, financial problems and raising children. Difficult and angry people may also serve as stressors because of the conflict they cause in our personal and work life (Hart & Cooper, 2001). Changes in our personal life can cause a great deal of stress; in fact, numerous stressors compose our reactions to such changes. Fear is another factor that falls under personal stressors (Cooper & Cartwright, 1997; Cox, 1993). If we go out of the familiarity and comfort of a situation, either voluntarily or involuntarily, this causes us to experience stress. For people who thrive in the challenge and excitement of a new situation, this causes them to feel eustress – since they welcome the unpredictability of the situation (Hart & Cooper, 2001). However, for majority of individuals, fear of the unknown causes negative stress (Cox, 1993).
Experience and age contribute to what individuals consider sources of stress. Individuals who have been on their own and in the workplace fulltime seem preoccupied with the stress that work brings. Organisational stressors have been classified by Cordes & Dougherty (1993) into job characteristics and organisational characteristics.
Role conflict occurs when work expectations and what one thinks he ought to be doing does not match up. For example, an employee who was hired as an assistant to the Chief Executive Officer (CEO) of one particular organisation was informed upon hire that she would be handling such administrative duties as policy development, participating as an equal partner in management meetings and serving as a liaison between the CEO and the public. However, after she had been on the job for a while, she heard herself not only the CEO but other department heads being referred to as “secretary”. In fact, the only work she ended up doing mainly consisted of taking minutes in various meetings, ensuring that there was food at those meetings, and doing routine clerical work such as answering the phone and routing interoffice mail. That is, what she expected from the position was incompatible with what she was actually required to do. This role conflict has caused her a great deal of stress, and consistent with the research literature on the effects of role conflict (e.g. Rahim & Psenicka, 1996), she eventually quit her job.
Role ambiguity occurs when an individual’s job duties and performance expectations are not clearly defined. The struggle on the part of the employee to find out what exactly she is expected to do (i.e. her responsibilities) causes stress. Consistent with the research of Frone, Russell, and Cooper (1995), the stress of this role ambiguity may also cause depression, and consistent with the meta-analysis of Abramis (1994), there might be marked decrease in job satisfaction.
Role overload develops when an individual either feels he lacks the skills or workplace resources necessary to complete a task or perceives that the task cannot be done in the required amount of time (Cordes & Dougherty, 1993). Role overload has been cited as one of the primary reasons for job stress Research indicates that role overload can cause anxiety, depression, and anger (Rahim & Psenicka, 1996).
The key to minimizing the stress that comes from role conflict, ambiguity, and overload is to get clarification on the employees’ job duties. While the employee is given a job description upon hiring, one must make sure to converse and discuss with one’s superior to clarify expectations on the job. In fact, it is wise to discuss the particulars of the job description prior to hire to ensure such clarity. One may also participate in training that may help you carry out your projects. Moreover, it may be beneficial that your superior explains to one’s co-workers to reduce misunderstanding about your role (Cordes & Dougherty, 1993).
Organisational characteristics that are likely to cause stress include such factors as person-organisation fit, organisational rules and policies, supervisory relationships, and organisational change.
The term person-organisation fit refers to how well such factors such as skills, knowledge, abilities, expectations, personality, values, and attitudes match those of the organisation. At one time, organisations were primarily concerned that applicants had the necessary skills and knowledge to perform certain jobs. Now, organisations, as well as workers, realise there are other areas in which compatibility is critical for an employee to “fit” into an organisation and perform well. Incompatibility in philosophies and values can cause stress (Lovelace & Rosen, 1996), lower job satisfaction, and increase turnover (Bretz & Judge, 1994).
The management philosophy of an organisation may not meet the expectations of some individuals. For example, a person who works best in a very structured environment in which everyone must follow a chain of command may not work well in a team-oriented environment where the workers have the opportunity to make and enforce policy. Incompatibilities between personal and management philosophies can quickly become a stressor. Other stressors include the relationships between supervisors and employees. If an employee’s expectation of that relationship differs from the supervisor’s, not only will stress result, but conflict between the parties will inevitably arise.
