Employee Stress

Employee Stress and as a social minister show how you would help your organization to cope up with organizational stress.


Increasingly, employers are paying greater attention than in the past to the effects of stress on their staff, especially on their key management personnel. The paper is about employee stress and how to cope organizational stress. An organization exists when two or more persons agree to collaborate over a period of time in order to achieve certain common goals (Cole, G. 1995, 5). It encompasses practically any level of social unit but our concern in this discussion is work organizations as structured in a formal way. Organization behaviour refers to the study of the way individuals and groups behave at work, including the analysis of the interrelationships between individuals and groups, their interaction with their environment, and the conduct of change (Cole, G. 1995, xi). The rational of organizational behavior is to predict and/or control individual and group behavior in the pursuit of management goal, which may or may not be shared throughout the organization. A change agent who is an external person who acts as a facilitator or catalyst in the process of change in an organization, and who provides key analytical skills designed to give the client organizations members an insight into what is going on in terms of people's reactions to change in themselves, their colleagues and their environment (Cole 1995, viii).

What is 'stress'? It can best be described in lay terms as the adverse psychological and physical reactions that occur in individuals as a result of their being unable to cope with the demands being made on them. Stress refers to the bodily changes that can take place when the external pressures on an individual reach an intolerable pitch causing weakened job performance and ill health. The level of stress depends on several factors, especially the individual's personality and perceptions of his ability to cope with external pressures (Cole, 1995, xii). Stress is triggered not by the external problems faced by individuals, but by the way they cope (or fail to cope) with those problems.
Thus, most people can cope with a variety of pressures in their life, and many seem to thrive on 'pressure', especially at work. However, once individuals fail to deal adequately with pressure, then symptoms of stress appear. In the short-term these can be manifested in such conditions as indigestion, nausea, headaches, back-pain, loss of appetite, loss of sleep and increased irritability. In the longer-term, such symptoms can lead to coronary heart disease, stomach ulcers, depression and other serious conditions. Clearly the effects of stress, whether triggered by work problems or domestic/social problems, will eventually lead to reduced employee performance at work, increased sickness absence and even to an early death.

In a widely reported study of stress carried out in the 1960s (Holmes and Rahe), most of the life-events referred to as potentially leading to stress occur in a person's domestic and social life, not at work. Critical events include death of spouse, divorce, death of close relative, personal injury or illness, marriage, loss of job, retirement and change in financial state. However, since individuals bring their problems with them to work, it scarcely matters in one sense whether the trigger for stress is work-related or not, for the effect on the individual is just the same and his or her work performance is likely to be adversely affected.

The argument goes as follows;
(a) The external pressures on individuals' vary substantially,
(b) Individuals also differ substantially (e.g. phlegmatic personality types are much more likely to reach calmly in a range of situations that neurotic types); therefore,
(c) Individuals' reactions to pressure (the 'stress reaction') will also differ, leading in some circumstances to the ability to cope and in other circumstances to long-term ill-effects. Stress in a limited form, ie as 'pressure' can provide a positive spur to performance. However, whenever, when stress increases (i.e. real stress') beyond a certain point the individual is likely to find it difficult to cope with, and thus performance is adversely affected.

The logic of the diagram is that at lower levels of stress an individual functions perfectly capably, even better than under normal conditions, but at higher levels the individual begins to develop stress symptoms and performance declines over time. Most of the modern discussion about stress focuses on the latter situation, i.e. where a person is unable to cope and develops dysfunctional behaviour leading to substantially-reduced performance at work. Most researchers now acknowledge that stress is a personal, subjective reaction to pressure.
It depends on an individual's perception both of the scale of the problem and their own ability to cope with it. So, where an individual perceives that (1) the problem is manageable, and (2) is confident in his or her ability to handle the problem, then the symptoms of stress is unlikely to appear, however much pressure is exerted by the problem.

Factors that cause stress at work
It is possible to gather a number of the key factors in stress into a working model of stress. These factors can be divided into a number of groupings; environmental factors, job and organisational factors, personal relationships, domestic situation, and personality factors. These groupings represent potential sources of stress, depending on the attitude of the individual towards the problem, the uncertainty and perceived importance of the outcomes, and the individual's level of self-confidence. Important examples of specific factors that have been found to contribute to stress are set out below under each of the main groupings.

