Work-related stress can negatively affect individual employees as well as entire organizations. Many organizations are negatively affected by the economic costs associated with stress-related workers’ compensation claims, employee absenteeism, and turnover. In 2001, for example, the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics documented 5,659 cases of anxiety, stress, and neurotic disorder involving days away from work. Rates declined 25% between 1992 and 2001, from 0.8 per 10,000 full-time workers in 1992 to 0.6 in 2001. In 2001, most cases involved workers who were ages 25 to 54 (78.3%), female, and White non-Hispanic (64.8%). Two occupational groups accounted for more than 63% of all anxiety, stress, and neurotic disorder cases in 2001: technical, sales, and administrative support (39.9%) and managerial and professional specialty occupations (23.6%).
A wide variety of work-related environmental conditions and occupational stressors affect the well-being of employees. These work-related factors trigger a stress response characterized by the activation of the body’s physiological systems that prepare it for fight or flight. Some occupational stressors may be intrinsic to the job, such as excessive workload and work pace, abnormally long work hours, shiftwork, or harmful environmental and ergonomic conditions.
Role stressors refer to the lack of clarity or ambiguity in the way that job expectations are communicated to employees and the necessity of dealing with many, often conflicting, job responsibilities. Job insecurity resulting from downsizing, layoffs, and reengineering is a common stressor. Interpersonal stressors include workplace violence, sexual harassment, discrimination, mobbing, and other forms of workplace incivility. Many employees experience conflict between work and family. Work-family conflict exists when the role pressures of the work and family domains are mutually incompatible. Prolonged exposure to these occupational stressors has been linked to harmful physiological, psychological, and behavioral outcomes.
Physiological stress response affects the musculoskeletal system, the autonomic nervous system, and the hormone secretion and immune systems. Excessive work-related stress has been linked to negative changes in cardiovascular, hormonal, and immune system functioning. Stress affects the biochemical processes in the body by triggering hormone secretion. For example, an increase in levels of the hormone cortisol has been associated with chronic occupational stress. Employees in stressful occupations experience higher blood pressure than employees in other types of jobs. Stress also tends to exacerbate the metabolic and hemostatic risk factors, such as increased serum cholesterol levels, associated with coronary heart disease. High levels of stress are detrimental to individuals’ immune functioning through changes in the number of white blood cells and antibodies in the blood. Individuals under stress report more muscle tension, accelerated muscle fatigue, and discomfort that is associated with these symptoms. As a consequence, employees exposed to work-related stress are at risk of developing musculoskeletal disorders of the back and upper extremities.
Psychological and Emotional Consequences
Job dissatisfaction or a negative emotional state associated with one’s job situation is a common psychological reaction to adverse job conditions. Job dissatisfaction is consistently and positively correlated with work stress. Negative changes in other job attitudes are also associated with work-related stress-ors. For example, employees who experience chronic occupational stressors are less committed to the organization and more likely to think about quitting. Stressors are also associated with a variety of mood disturbances such as depression, psychosomatic complaints, disturbed sleep, and anxiety. Burnout, a common response to prolonged stress, is characterized by emotional exhaustion, depersonalization or job alienation, and reduced feelings of personal accomplishment. Burnout is also associated with such dysphoric symptoms as fatigue, loss of self-esteem, and depression. Job stress may also lead to increased feelings of hostility, irritability, and negativity.
Statistics on occupational illness and injury indicate a link with organizational stressors. Stressful work conditions are believed to interfere with workplace safety and lead to workplace injury. Stress has a negative influence on the predominate antecedent of safety behavior, the safety climate of the organization. Under stressful conditions, the perceived importance of safety decreases. As a consequence, occupational injuries become more frequent.
In laboratory settings, reduced performance is often observed in stressful situations. In many field studies, the relationship between stressors and performance found mixed support. Some stressors, such as situational constraints, may impede work performance. Stressors may also indirectly affect performance by decreasing motivation, impairing cognitive functioning, and increasing fatigue. However, overall job performance does not always suffer. A stronger relationship has been found between stressors and contextual performance, a type of performance that is not formally required of employees. This pattern indicates that in stressful situations, employees assign a higher priority to formally required tasks and are more likely to neglect discretionary behaviors.
Moreover, to elevate the tension that is caused by stressful work conditions, employees sometimes engage in counterproductive coping behaviors such as cigarette smoking or alcohol and drug abuse. These behaviors exacerbate the harmful effects of stress. Stressors are also associated with counterproductive behaviors such as sabotage, interpersonal aggression, and hostility. Stressful work conditions lead to costly organizational outcomes such as turnover intentions and actual turnover.
Factors Influencing Stress Reactions
Several individual and organizational factors are known to influence the strength and severity of stress reactions. Personality and dispositional characteristics such as negative affectivity and type A personality have been found to exacerbate the detrimental effects of stressors. Individuals who are predisposed to negative emotionality and self-concept and those who are generally hostile and impatient tend to report stronger reactions to occupational stressors.
Conversely, some individual factors are associated with less severe stress response. Individuals who believe that they control important aspects of their lives have an internal locus of control. These individuals experience fewer negative stress reactions compared with those who have an external locus of control. Self-esteem or favorable self-appraisal has been found to moderate the relationship between role stressors and health outcomes, such that individuals who have high self-esteem are less vulnerable to stress. The individual characteristic of hardiness is a combination of commitment, control, and readiness to respond to challenges. People who are high on hardiness appear to report fewer negative effects of workplace stressors.
Some studies suggest that organizational factors, such as work control or the extent to which employees have the potential to influence their tasks and work environments, may have a buffering effect on stress reactions, such that employees who exercise considerable work control experience less strain in response to stressors than do those who are in high-stress, low-control jobs. This relationship appears to be influenced by individual differences. For example, self-efficacy, or one’s level of self-confidence in carrying out the appropriate strategy in a given job situation, influences an individual’s ability to benefit from work control. Individuals who lack self-efficacy demonstrate negative reactions to highly demanding jobs despite high control levels.
Social support has also been found to buffer some of the effects of occupational stress. Specifically, the relationship between stressor and strain is thought to be stronger for individuals who lack social support. However, there is only partial empirical support for the mediating effect of social support on the stressor-strain relationship.
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