Due to the increasing amount of time people spend in the paid labor force, there has been widespread interest in the impact that stress at work can have on health. This field identifies job stressors and their effects on individuals and families, investigates the processes that link job stress to health and the sources of individual and group differences in those processes, and designs programs to reduce workplace stress.
What Is Workplace Stress?
Researchers have identified two main types of job stressors. The first type includes stressors inherent in the occupation or job, such as heavy workloads, repetitive and boring tasks, and a lack of control at work. A workload can be heavy in a number of different ways; it might require extended hours, a high degree of alertness, or a pressured pace. Repetitive or boring tasks, such as those associated with factory/assembly line work can also be stressful. In jobs with low decision latitude, the worker has little or no control over aspects such as scheduling, location, or the manner in which tasks are completed. Interpersonal relationships with coworkers or supervisors that are nonsupportive or actively hostile are a second main type of job stressor. Many individuals work in jobs that combine several of these stressors, and in these cases the effects of the different stressors are compounded. For example, a lack of control at work may exacerbate the impact of high demands or a lack of supervisor support.
Two individuals can experience the same job condition in different ways. A number of psychological variables, such as mood, values, attitudes, and expectations, color perceptions and descriptions of the workplace. This subjective aspect of job stressors poses a dilemma for researchers who are interested in conditions as they exist outside of the individual. That is why many studies rely on objective measures (e.g., number of calls handled by police radio dispatchers) or on independent ratings to assess workplace stressors. One common approach is to use an imputation technique in which an average score, derived from ratings made by a large group of people, is assigned to each person with that job title.
Exposure to the workplace stressors just described is associated with a number of mental and physical health problems. For example, many researchers posit that positive and supportive social relationships at work enhance psychological well-being by helping to meet human needs for affiliation, approval, and a sense of belonging. Consistent with this point of view, more symptoms of anxiety and depression are reported by people who describe their social relationships at work, particularly supervisor relations, as nonsupportive. In addition, individuals who describe their jobs as involving heavy demands or constant time pressure also tend to report more emotional distress. One way to describe these problems is burnout, which refers to a combination of emotional exhaustion, physical fatigue, and cognitive weariness. The impact of workplace stress on psychological functioning is complicated by the fact that mental health can also shape some conditions at work. For instance, an individual s emotional distress can cause problems in his or her relationships with supervisors and coworkers. It is a continuing challenge for researchers in this field to study the mutual influence exerted by workplace stressors and emotional distress.
Stress interferes with the regulation of stress hormones, heart functioning, and the immune system. Workplace stress has been found to increase blood pressure not only during work hours, but also at home and even at rest. As a result, an increased risk of cardiovascular disease (CVD) is one of the primary health consequences of chronic exposure to workplace stress. Increased mortality rates have been associated with failure of a business, being fired or laid off, demotion, and personal troubles with coworkers. Studies of physical health outcomes have focused on job strain, the discrepancy between facing a high demand for performance and having little control over work tasks. It is estimated that about 15% to 25% of the working population falls into the high-strain-risk group. Job strain is associated with CVD risk factors, such as hypertension, as well as with CVD-related death. These types of health outcomes are not linked solely to job strain.
The physical and emotional residues of stress are carried beyond the end of the workday, and they continue to influence social behavior. This is seen most prominently in the family.
Occupational stressors can result in marital and parent-child relationships that are less sensitive and responsive and more negative and conflictual. There are at least two ways by which stress can be imported into the family. First, feelings of frustration, anger, or disappointment at work can be expressed at home through greater irritability and impatience and more power assertion. Second, some individuals use social withdrawal as a way of coping with job stress. In this case, there is a pervasive reduction in both the amount of social interaction and emotional responsiveness. Over time, repeated instances of social withdrawal may corrode family members’ feelings of closeness and lead to feelings of resentment and to more negative interactions. Whatever the particular mechanism, it appears that the transfer of stress from work to home is most likely to occur when workplace stressors are associated with the employed person feeling overwhelmed or having difficulty managing multiple work and family responsibilities.
Job Stress as a Process
Although research has mainly focused on the long-term health consequences of chronically stressful conditions at work, there has also been study of the short-term psychological and biological changes that accompany day-to-day fluctuations in occupational stressors. It is hoped that a better understanding of short-term responses to stress will clarify the processes that link stress in the workplace to long-term health. For example, most of the models in this field assume that immediate psychological or emotional responses to a stressor are an important part of the pathway leading to poor health. Researchers have taken the first step toward testing this assumption by showing that a temporary increase in distressed mood follows a day at work characterized by more negative social interactions or more pressures and demands than usual.
In addition to having an immediate psychological impact, high-job-strain situations are also hypothesized to result in acute biological arousal. There is evidence of heightened physiological arousal, such as increased blood pressure, heart rate, and excretion of certain stress hormones (such as epinephrine and Cortisol) on high-stress days at work. Such systemic changes can ultimately contribute to the development of CVD. Behaviors are another important part of the pathway through which stress exerts an impact on health. Work stress can affect health-related behaviors by altering dietary patterns, disturbing restful sleep, and encouraging maladaptive coping responses, such as smoking and drinking. Ironically, these behaviors tend to increase physiological arousal on high-stress days. By studying these and other acute reactions, investigators hope to uncover the mechanisms that connect workplace stress with long-term mental and physical health outcomes.
Individual and Group Differences
Not all individuals react to workplace stress in the same way. For example, individual differences in coping strategies (how one reacts when faced with an occupational stressor), the quality of life outside of work (such as how much support an individual receives from his or her social network), and the previously mentioned differences in perception all help to shape an individual’s vulnerability to occupational stressors. Two sources of group differences are gender and socioeconomic status (SES). Some research suggests that the physiological consequences of high job strain may be more significant for women than for men. The jobs available to people with low-SES backgrounds are often those that are the most demanding, allow the worker the least amount of control, and offer the fewest rewards. Thus, job strain may play an important role in linking low SES to poor health.
Stress-management interventions are sometimes implemented in the workplace to help employees deal more effectively with symptoms of stress, to modify employees’ appraisal of stressful situations, or both. Techniques such as progressive muscle relaxation, biofeedback, meditation, and cognitive-behavioral skills training are commonly used in these programs, and reports suggest they produce positive results, such as lowering anxiety, blood pressure, levels of stress hormones, muscle tension, and absenteeism. A less common approach is to alter the sources of stress at work through job redesign or organizational change strategies.
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