Psychology Of Stress In Organizations Research Paper

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Stress is a term widely used in the social sciences, but not well defined by them; it may refer to any noxious or unwanted stimulus, or to the effects of such stimuli. The concept of stress itself seems to have been borrowed from the fields of physics and engineering, where it is defined more precisely as any force applied to a body, and the resulting alteration or distortion is referred to as strain. This research paper, following those definitions, will refer to the relevant stimuli as stressors, their presence as stress, and their effects on the individual as strain.

Despite their differences in terminology and the variety of theoretical models with which they work, researchers on organizational stress agree on some or all of the following causal sequence: an objective stressor, its perception by individuals exposed to it, their appraisal of it, their immediate reactions, and its longer term effects. Models or frameworks for research along these lines have been proposed by numerous authors since the early 1960s. The major relationships specified in these models, along with some of the variables most frequently studied, are included in the ‘ISR model’ developed by French and Kahn (1962) and elaborated by Kahn and Byosiere (1992) (for a review of stress research in organizations see Fig. 1).

Psychology Of Stress In Organizations Research Paper Figure 1

1. Early Empirical Research

Empirical organizational studies, especially in the early years, were less comprehensive than these models suggest; most research on stress was limited to undesirable job characteristics and their effects on individual employees. Some studies, however, examined the extent to which this causal sequence is moderated by enduring characteristics of the individuals and by properties of the organization or its parts.

Still earlier, research and clinical observations of stress effects were carried out by physicians rather than psychologists. For example, medical doctors recognized angina pectoris and other diseases as the apparent result of ‘stress and strain’ in their patients’ lives, although they did not identify working conditions as hypothetical causes. Selye (1982), who pioneered research on the physiological effects of stress, worked almost exclusively in the laboratory, with rats as experimental subjects. The stressors in his experiments, however, are suggestive of some occupational conditions. These included alarm, sustained vigilance, and physical constraint, all of which led to consequences that Selye called the stress response or general adaptation syndrome (GAS). The GAS included damage to the adrenal glands and the lymphatic system, development of stomach ulcers, and other indications of physiological dysfunction. Selye insisted that the GAS was evoked by any of a wide range of stressful stimuli or ‘noxious agents.’

Research that was more specific to role demands in real-life settings, especially military service, was initiated by psychiatrists and psychologists during World War II (Grinker and Spiegel 1945, Janis 1951). Criterion variables in this research were mainly psychiatric symptoms. In the 1950s and 1960s, interest in occupational stress increased substantially, and experimental and field research on the subject was conducted in a number of countries. This research was stimulated by the ‘human relations movement,’ an unorganized but widespread concern about working conditions and their effects on employees. The emphasis on human relations, as the term implies, included psychological variables, both as causes and effects, in stress research. Centers of this early work were located at the University of Stockholm and the Karolinska Institute in Sweden, the Tavistock Institute in England, the Work Research Institute in Norway, the Institute for Social Research at the University of Michigan, and in a number of other academic settings.

One of the early Michigan studies (Kahn et al. 1964) investigated the effects of two occupational variables, role conflict and role ambiguity. The underlying assumption was that for each person in an organization, there is a set of other people—supervisors, subordinates, and peers—whose expectations that person must meet. Role conflict for an individual occurs when the members of his or her set disagree about what that individual should do, and role ambiguity exists when the expectations themselves are unclear. In this study the effects of these two stressors, based entirely on self-report, included increased tension, internal conflict about appropriate action, and reduced satisfaction with the job, with supervisors, and with the organization as a whole.

The Swedish research, both in laboratory and organizational settings, included physiological as well as psychosocial effects of stress. Effects of stress were measured as changes in catecholamine (adrenaline and noradrenaline) excretion, creatinine clearance, and elevations in triglyceride and cholesterol levels (Levi 1972, Frankenhaeuser 1979).

2. Recent Research Findings

The summary of more recent research findings, with recent defined as the years since 1980, follows the sequence shown in Fig. 1, from organizational and societal characteristics that are stress-generating, to the stressors themselves, their perception and appraisal by individuals, the physical and emotional and behavioral responses they evoke, and the longer term effects on those exposed to the stressors and on others associated with them.