The environment in which one works can produce stress. For example, noise in the workplace can be stressful to some people and can affect their performance. Research indicates that continued exposure to noise can raise blood pressure (Evans, Hygge, & Bullinger, 1995), cause worker illness (A. Cohen, 1972), and produce more aggressive and irritable behavior in response to the stress noise causes (Donnerstein & Wilson, 1976).
Shift work can also have stressful consequences on individuals. Research shows that working evening and late-night shifts has many physical, mental, and work-related effects. These include fatigue (Nicholson, Jackson, & Howes, 1978) and deterioration in physical health (Frese & Semmer, 1986) and mental health (Jamal, 1981).
A major contributor to organisational stress is change, which occurs most often from downsizing and restructuring, trends that are expected to continue into the 21st century (Offerman & Gowing, 1990). Realising the amount of stress accompanying change, organisations are placing greater emphasis on workplace wellness by offering programmes that teach employees how to cope with change and manage stress.
Relations with Others
One’s co-workers and customers can be a major source of workplace stress. Stress is associated with conflict, working with difficult people, dealing with angry customers, and feeling that you are not being treated fairly. A study of over 15,000 employees over a 4-year period found that stress from interpersonal conflict at work resulted in a number of psychiatric problems (Romanov, Appelberg, Honkasalo, & Koskenvuo, 1996).
Consequences of Stress
How one responds to stress may have devastating consequences. For example, responding with anger or rage can lead to family members being hurt, the loss of jobs, and perhaps trouble with the law. Responding with the use of alcohol or drugs can lead to addiction, broken relationships, and even death. Financially, the impaired decisions that one makes while under stress can have negative consequences. In an interesting study, Repetti & Wood (1997) examined the effects of work stress on the relationships between 30 working mothers and their preschool children. The results of the study indicated that on highly stressful workdays, mothers spoke less often to their children and had fewer expressions of affection.
There are numerous physical responses to stress. Some people sweat under extreme stress. Headaches and body aches are also symptoms of stress. If one is prone to migraines, one may find that these occur more often during stressful situations. Body aches are often the result of tensing up during stressful times. Many people report that when they wake up in the morning, their backs, necks, and shoulders are very sore which can be attributed to tensing during their sleep. Extreme physical responses to stress include hair loss. Hair that falls out in clumps is often the body’s way of signaling high levels of stress (Carpi, 1996).
Stress has often been labeled the “silent killer” because it can quietly chip away at one’s immune system, thereby weakening the body’s ability to prevent or fight off illnesses and diseases. It is often the cause of debilitating ulcers, heart attacks, stokes, or worse, death. Stress may also increase the symptoms of rheumatoid arthritis because the hormones that are released as a response to stress can cause swelling in the joints (Carpi, 1996). In fact, research suggests that 50% to 70% of all illnesses, such as coronary heart disease can be attributed to stress. Even minor ailments such as recurring colds can be attributed to recent stressful events (Carpi, 1996).
Depression is another health problem associated with stress. Most people experience some form of depression from time to time. Usually, a good night’s sleep or being with friends and family will lift that depression. Sometimes, a few visits to a counselor who can help the person sort his feelings and put things in perspective will be helpful. Long-term stress, however, can eventually lead to clinical depression, which often requires medical treatment. In addition, prolonged depression has effects on the body such as strike triggering clots, hypertension, and high heart rates (Elias, 1997). Early diagnosis and treatment of depression are the key to managing it.
Burnout, a type of job stress experienced by professionals who are highly motivated and are faced with high work demands, is one of the biggest consequences of stress produced in professions where there is a lot of contact between professionals and customers (Parker & Kulik, 1995).
