Job stress can be defined as the harmful physical and emotional responses that occur when the requirements of the job do not match the capabilities, resources, or needs of the worker. Job stress can lead to poor health and even injury.
The concept of job stress is often confused with challenge, but these concepts are not the same. Challenge energizes us psychologically and physically, and it motivates us to learn new skills and master our jobs. When a challenge is met, we feel relaxed and satisfied. Thus, challenge is an important ingredient for healthy and productive work. The importance of challenge in our work lives is probably what people are referring to when they say "a little bit of stress is good for you."
The picture below takes a look at three different studies which deal with workplace stress:
The longer he waited, the more David worried. For weeks he had been plagued by aching muscles, loss of appetite, restless sleep, and a complete sense of exhaustion. At first he tried to ignore these problems, but eventually he became so short-tempered and irritable that his wife insisted he get a checkup. Now, sitting in the doctor's office and wondering what the verdict would be, he didn't even notice when Theresa took the seat beside him. They had been good friends when she worked in the front office at the plant, but he hadn't seen her since she left three years ago to take a job as a customer service representative. Her gentle poke in the ribs brought him around, and within minutes they were talking and gossiping as if she had never left.
"You got out just in time," he told her. "Since the reorganization, nobody feels safe. It used to be that as long as you did your work, you had a job. That's not for sure anymore. They expect the same production rates even though two guys are now doing the work of three. We're so backed up I'm working twelve-hour shifts six days a week. I swear I hear those machines humming in my sleep. Guys are calling in sick just to get a break. Morale is so bad they're talking about bringing in some consultants to figure out a better way to get the job done."
"Well, I really miss you guys," she said. "I'm afraid I jumped from the frying pan into the fire. In my new job, the computer routes the calls and they never stop. I even have to schedule my bathroom breaks. All I hear the whole day are complaints from unhappy customers. I try to be helpful and sympathetic, but I can't promise anything without getting my boss's approval. Most of the time I'm caught between what the customer wants and company policy. I'm not sure who I'm supposed to keep happy. The other reps are so uptight and tense, they don't even talk to one another. We all go to our own little cubicles and stay there until quitting time. To make matters worse, my mother's health is deteriorating. If only I could use some of my sick time to look after her. No wonder I'm in here with migraine headaches and high blood pressure. A lot of the reps are seeing the employee assistance counselor and taking stress management classes, which seems to help. But sooner or later, someone will have to make some changes in the way the place is run."
David's and Theresa's stories in the previous tab are unfortunate, but not unusual. Job stress has become a common and costly problem in the American workplace, leaving few workers untouched. For example, recent studies report the following:
One-fourth of employees view their jobs as the number one stressor in their lives. (Northwestern National Life)
Three-fourths of employees believe the worker has more on-the-job stress than a generation ago. (Princeton Survey Research Associates)
Problems at work are more strongly associated with health complaints than are any other life stressor-more so than even financial problems or family problems. (St. Paul Fire and Marine Insurance Co.)
Fortunately, research on job stress has greatly expanded in recent years. But in spite of this attention, confusion remains about the causes, effects, and prevention of job stress.
Nearly everyone agrees job stress results from the interaction of the worker and the conditions of work. Views differ, however, on the importance of worker characteristics versus working conditions as the primary cause of job stress. These differing viewpoints are important because they suggest different ways to prevent stress at work.
According to one school of thought, differences in individual characteristics such as personality and coping style are most important in predicting whether certain job conditions will result in stress. In other words, what is stressful for one person may not be a problem for someone else. This viewpoint leads to prevention strategies that focus on workers and ways to help them cope with demanding job conditions.
Although the importance of individual differences cannot be ignored, scientific evidence suggests certain working conditions are stressful to most people. The excessive workload demands and conflicting expectations described in David's and Theresa's stories are good examples. Such evidence argues for a greater emphasis on working conditions as the key source of job stress, and for job redesign as a primary prevention strategy.
In 1960, a Michigan court upheld a compensation claim by an automotive assembly line worker who had difficulty keeping up with the pressures of the production line. To avoid falling behind, he tried to work on several assemblies at the same time and often got parts mixed up. As a result, he was subjected to repeated criticism from the foreman. Eventually he suffered a psychological breakdown.
The World Health Organization calls stress the health epidemic of the 21st century. The cost to American employers is estimated at $300 billion per year. It is a hefty price tag comprised of several general factors, including:
Stress is the number one productivity issue. Most employers would agree stress links directly to loss of profits. For example, sixty percent of lost workdays each year can be attributed to stress. In addition, an estimated 75 to 90 percent of visits to health care providers are due to stress-related conditions, costing employers in increased health care costs.
The Wall Street Journal recently reported one third of people surveyed considered quitting their jobs because of stress and 14 percent actually did.
On the basis of experience and research, the National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) favors the view that working conditions play a primary role in causing job stress. However, the role of individual factors is not ignored. NIOSH believes exposure to stressful working conditions (called job stressors) can have a direct influence on worker safety and health. But as shown below, individual and other situational factors can intervene to strengthen or weaken this influence. The need to care for an ill parent, for example, is an increasingly common example of an individual or situational factor that may intensify the effects of stressful working conditions.
Examples of individual and situational factors that can help to reduce the effects of stressful working conditions include the following:
The Design of Tasks: Heavy workload, infrequent rest breaks, long work hours and shiftwork; hectic and routine tasks that have little inherent meaning, do not utilize workers' skills, and provide little sense of control.
Example: David works to the point of exhaustion. Theresa is tied to the computer, allowing little room for flexibility, self-initiative, or rest.
Management Style: Lack of participation by workers in decision-making, poor communication in the organization, lack of family-friendly policies.
Example: Theresa needs to get the boss's approval for everything, and the company is insensitive to her family needs.
Interpersonal Relationships: Poor social environment and lack of support or help from coworkers and supervisors.
Example: Theresa's physical isolation reduces her opportunities to interact with other workers or receive help from them.
Work Roles: Conflicting or uncertain job expectations, too much responsibility, and too many "hats to wear."
Example: Theresa is often caught in a difficult situation trying to satisfy both the customer's needs and the company's expectations.
Career Concerns: Job insecurity and lack of opportunity for growth, advancement, or promotion; rapid changes for which workers are unprepared.
Example: Since the reorganization at David's plant, everyone is worried about their future with the company and what will happen next.
Environmental Conditions: Unpleasant or dangerous physical conditions such as crowding, noise, air pollution, or ergonomic problems.
Example: David is exposed to constant noise at work.
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