2.1 Organizational Antecedents To Stress

Job loss has been perhaps the most intensively investigated work-related stressor. Much of the research has been conducted around plant closings and the consequences for the affected workers and their families. A program to mitigate these negative effects was developed by Price and Vinokur (1995) and experimental designs to measure its effectiveness have been carried out, first in the USA and more recently in many other countries.

The psychological and physiological strains of job loss have been demonstrated beyond question at the individual level. It is plausible therefore that high levels of general unemployment would have negative effects on health. Sociologists and economists who work with variables at institutional and societal levels, however, have seldom been concerned with the measurement of stress and its effects on individuals. Brenner and his colleagues are exceptions; they have demonstrated that the health of populations is affected by changes in economic conditions at regional and national levels (Brenner and Mooney 1983). Economic growth or decline and economic instability are substantially correlated with rates of institutionalization, suicide, and all-cause mortality. These correlations, appropriately time lagged, have been replicated in nine industrialized countries. The intervening processes of stress and strain, however, are neither specified in the theory nor included in the research.

Stress-related findings are similarly sparse at the organizational level. An early correlation from a national population sample suggested that organizational size was a source of stress, presumably because it led to increased formality and rigidity. But research in The Netherlands found a curvilinear relationship between organizational size and stress, with employees in medium-sized companies reporting higher levels of both stressor presence and strain experienced. In short, research evidence indicates that organizations differ significantly in their levels of stress and strain, but does not say what structural properties explain these differences.

Somewhat more research has been done on the stress patterns associated with different positions within organizations. These studies, almost none of them replicated, suggest that span of control and location at an organizational boundary expose employees to increased stress. Data on the effects of hierarchical position are inconsistent, with some studies showing maximum stress at highest positions and other studies showing curvilinear patterns.

Occupation, which perhaps can be considered an organizational factor once removed, has been much studied for its health consequences. Most occupational studies by social scientists, however, do not deal explicitly with stress; they report outcome differences in health or other indicators of well-being and leave the intervening processes to the imagination of the reader.

2.2 Organizational Stressors

Job characteristics that have been identified as stressors are a miscellaneous set, some of them technological, some policy-determined, and still others interpersonal in origin. Most studied are such physical conditions as monotony and repetitiveness, shift work, the need for sustained vigilance, exposure to extremes of temperature, and ambient presence of noise and vibration. A few other job characteristics, more social psychological than physical, have also been identified as stressors; these include role conflict, in which a person is subjected to incompatible demands; role ambiguity, in which a person is not given adequate information about the requirements of the job; role overload, in which the quantitative or qualitative demands of the job exceed the person’s resources or ability; and lack of autonomy, perhaps the most frequently heard complaint of people in nonsupervisory positions.

2.3 Perception And Cognition

Some stressors, as toxicological research has demonstrated, can have effects without having been perceived by people exposed to them. Most organizational sources of stress, however, are recognized by the people they affect; their seriousness is assessed, and their physical and psychological impact is mediated by that cognitive assessment. Most research on organizational stress does not distinguish between the objective stressor and its subjective perception and evaluation by people exposed to it. Lazarus and his colleagues, however, have concentrated on this sequence of perception and cognition, which they call the appraisal process (Lazarus and Folkman 1984). There is strong experimental evidence that an individual’s appraisal of a stressor and the degree of its threat to his or her well-being has effects that are independent of its objective properties. Lazarus’s work has been almost exclusively experimental and not directly concerned with organizational sources of stress. Beehr and Bhagat (1985), however, have brought together those organizational studies that utilized appraisal as a predictor of strain.

2.4 Responses To Stress

Responses to organizational stress are usually classified as physiological, psychological, and behavioral. Ideally, the effects of a stressor would be measured in all three of these domains. In practice, however, the disciplinary background of researchers seems to determine the choice of criterion variables. Physicians and epidemiologists concentrate on physiological responses; psychologists are more likely to emphasize self-reports of strain and behavioral change.

