STRESS IN ORGANIZATIONS

Author:

Delia Vîrgă

Abstract

The problem of stress in organizations has raised interest of many discussions and research, being a common theme for managers, employees and consultants, from different perspectives. Symptoms of stress manifested in organizations are easily marked and observable, manifested by behaviors, such as: employees’ difficulties in adapting to changes that required by the occupied job, the dramatic fall in labor productivity, or, in other words, a double action is manifested: at individual level, the person who receives the stressful situation and at the organizational level, where is evident the existence of a stressful environment (Pitariu, 2004).

Keywords: stress, occupational stress, burnout, the management of stress
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Stresul în organizaţii


CONTENTS

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Introduction

Defining stress

Definitions of stress as a response

Defining stress as a stimulus

Limits of stress as a stimulus and as a response definitions

Stress as interaction

Defense strategies to occupational stress

Burnout

Stress management interventions

Methodological aspects of studying occupational stress

Bibliography


Introduction

The problem of stress in organizations has raised interest of many discussions and research, being a common theme for managers, employees and consultants, from different perspectives. Symptoms of stress manifested in organizations are easily marked and observable, manifested by behaviors, such as: employees’ difficulties in adapting to changes that required by the occupied job, the dramatic fall in labor productivity, or, in other words, a double action is manifested: at individual level, the person who receives the stressful situation and at the organizational level, where is evident the existence of a stressful environment (Pitariu, 2004).

Organizational stress became a re-emergent topic, both internationally and in studies in organizations from Romania, due to economic pressures and social measures that derived from the economic crisis of recent years.

In the following material, we will present several approaches in defining stress, as a fundamental concept. Then we will address issues of coping strategies to organizational stress, but we will also present the non-adaptive version of stress, i.e. burnout. Further, we will focus on the stress intervention schemes at the organizational level and at the end, we present some methodological issues specific for stress issues in organizations.

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Defining stress

One of the difficulties in stress research is the large discrepancies that exist between the definition of stress and how stress is operationalized. For example, the concept of stress was often defined as the independent variable, also as the dependent variable but also as a process. This terminological confusion is due to the applicability of the concept of stress research in medical, behavioral and social sciences, in the past 50-60 years. Each discipline has researched stress from a unique, single perspective, adopting either stimulus model (stress as an independent variable) or response model (stress as a dependent variable). This approach emerged from the specific research objectives and actions that have been made from research results. It is obvious that the concept of stress triggered an ongoing debate. Almost all research begins by emphasizing the difficulties caused by the confusion around the attempts to define what stress is (Cooper, Dewe and O’Driscoll, 2001).

The stress was defined as a stimulus or a response or as a result of stimulus-response interaction, interaction that expresses a certain imbalance in the individual’s relationship with his environment. With the development of knowledge of the relationship between the individual and the environment, researchers have focused on the nature of this interaction and, more importantly, on the mental processes by which these interactions occur.

It can be considered that traditional ways of defining stress (stimulus, response, interaction), by focusing on events exterior to the individual, have diverted researchers’ attention from the mental processes by which the individual assess these events (Duckworth, 1986).

As knowledge and understanding of stimulus, response and interaction and their definition has advanced, the debate on the definition of stress moved forward. Instead of focusing separate on different elements of the process that reveals the stress, it is considered that attention should be focused on the nature of the process itself and the integration of stimulus and response definitions in a broader perspective that takes also into account the dynamic relationship between elements of the process.

Contemporary views on how stress should be defined require researchers to think about stress as something relational, as a result of exchange (transactions) between the individual and the environment (Lazarus, 1990). Transactional approach orients researchers to identify those processes that link the individual to the environment, focusing on the transaction and considering that stress is not just only individual or environmental.

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Definitions of stress as a response

The phrase “being stressed” is one that most people are familiar with, but for each individual, its meaning is different. This term does not focus too much on the nature of stress, but rather on its consequences. Stress as a reaction approach considers stress as a dependent variable (a response to a disturbing or threatening stimulus).

The origins of defining stress as a response can be identified in medicine, and usually stress is studied from a physiological perspective. Hans Selye research, from 1930 and 1940, marks the beginning of this approach in stress study. Selye introduced the concept of stress-related diseases in terms of general adaptation syndrome (ro. sindromul general de adaptare), suggesting that stress is a nonspecific response of the human body demands exerted on it (Selye, 1956). The emphasis is clearly a medical one: the generic disease was characterized by loss of motivation, appetite, weight and strength. Studies conducted on animals have indicated an internal physical damage and degeneration. It was considered that responses to stress does not depend on the nature of stress factor and therefore follows a universal model (Pitariu & Virga, 2008).