Initial studies on burnout targeted people in the health care field as employees most likely to experience burnout. But over the years the definition expanded to include other types of workers who become emotionally exhausted and no longer feel they have a positive impact on other people or their job. People who feel burned out have a lack of energy and are filled with frustration and tension. Emotional symptoms of burnout include dreading coming to work each day (Cordes & Dougherty, 1993). Behavioral signs may include cynicism towards co-workers, clients, and the organisation. People who are burned out display detachment towards people (e.g. clients) with whom they work. Eventually, burned out people may become depressed and respond to burnout through absenteeism, turnover, and lower performance (Parker & Kulik, 1995).
Absenteeism and Turnover
Absenteeism and turnover, resulting in loss of productivity and subsequently revenues, are highest during times of burnout and increased stress as employees struggle to deal with physical and emotional ailments. Two percent of the workforce is absent each day, and many of those absences can be attributed to stress. For example, in the study of Neubauer (1992), it was indicated that as stress increases, so does absenteeism. With this mind, the question then becomes: Is this absenteeism due to illness brought about by stress, or does it represent “mental health days” in which employees miss work to take a break from stress? From a study by Heaney & Clemans (1995), it appears that stress-illness relationship best explains absenteeism. Such absenteeism costs employers billions a year in lost productivity and is through to be a warning of intended turnover (Mitra et al, 1992).
Interestingly, even if employees took a “mental health day”, the strategy would apparently not be highly effective. In a study of hospital nurses, Hackett & Bycio (1996) found that although stress was lowered immediately following a day of absence, taking a day off had no longer-term effects.
Managing stress or changing one’s behaviour to effectively cope up with stress should transpire before, during, and after stress. Managing stress before it happens means incorporating daily practices (e.g. exercise) that will prepare the employees’ mind and body to handle the effects of stress. During stress, it is recommended that the individual continue with prestress management techniques (such as reducing caffeine), as well as incorporate some other. Finally, after the stressor is eliminated, a suggestion is for the person to proactively manage stress (Stanten, 1997). The following are some techniques that will help the individual cope effectively with stress:
Planning for Stress
Exercising keeps one’s heart strong and resistant to the effects of stress and can also help reduce stress levels during particular stress moments. Organisations realise how important exercise is to managing the effects of stress, as evidenced by the increase of worksite fitness and health programmes over the last decade and a half. Research shows exercise can reduce coronary heart disease by reducing blood pressure and lowering cholesterol (Gebhardt & Crump, 1990). In addition, absenteeism and turnover are reduced, and morale and job performance improve (Daley & Parfitt, 1996; Heaney & Clemans, 1995).
Humor has been shows to buffer stress (Chubb, 1995) in several ways. First, it can help the individual put new perspective on a stressful situation. For example, one may have heard many a joke from police officers, doctors, and even morticians about death. The purpose of such jokes is not to hurt feelings or show callousness but to better deal with an uncomfortable topic that must be faced sooner or later. It is better to laugh at it than to dwell on something that one cannot control. But one must be careful in telling such jokes since not everyone will appreciate the humor, and people are required to show sensitivity before sharing a joke (Stanten, 1997) Next, when one is upset in what seems to be a difficult situation, going to a funny movie, listening to a comedian, or watching a funny television show can help distance the person from the situation until he has calmed down enough to begin to think rationally again. Physically, laughter can reduce blood pressure. Studies show that laughing through a funny movie has the same effect on the heart as 10 minutes of rowing machine (Stanten, 1997).
Foods that have been shows to counteract the effects of stress include fresh fruits and vegetables, whole grains and nonfat yogurt (which contains the B vitamin considered to be lost during high stress periods (Ornish, 1984). A daily dose of one of these can help meet stress head on. Also decreasing the intake of fat may help because the body has to work overtime to digest fatty food, adding to stress levels (Carpi, 1996). Water helps keep the body hydrated and able to cope up with daily stressors. Caffeine should be gradually eliminated from the diet altogether (Carpi, 1996).