Sources and examples of Factors

External environment
' Economic situation for the industry (especially where the industry is in decline and redundancies are common place).
' Competitive situation for the organisation (e.g. uncertain market position may lead to withdrawal vulnerability to take-over possible retrenchment of the business)
' Arrival of new technology (may lead to reduction in jobs and/ or skill requirements; or pressure to acquire new knowledge and skills).
' Political changes may affect organisations vulnerable to political influence (e.g. state- owned businesses, key industries in energy, military equipment etc)
Organisational factors
' Organisation structure (especially where the pattern of jobs, and the attendant rules and regulations, constrain the individual's range of choices in how to do the job)
' Communication system (where this does not facilitate communication with colleagues) Organisation culture (especially if the dominant ethos is one of internal competition for resources, rewards etc, or where a 'hire and fire' policy operates).
' Management style (especially where the individual finds it difficult to adapt to his superiors' management style e.g. because it is too autocratic or too participative).
' Career development (especially where individuals' efforts are unrecognised in terms of promotion, extra training etc).
Job characteristics
' Physical conditions (where these are adverse).
' Intrinsic job demands (i.e. where the nature of the tasks require repetition, or offer insufficient challenge, or are simply too excessive for one person).
' Degree of autonomy (where this is insufficient to meet either the demands of the job and / or the expectations of the job-holder).
' Role conflict (i.e. where the organisation's expectations of the role either (1) lead to confusion with related roles, or (2) do not meet the job- holder's expectations).
' Contractual terms (especially where these provide for rewards on a high-performance basis e.g. meeting targets, production quotas etc, or where the rewards are seen as poor in relation to the demands of the job).
Work relationships
' Superiors - especially where individuals fail to achieve a reasonable working relationship with their immediate superior
' Colleagues - an inability to get on reasonable terms with fellow team-members or colleagues from other sections can be source of consider- able unhappiness; women, in particular, may suffer from male patronage or sexual harassment (Davidson & ooper, 1983)4
' Own staff - many people appointed to their leadership role in the organisation find it stressful to deal with the demands of their own staff
Domestic situation
' Home life - upheavals at home due to family illness, care of elderly parents, unhappy marriage, debt problems etc are problems that can overflow into the workplace and adversely affect an individual's performance and attitude.
' Outside social life - individuals with a rich social life (e.g. active in Rotary etc) may find that work and leisure clash, especially "their organisation expects them to work unsocial hours or to be available at short notice.
Personal factors
' Individual perception of role/ job etc - as noted above, the individual's perceptions of tasks etc and their difficulty is a key factor in the stress formula
' Personality type - research suggests that certain types (e.g. Type A personalities) are much more vulnerable to stress symptoms than others (e.g. Type B)
' Ability to adapt to change - adaptable individuals are less prone to stress than those who are inflexible
' Motivation - i.e. where a person is deeply committed to his or her work, they are more likely to find ways of coping with potentially stressful situations than someone with a low
' Tolerance for ambiguity - where an individual can tolerate uncertainty (e.g. role/ task ambiguity), stress is less likely
Given that stress is essentially related to personality and personal perceptions, the references above to Type A and Type B personalities is important. Friedman & Rosen man (1974) identified the Type A personality in their researches into coronary patients. Type As are the people who were identified as at great risk of heart disease. They are characterised by excessive competitiveness, a chronic sense of urgency of time, a constant search for achievement, and behaviour that tends to be aggressive, impatient and restless. Such personalities are constantly engaged in activity and express feelings if they try to relax. Type B personalities have none of the characteristics, are altogether calmer and more relaxed.

Symptoms of stress
' Physiological - in addition to the short-term reactions of increased heart tensed muscles and extra adrenalin secretion mentioned earlier as an being's instinctive reaction to danger, the chronic longer term effect of stress are associated with such unhealthy conditions as coronary disease, high blood pressure, indigestion gastric ulcers, back pain even cancer. Stress is also likely to be manifested less serious infections, allergies and physical disorders.
' Psychological - in chronic situations the psychological symptoms of stress manifests in anxiety state (phobias, obsessions etc) depression. In less serious cases, stress emerges in the form of tension, irritability, boredom and job dissatisfaction.
' Behavioural - ultimately the physiological and psychological symptoms lead to generalised changes in behaviour such as loss of appetite, increased cigarette smoking and alcohol consumption and sleeplessness. In the workplace behaviour may take the form of increased absences (flight), aggression towards colleagues (fight).

Coping Strategies
Strategies for coping with stress can best be analysed under two headings; personal strategies and organisational strategies. The former include actions that individuals can take at work and outside of work to increase their ability to cope with sustained pressure and thus avoid the symptoms of stress. The latter include a number of organisational steps that can be taken to reduce the likelihood of stress due to structural and style problems in the organization.