Although the word stress has negative connotations, Selye (1976) warns that stress reactions are not necessarily harmful and that they are inevitable, since to be alive is tantamount to respond to stress. In fact, a certain level of stress is necessary for motivation, growth, development and change, which was called eustres. However, unwanted, hard to manage stressors are harmful and can lead to distress (or burnout).

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Defining stress as a stimulus

Identifying potential sources of stress is a central theme of stress as a stimulus model. The reasoning for this approach lies in the fact that external forces act on the body in a destructive manner (Cooper, Dewe and O’Driscoll, 2001).

Definitions of stress as a stimulus are originating in physics and engineering, the analogy subsist in the fact that stress can be defined as an exerted force, which therefore implies a request or a response to the load, thus creating a distortion. If the body tolerance is exceeded, temporary or permanent damage may occur. The individual is continually bombarded with potential sources of stress (usually referred to as stressors), and a seemingly minor event can break the delicate balance between the manner in which stress is controlled and the complete cancellation of behaviors that control stress. In conclusion, this model considers stress as an independent variable.

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Limits of stress as a stimulus and as a response definitions

Both definitions of stress are conceptually placed in the relatively simple paradigm of stimulus – response. Nowadays, it is considered that both neglect the individual differences and perceptual and cognitive processes that generate these differences (Cox, 1990).

Since stimulus-response type definitions each focus on one aspect of relationship, we believe that one event is potentially stressful or that one answer may be a reaction to stress. Thus, we believe that a stimulus or a response may be declared as “stressful” or “stress reaction” only if these two components are considered to be related and it is determined the impact of one over the other (Cooper, Dewe and O’Driscoll, 2001).

A further problem that arises when we define stress as a stimulus or as a response is that we are not observing those individual differences. Knowing the stimulus not necessarily means that this allows accurate estimation of the reaction, the probability that the stimulus to produce a response is moderated by the individual differences (personality, characteristics, expectations, values, goals).

As noted above, stress implies both a stimulus and a response in relation to one another.

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Stress as interaction

Interactional approach in defining stress focuses on statistical interaction between the stimulus and the response. This structured and quantitative approach is one in which a relationship, usually a correlation, is assumed between a stimulus and response. This approach is essentially a static one (a cause – effect type). Such a definition that focuses only on the interaction between two variables, is limited in the attempt to explain the complexity of such relations at structural manipulations, such as introducing a third moderator variable, which does not explain the stress itself (Pitariu & Virga, 2008).

Given these issues, we believe that stress should be seen as a transaction, a continuing relationship between the individual and the environment. Interactional approach has a limited ability to demonstrate the causal chain in this relationship. In contrast, transactional model aims to explore the essential nature of stressor-response-outcome relationship and to explain the dynamics of this process, not only the statistical evidence of links between the variables (Cooper, Dewe and O’Driscoll, 2001).

Thus, stress is not merely a factor that belongs to the individual or to the environment, but rather is engaged in an ongoing process in which individual transacts in different environments, assess stress factors and aims to overcome stressful situations. In essence, transactional definition of stress implies that stress is a dynamic cognitive condition. It is a defect in homeostasis or an imbalance that requires a re-balancing solution or restoration of homeostasis (Dewe et al., 1993).

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Defense strategies to occupational stress

Folkman, Lazarus, Gruen and DeLongis (1986) have defined the pattern of copying with stress as “cognitive and behavioral efforts to manage (reduce, minimize or tolerate) the internal and external environmental requirements, interpreted as beyond individual resources”. In general, research has shown that problem-focused stress control strategies (regarding directly the sources of stress) are more effective than emotion-focused ones (focusing on emotional changes induced by stress) (Callan, 1993).

People may respond to stress in two ways. One way is that Folkman and Lazarus (1988) have called it a rational strategy of stress control (by solving problems), i.e. negative emotions associated to stressors are exceeded by the best possible resolution, negative emotions being an indicator of the problem’s magnitude. Motivation to act properly is often associated with a larger information processing. Extensive processing of information is the closest indicator for itself and most noticeable to others that one is motivated to be correct in its decision in relation to the stressor. So, instead of leading to the use of simplistic heuristic strategies, negative emotions can lead to extensive information processing (Pitariu & Virga, 2008).