2.4.1 Physiological Responses. Job-related stress has been repeatedly shown to affect three kinds of physiological responses—cardiovascular, biochemical, and gastrointestinal. Cardiovascular responses to job stress include elevations in blood pressure and heart rate. Biochemical responses include elevations in cholesterol level and in catecholamines (epinephrine and norepinephrine). Gastric symptoms have been assessed primarily by self-report, sometimes with the inference of peptic ulcer. Among the stressors that evoke these symptoms are role conflict and ambiguity, unpredictability of work load and other demands, lack of control over pace and method of work, and ambient distracting noise. Repetitive motions, on jobs that require heavy lifting and on those that are limited to keyboard work, have been interpreted as causing a variety of musculoskeletal complaints, from back pain to carpal tunnel syndrome. Swedish research has been a major source of information on physiological responses to work-related stress. For summaries that include this research, see Kahn and Byosiere 1992 and Lundberg 1999.

Finally, job insecurity and actual job loss must be counted among the more serious sources of work- related stress. Studies of unemployment and job loss have been numerous for many decades, especially at times when unemployment rates were high. More recently, studies of job loss and of job insecurity have been stimulated by widespread reductions in force, usually referred to as corporate downsizing. Most such research has not included physiological measures. The early study of plant closings by Cobb and Kasl (1977) is an exception; it showed elevations in blood pressure, heart rate, cholesterol level, and catecholamine output. These symptoms occurred during anticipation of job loss and continued through the time of actual dismissal. A gradual return to pre- stressed levels then began and was completed as workers found new employment and adjusted to their new jobs. More recent research on the impact of job loss has included findings on the mitigating effect of an experimental program of counseling and peer support (Price and Vinokur 1995).

2.4.2 Psychological Responses. Many studies of job stress include psychological responses, and they have been summarized in a number of review articles (Holt 1982, Cooper and Payne 1988, Kahn and Byosiere 1992, Lundberg 1999). As these reviews indicate, most of the psychological responses to job stress in this research are self-reported and unlinked to clinical validation or physiological measures. An exception is the work of colleagues at Stockholm University, both at the Karolinska Institute and the Department of Psychology (Stockholm University 1999).

By far the most frequently cited response to job stress is dissatisfaction with the job. More intense affective responses include anger, frustration, irritation, and hostility toward supervisors and the organization as a whole. Other negative responses correlated with job stress are more passive; among them are boredom, burnout, fatigue, feelings of helplessness and hopelessness, and depressed mood. Many of these words are virtual synonyms, a fact that reflects the tendency of researchers to design and label their own measures rather than replicate previous work. Replication in diverse organizations would be very useful, however, as would the combination of physiological and behavioral criteria with psycho- logical responses.

2.4.3 Behavioral Responses. Two behavioral correlates of job stress are well replicated: reductions in job performance and increased absence. Several studies also reported increased turnover and increased use of tobacco. A review of these (Kahn and Byosiere 1992), along with a larger number of unreplicated findings, subsumed the behavioral responses to job stress into five broad categories:

(a) Degradation/disruption of the work role itself (job performance, accidents, errors, etc.);

(b) Aggressive behavior at work (stealing, purposeful damage, spreading rumors, etc.);

(c) Flight from the job (absenteeism, turnover, early retirement, etc.);

(d) Degradation/disruption of other life roles (marriage, friendships, citizenship);

(e) Self-damaging behaviors (drug use, alcohol use, smoking, etc.).

2.5 Mediators Of Stress

The model used in this brief review shows two sets of variables that might act to mediate or buffer the effects of job stress: enduring properties of the person and properties of the work situation itself.

That people differ in their sensitivity of job stress is beyond argument, and many demographic and personality characteristics have been proposed as stress mediators. No single characteristic mediates the effects of stress in all cases, but evidence for a stress-buffering effect has been found for at least three personality traits: Type A, locus of control, and self-esteem. Type A individuals (competitive, impatient, aggressive) showed greater strain than Type B individuals working under comparable conditions. People high in internal control (belief that their own choices and decisions make a difference) show less strain than people who score high in external control (belief that their circumstances are determined by ‘external’ forces beyond their control). High self-esteem also seems to offer some protection from the effects of job stressors.