Personal coping strategies
In their study of women managers, Davidson and Cooper (op. cit) asked their respondents to give their answers to a number of questions relating to 'positive coping strategies'. These included such questions as 'How often do you use the following to relax?' on a 1 (Never) - 5 (Always) scale:
' Relaxation techniques?
' Exercise?
' Talking to someone you know?
' Using humour?
' Leaving the work area?

These questions provide some clues as to the sort of actions at a physiological and psychological level that individuals themselves can take to reduce the effects of stress in their lives. However, the responses implied by these particular questions are more concerned with external aspects of stress. What is especially important in becoming more stress-free is to examine one's own attitudes towards personal strengths and weaknesses, and this is more a matter of assertiveness and personal planning.
Rights and personal coping strategies
A good deal of stress could be avoided if people paid more attention to their own rights. Assertiveness, as noted earlier (Chapter 10) is a question of standing up for your own rights, but in a way that does not violate another person's rights. Assertiveness is also concerned with expressing (i.e. making known) personal wants, feelings and opinions in honest and appropriate ways. This latter point is important because, if other people do not know how we are feeling about a particular action, or decision, made on our behalf, how can they appreciate our problem and how can they begin to address it?
What sort of rights should a person be able to assert at work? Clearly, there are statutory rights to do with conditions of employment.., there are rights arising from the organisation's policies (e.g. flexible working hours, appropriate training etc). These are written rights, which are easy to identify and defend, if necessary. Much stress, however, is caused by the individual's failure to obtain unwritten 'rights', or 'assertive rights' as they are often called. At work, such rights could include the following:
General rights
' to be treated with respect as a person
' to be permitted to express personal opinions and ideas
' to be given a fair hearing in a discussion or argument
' to be permitted to make mistakes

Job-related right
' to be clear about what is expected of me
' to given sufficient resources (including authority) to undertake the job satisfactorily
' to be able to do the job in my own way, subject to necessary constraints and meeting targets
' to be consulted about matters affecting my job and of my team, where appropriate
' to make mistakes occasionally

Once a person has made satisfactory headway in negotiating their assertive rights, then they can employ other ways of coping with stress at a personal level, such as time management and personal planning. In these Atkinson (1988) suggests several ways of avoiding stress at work, which can be summarised as follows:
' Decide on your priorities and get agreement for them
' Be assertive (e.g. By expressing your state of overwork and seeking assistance)
' Be aware of yourself (especially in terms of your type a or b characteristics) and act accordingly to reduce stress
' Do not procrastinate, but act now
' Examine your deadlines and inform others if you think you are going to be late
' Take a step by step approach to big tasks - do not try to do everything at once
' Talk to others about your problems
' Do not take yourself too seriously
' Use time management techniques to deal with problems of meetings, paperwork, interruptions etc
' Take up a sport or hobby

The conclusions that can be drawn from the above coping strategies are that individuals can help themselves significantly to avoid, or at least reduce, stress at work by asserting their personal and job-related rights, by planning their priorities and use of time, and by taking appropriate steps to relax and take exercise.

Organisational strategies for handling stress
When an organisation's employees suffer from stress, the results are likely to take the following forms:
' High levels of absenteeism
' Lower productivity and missed targets
' Increased accident and error rates
' Increased number of internal conflicts
' Excessive staff turnover
Assuming that these overt manifestations of stress are merely the tip of an iceberg, then it is likely that the organisation is going to be faced with a range of subsidiary symptoms indicating dissatisfaction at work.

Overall, the costs to the organisation are likely to be substantial. It is, there-fore, in the interests of the senior management to set about reducing the overall levels of stress for individuals so that the organisation as a whole can function properly. What steps can organisations take?
The steps they can take to reduce the experience of stress among their work-force can be considered under two main headings (1) stress avoidance measures, and (2) stress reduction measures. The former are aimed at removing the potential for stressful situations, while the latter are aimed at containing stress within reasonable bounds when it does occur. Both sets of measures are implemented at an organisational rather than individual level.