Another way to control stress is to adopt measures to directly minimize negative emotions by altering the volume or content of thoughts on the sources of stress, namely emotional strategy of stress control. Limited, this type of control strategy may involve behaviors of stress avoidance or non-decision (Anderson, 2003), passing the decision to another person or an increased preference for keeping the current situation or an easy to justify alternative (Luce, 1998).

Carver et al (1998) found that although there are several strategies, individuals do not use all strategies to control stress, but some of it, with which they are accustomed. It can however organize training programs aiming at training people in organizations to use, with greater frequency, adaptive control strategies to occupational stress (Pitariu & Virga, 2008).

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Burnout

Highest level of manifestation of stress, in a nonadaptative way, is the emergence of burnout that the person can not manage stress constructively.

Burnout is a result of physical, psychological and emotional fatigue. But this fatigue can express the alienation of an individual from his work. There are several causes of burnout, sometimes paradoxical and contradictory. Boredom, as opposed to overload, can also cause fatigue. Poor communication links between leaders, subordinates, colleagues, customers are a common cause of burnout. Unfair or unsatisfactory rewards also can lead to burnout. Too much responsibility and too little support, or the need to quickly acquire new skills and knowledge and achieve common tasks in another ways is another aspect that contributes to the occurrence of exhaustion (Furnham, 1997).

But the causes and consequences of burnout are demonstrated facets of alienation. Lack of meaning in relation to every day work, deviation from the organization’s goals and weakness or lack of confidence in success and happiness are clear signs of alienation.

Symptoms of burnout begin with physical fatigue. Burnout victims begin by complaining of physical fatigue. They are characterized by low levels of energy and feel tired all the time. They claim increased signs of physical weakness, such as frequent migraines, insomnia and diet changes. The second level is the emotional fatigue. Depression, feelings of hopelessness and feeling of being caught up in the job, are signs of this syndrome. Finally, people suffering from burnout often show a pattern of mental or attitudinal fatigue known as a form of depersonalization. These people become cynical towards other people, treating them as objects and show some negative attitudes towards their organization. They often have a sense of failure or insignificant achievements. In this manner, they enter in a vicious circle that leads to lower self esteem, to lower overall efficiency and to a life that is not that pleasant. And all this because prolonged exposure to stress. To prevent to reach this escalated level of occupational stress is required the organizations’ attention in the implementation of regularly diagnostic strategies on perceived stress levels in the organization and implementation of active measures to reduce the impact of stress factors on employees (Pitariu & Virga, 2007).

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Stress management interventions

Despite recognition of the negative impact of stress on individuals and organizations, the extent of employers’ interest to understand the causes (sources) of work related fatigue and to change the stressful working conditions is relatively small, at least compared to other areas such as: cost control and maintenance of equipment.

However, organizations invest annually relatively large sums of money in programs to combat stress (mainly stress management training) but often understanding the sources of stress is insufficient and the effectiveness of stress management techniques is reduced. So, often, the researchers highlight the application of stress management techniques randomly and the lack of congruence between research and theory in stress and organizational practices (Pitariu & Virga, 2008).

In addition to selection and training, stress seems to be another area where there is a gap between theory and practice in the organizational behavior. This difference is caused primarily by perceptions and beliefs of managers on:

the impact of work environment on employees’ stress levels;

who should be responsible for the employees stress management;

comparison of costs associated with changing working conditions and costs associated with training programs in which employees learn to cope better with stress.

These factors have a combined action and have, as a result an environment where stress management is seen either as a direct responsibility of the employee as a person, or as something that is resolved through a training that will increase employees’ ability to manage stress levels, without substantially change the position or working conditions.

There are several useful interventions in controlling work-related stress, as can be seen in Table 1.

Table1. Stress Management – possible interventions (adapted from Cooper, Dewe and O’Driscoll, 2001, p.189)

Primary interventions
Objective Prevention – reducing the number and / or intensity of the stressors
Aim Changing the work environment, technology and organizations’ structures
Basic assumption The most effective strategy for stress management is to eliminate the stressors
Example Redesigning the jobs , restructuring the roles, restructuring the organization
Secondary interventions
Objective Prevention / response – changing the individual response to stressors
Aim The individual
Basic assumption

We can not eliminate / reduce the stressors so it is better to focus on individuals’ reactions to these stressors.