Though many smokers say smoking decreases their feelings of stress, research indicates that smoking cessation leads to reduced levels of stress (Parrott, 1995). This is an important findings because research also indicates that smokers increase their smoking when they feel stressed (McCann & Lester, 1996). Thus, smoking and stress become a vicious cycle in which people smoke because they are stressed and then become more stressed because they smoke.
There is no one study that says absolutely just how much individuals need to sleep. What literature shows is that sleep deprivation or lack of sleep can cause negative behavior such as irritability, fatigue, lack of concentration, and even depression. Alcohol can severely affect sleep, although it may seem that it helps you go to sleep. But studies show that the sleep of people who have had as little as two drinks before bed is interrupted several times a night. In addition, one should stay away from caffeine at least six hours before going to bed (Parrott, 1995).
During and After Stress
The following are recommended by Pritchett and Associates (1995) to be able to help people cope effectively with change:
1) Determine why the change was necessary. At work, why job duties are changing. In one’s personal life, recognise that one does not have a choice but to make the change.
2) Find out how the change is going to be made. This will reduce the anxiety stemming from fear of the unknown.
3) Make a list of positive consequences that will result from the change. There may be some negatives, but focusing on the positives will help keep spirits up and may even challenge the person into action.
4) Finally, if one is still having difficulty with the change and seeing any positive consequences, ask someone trusted to talk you through it. Sometimes, when the individual is too close to the situation that is not liked, it is difficult to become objective and positive. Turning to others may be helpful in putting things into better perspective/
Abdominal breathing is especially helpful for emotional calming. This requires that one gets into a comfortable position, either sitting or lying on one’s back. Then one should close one’s eyes and place left hand on abdomen and right hand on one’s chest. The next step is breathing normally, mentally counting from one to four simultaneously inhaling through the nose. This is followed by a pause of two counts. The person should then open his mouth and mentally count from one to six as he exhales through the mouth. After several minutes of slow, rhythmic breathing, the person should let his hands move slowly to sides as abdomen continues to move freely in and out with each breath. Once finished, the person is to open his eyes and sit quietly (Parrott, 1995).
Progressive muscle relaxation is used to relax the body. In a sitting or prone position, the person is to close his eyes and tense the following muscle groups: hands and arms, face, neck and shoulders, stomach and abdomen, buttocks and thighs, calves and feet. Each of these groups is to be done separately for a few seconds each while breathing normally. The person is then asked to release the tension as he focuses on the pleasant contrast between tight and relaxed muscles (Parrott, 1995).
Meditation is helpful for quieting a chaotic mind. One should sit in a comfortable position and close his eyes. Then slow breathing is next, coming from the abdomen. The person should focus on a single word, phrase, or sound. For example, calm; peace, love, joy; or ooommm, respectively. The person should mentally repeat the chosen sound over and over, adopting a passive attitude towards the process. When intruding thoughts occur, as they will, the person is to slowly and gently redirect his mind back to the repetitive sound. After 15 to 20 minutes, he should slowly open his eyes (Parrott, 1995).
Because a general feeling of “being out of time: can be a big source of stress, using several time management techniques before and during stress can be very useful. A small sample of the many time management techniques suggested by Mayer (1990) includes the following:
1) Take several hours to clean your desk.
2) Place a dollar amount on your time, and then determine if any activity is worth the money.
3) Make “to do” lists and cross out tasks once they have been accomplished.
4) Keep a daily time log in which you schedule your appointments – even appointments for yourself.
5) To avoid waiting in line, do things at times when nobody else is doing them.
Stress management must be among the HR programmes offered to the workforce, so that they too may be equipped with the requisite skills that will enable them to cope with the stress in their jobs. Thus, they must be accorded with the skills that may help them cope with their work demands and avoid burnout, absenteeism loss of productivity, and turnover. In the end, this seemingly small initiative of stress management will go a long way and help spell a real difference in contributing to the company’s coffers.
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