Stress avoidance by organisations
It was suggested earlier that among the sources of stress for individuals are their job characteristics, work relationships, organisation structure and the organisation's culture. Given that a certain amount of pressure can have a positive effect on employee performance,
what can organisations do to ensure that pressure does not lead to stress? .t is a difficult balance for a healthy, active organisation to achieve. However, there are certain steps that can be taken to provide the necessary incentives for employees without building up chronic stress. These can be summarised as follows:
Addressing the sources of stress in an organization
Job characteristic
' Design Jobs to permit use of skill and discretion by job-holder; incorporate sufficient task variety and challenge to maintain employee interest, ensure that tasks are sufficiently related to form a coherent job; provide mechanism for giving early feedback on performance.
' Design work so as to allow the exercise of responsibility by the job-holders, provide sufficient authority to enable job-holders to carry out their responsibilities adequately, allow job- holders to share in decisions that affect their work, allow for learning opportunities through work; and ensure clear work goals and targets that do not conflict with those set for others.
' Superiors can develop participative management styles that allow for discussion of issues, where appropriate, and real delegation of authority; leaders pay attention to individuals.
Work relationship
' Superiors can develop participative management styles that allow for discussion of issues, where appropriate, and real delegation of authority; leaders pay attention to individual's needs as well as those of the task and the group; leaders required to deal immediately
with cases of bullying, sexual harassment, racist behaviour etc.
' Colleagues/workmates accept fellow team- members in a cooperative spirit; team members support each other; individuals valued for their role.
' Own staff (i.e. for managers and supervisors) - adequate training in handling staff is provided; immediate superiors able to provide diplomatic support where necessary; implementation of proper disciplinary procedures to cater for uncooperative or disruptive employees.

Organization structure
' Hierarchy of jobs is reduced to the minimum (i.e. flatter structure) to permit wide use of skill, discretion and authority.
' Communication systems are designed to encourage communication between departments/ sections as well as vertically through the management chain; grievance procedures are rapid and discreet; positive feedback is encouraged (e.g. by job results, staff appraisal etc). .
' Decision-making processes in the organisation are delegated as far as is reasonable down the organisation; people at every level are able to share in decisions affecting (a) their work and (b) their future prospects; results of decisions affecting employees are notified as sort as possible.
Organisation culture
' Attitudes towards employees are positive, even when customers are regarded as the 'number one priority' where attention to product/ service quality is paramount, this should reflect itself in respect for employees' knowledge, skills and contribution; reasonable risk taking is encouraged, and mistakes seen as learning opportunities rather than grounds for criticism; employees are regarded as the organisation's best asset in meeting the wants and demands of customers and other external.

Organizational Responses to Stress Avoidance
What can employers do to help employees who are suffering from stress? Firstly, and this applies only if the causes of the stress are work-related, they can investigate the source and take appropriate action, such as:
' Change individual's job responsibilities (give more or reduce)
' Provide greater opportunity for personal autonomy in job
' Set agreed job targets for employees
' Provide appropriate training (e.g in time management, assertiveness etc)
' Permit flexible hours, reduce time spent away from home etc
' Put a stop to any bullying and sexual/racial harassment
' Improve physical working conditions
' Relocate employee to another office or work-base
' Provide counseling facilities
' Provide fitness centres/programmes for their employees
NB: many Japanese employers insist on employees doing physical exercises before their daily work.
Secondly, and this applies in all cases of employee stress, employers can help support employees ability to cope with the stress. Steps that could be taken, in addition to or instead of those mentioned above include the provision of:
' Counseling services
' Team/workgroup workshops on stress
' Sports and social facilities
' Relaxation classes
' Adequate canteen and rest-room facilities

Managers may sometimes wonder why they have to spend time dealing with employees whose problems are domestically-related, but the fact the matter is that employees cannot help but bring their personal problems with them to work. Most people are usually too embarrassed to admit that they are having acute problems with their spouse, teenage children or elderly parents. Thus they tend to suppress their anxieties when they come to work, and all too often the first that a manager learns of a problem is ether when the employee beings to take increased amounts of sick leave or when confronted by requests for time off to attend a solicitor's, or a juvenile court or a funeral.

Most managers are not and probably do not want to become, trained counselors. However, it is important for the well-being of a team that the leader should take sufficient time out to listen to a stressed employees story, agree that the immediate situation should be taken into account in respect of performance, work-load etc, and propose that the employee seeks professional help. In other words, the manager's job in such circumstances is to reassure himself/herself that the employee's situation is not being allowed to draft but is being managed both by the individual concerned and the manger.

G. A. Cole, (1995), Organizational Behaviour: Theory and practice, Chenington House, Andover
G. A. Cole, Management: Theory and Practice, 5th Edition (1996), Ashford Colour Press Ltd, Gasport

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