Example Stress management trainings, sport programs, information and communication
Tertiary interventions
Objective Treatment – minimizing the negative consequences of stressors by helping individuals to cope better with these consequences.
Aim The individual
Basic assumption Focus on solving problems once they have occurred
Example Employee assistance programs, counseling

This approach can be differentiated in terms of intervention levels (primary, secondary or tertiary) according to the aim of intervention activities, to the action level and according to each intervention objectives.

Primary interventions are based on the assumption that the most effective way of controlling stress is to eliminate or to reduce the sources of stress in the working environment. This type of intervention is considered a preventive approach to stress management and become effective when it is implemented systematically, after a careful evaluation of sources of stress (Burke, 1993). Some examples of specific primary interventions actions are:

restructuring organization’s departments;

redefining job responsibilities, which may involve more autonomy and control for employees for their job;

rearranging work space;

establishing a more fair reward system.

Unlike the primary intervention, secondary interventions are focused on ways to train employees in methods of stress management, in order to successfully cope with environmental stressors, especially in terms of changing working conditions. Secondary interventions are the most commonly used forms of intervention that organizations apply in dealing with problems generated by organizational stress (Dewe, 1994).

Examples of secondary intervention techniques are: trainings for relaxation, cognitive restructuring, time management and conflict resolution strategies. Also, some organizations give employees access to company’s gyms and sports programs.

The tertiary level of organizational interventions on stress focuses on the rehabilitation of employees who had health problems as a result of stress at work. Intervention at this level is based more on “treatment” than on prevention and it is best illustrated by employee assistance programs involving forms of employee counseling the main objective being their adaptation to conditions of organizational stress. Also, it is considered the detection of other stress sources, which they do not belong to the organization (e.g., marital stress or family problems), which may interfere with job performance (Pitariu & Virga, 2008).

Although there is an increase in occupational stress level and in costs of fighting it, a small number of studies were conducted to assess the impact of organizational interventions on stress.

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Methodological aspects of studying occupational stress

Research related to organizational aspects of stress concerns, on the one hand, the diagnosis of stress sources, of stress reactions, of personality correlators which moderates the relationship between stress and stress reactions, and on the other hand, the assessment of the impact of strategies of reduction of the occupational stress, at the organizational level.

Regarding the diagnostic research on organizational stress issues, methodological issues involved are related to the choice of appropriate psychometric instruments to identify the many facets of stress in organizations: stressors, reactions, controlling strategies and related matters: mood variables, burnout , etc. One of the most used diagnostic tools for organizational stress is Organizational Stress Indicator (OSI) developed by Cooper & Williams (1976).

Stress audit in organizations can be achieved both through questionnaires and through alternative methods, as qualitative ones: for example, diary of a working day. In fact, mixed methodology is required in occupational stress research, where combined quantitative and qualitative diagnostic method helps to identify sources of stress, but also their perceived intensity by the employees (Pitariu & Virga, 2008).

Based on the diagnosis of organizational stress, can choose the most appropriate methods of intervention and can be implemented effective programs to prevent, control or treat  the problems generated by occupational stress.

In order to conduct an evaluation study of stress interventions is compulsory  to go through several stages (Ivancevich and Matteson, 1987), namely:

diagnosis of stress sources in organizational environment

using experimental research plans, when it is possible, in order to assess the effects of specific interventions;

using longitudinal assessments in order to examine the effects after some time passed, and test their persistence;

evaluation of more than one effect to avoid errors.

In many cases, the use of experimental research plans in the organizational environment is not possible; therefore quasi-experimental research plans are more feasible. The research plans that are most used are the ones using unequal groups and with an interrupted time series research design. The main difference between the two designs is that the unequal groups research design analyze the difference between the experimental group and control group, while interrupted time series design is based on the comparison between the same people after equal periods of time (Pitariu & Virga, 2008).

In conclusion, interventions at the organizational level, that aim to eliminate stressors or at least reduce their impact will be more effective if they meet a number of steps. These steps include:

a) identifying the factors that act as potential sources of stress;

b) careful assessment of the stress level experienced by employees, using indicators of stress;

c) implementation of interventions that aim to solve the problem and not just treat the symptoms;

d) use assessment criteria that are specific measures and not just at the well-being level.

Such an approach produces long-term positive effects for both organization and employees. The only thing left is for managers to be convinced of such an option!

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