Few situational factors have been studied for their ability to buffer the effects of job stress. Social support is the exception; both its main effects and its buffering or interaction effects have been frequently tested. Findings are more consistent for main effects than for interactions; social support from various sources— supervisors, co-workers, family, and friends—predicts lower overall strain. Buffering effects have been frequently found as well, but the reasons for its failure in some cases are not clear. An earlier review (LaRocco et al. 1980) proposed that social support buffered (i.e., reduced) the relationship between various job stressors and indicators of mental and physical health but not between job stressors and more specific job strains (boredom, job dissatisfaction, dissatisfaction with workload).

Autonomy on the job is a second factor in the work situation that has been studied for its buffering as well as its main effects on strain. Karasek and his colleagues (1981), analyzing national survey data from the USA and Sweden, found that, among workers with heavy job demands, those who had low decision latitude (little control over pace and method) reported symptoms of physiological and psychological strain; for those who had high decision latitude, however, the relationship between job demands and strain did not hold.

3. Unresolved Issues In The Study Of Stress

Research on organizational sources of stress continues and it is appropriate, therefore, to conclude by mentioning some issues that require the attention of stress researchers. They can be summarized in three categories: unresolved questions of concept and theory and of method and design.

3.1 Questions Of Concept And Theory

A longstanding issue in stress theories is the distinction between stimuli that are stressful and those that are not. Stress theories must not imply that the optimum human state is absence of stimuli; to the contrary, research on sensory deprivation has demonstrated the negative effects of that state. Moreover, some stimuli are pleasant or exciting at some levels or for brief periods, but unpleasant or damaging at higher levels or longer duration. Furthermore, physical or mental demands that are experienced as stressful or challenging may have training or strengthening effects rather than effects that are weakening or damaging in other ways.

Selye (1982) attempted to distinguish between two kinds of task-related stress, eustress and distress, on the basis of the prospect for successful task completion or achievement. He did not argue that eustress avoids the long-term physiological effects of stress, but rather that to some extent these are unavoidable in life. Eustress and the psychological rewards of achievement, however, make the effort worthwhile. Levi (1972) had earlier dealt with this problem in more quantitative terms. He proposed that stress be thought of in terms of a continuum of stimulation, in which conditions of both understimulation (deprivation) and overstimulation (excess) were stressors. Somewhere between these extremes were the domains of pleasant stimulation, challenge, and training effect.

Another issue in stress research, which is as important for methodology as for concepts and theory, is the distinction between crisis events and chronic conditions. Stressful life events—job loss, bereavement, illness, and the like—have been prominent in stress research, at least since Holmes and Rahe (1967) published a scale that gave researchers a basis for rating their intensity and their combined demand as stressors. Lazarus and his colleagues (Lazarus and Folkman 1984) have emphasized the stress effects of chronic conditions, daily hassles, rather than the stressful life events (SLEs) that characterize the work of Holmes and Rahe (1967) and of Dohrenwend and her colleagues (Dohrenwend and Dohrenwend 1984). More recent work by McEwen and his colleagues (McEwen 1998) has introduced the concept of allostatic load, which has something in common with the daily hassles of Lazarus. Allostatic load refers to the stress effects of sustained physical or psychological demands, even when individuals are coping with them successfully. Theories of psychological stress have yet to deal fully with these issues.

3.2 Issues Of Method And Design

The main weaknesses of design in organizational research on stress are three, all of them long-standing: overreliance on self-report, on cross-sectional designs, and on single organizations. Exclusive dependence on self-reported data means that all respondents in a study describe their perceptions of some working condition and the symptoms of strain that they experience. At best, this design limitation generates data of uncertain validity as descriptors of the work situation; at worst, it is a near tautology.

The reliance on cross-sectional rather than longitudinal designs is by no means a special defect of research on job stress; it is a common weakness in social research. The criticism is similarly familiar; causal inferences from cross-sectional data are notoriously weak. The usual reliance on single organization designs makes it impossible to bring organizational variables into the analysis of job stress.

If one could write prescriptions for research on job stress, therefore, there would be more designs that were longitudinal, that included objective measures of job characteristics, that included physiological as well as self-reported measures of strain, and that traced the effects of job stress on the performance of both work and nonwork roles. All these improvements are within reach and each of them is occasionally exemplified in current research. Progress in stress research requires that they become more general in future research.


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