A considerable amount of research has been devoted to the manner in which individuals cope with stressful situations in daily organizational life. Coping efforts can either mitigate feelings of stress, have no impact on felt stress, or exacerbate felt stress when coping efforts fail. During the last two decades, as coping research has evolved, some researchers have focused on the trait-like aspect of coping, emphasizing the stable coping styles of individuals. Others have taken a state or situational approach, emphasizing the dynamic features of coping and viewing it as a process. Still others have taken the middle ground, treating coping patterns as stable, situation-specific styles that individuals develop over time and deploy in stressful situations.
One of the first models of stress, labeled the general adaptation syndrome, posits that, under stress, an individual senses alarm and either flees or adapts to the situation. Focusing on how individuals adapt to stress, R. S. Lazarus and his colleagues provided perhaps the most studied model of coping, often referred to as the appraisal or transactional model of stress. According to this model, coping comprises behavioral, cognitive, and emotional efforts aimed at managing external and internal demands, thereby managing felt stress and restoring an individual’s sense of equilibrium. The transactional model of the stress process includes both a primary appraisal of the stressor and a secondary appraisal of the coping mechanisms available to the individual.
The primary appraisal of a stressor will differ among individuals because perceptions of a particular stressor can vary given personality characteristics (e.g., negative affectivity, optimism, locus of control), knowledge of a stressor, or experience with a stressor. For example, a new graduate who is hired to prepare complex tax returns by the April 15 deadline will likely perceive the seasonal volume of work to be more threatening than does an experienced tax preparer who is familiar with the laws, required forms, and recurring deadline. An individual with high self-efficacy within a specific domain will perceive stressors within that domain differently than an individual who feels less efficacious and less in control. Finally, individuals with an external locus of control may perceive that sources of stress at work are beyond their control (e.g., organizational policies) and withdraw more quickly from a source of stress than an individual with an internal locus of control who is actively engaged in influencing his or her outcomes. Individuals’ reactions to stressors also differ given their perceptions of the coping choices available within the organizational context, relationships with a supervisor, and other organizational resources. In sum, individuals assess the means by which they can regain control of the situation that is generating negative feelings of stress. A large body of literature suggests that perceptions of greater control aid in reducing felt stress.
Lazarus and his colleagues argue that strain results when a person feels unable to cope with an identified threat. In other words, not every potential stressor becomes a source of strain for an individual. In the appraisal model, individuals assess whether events in the work environment have implications for their well-being. Those deemed irrelevant have no bearing on well-being. Events that could affect well-being trigger a secondary appraisal in which individuals determine the adequacy of their coping resources. In a related approach, the cybernetic model of stress and coping proposes that the discrepancy between the individual’s current state and desired state affects psychological well-being and activates coping as the individual seeks to restore well-being directly or alter the source of stress. Feelings of stress spur individuals to find a method of coping that restores a sense of cognitive and emotional balance.
Coping strategies have been defined and operationalized in a variety of ways. Different coping strategies serve different functions, such as avoiding a stressor, confronting a stressor, or analyzing a source of stress. In general, styles of coping fall into one of two categories: emotion-focused (sometimes referred to as avoidant or escapist coping) or problem-focused (sometimes referred to as instrumental or control coping). Emotion coping efforts focus on improving the feelings experienced, whereas problem-solving coping refers to proactive actions and cognitive reappraisals that are take-charge in tone. For example, running five miles after work may make one feel better after a long day at the office (emotion-focused coping), whereas making a priority list or asking for additional help from a coworker (problem-focused coping) may alter the source of the felt stress. Thus, emotion coping, in contrast to problem-solving coping, excludes any efforts to change or adapt to the stressor but instead engages in wishful thinking or avoids the stress-inducing situation through passive behavioral, cognitive, and emotional responses.
Coping efforts are also context specific, and therefore, a coping strategy may be effective or ineffective, generating different consequences in different situations. Nevertheless, the preponderance of research on coping choices has focused on individual differences, such as personality types (e.g., negative affectivity), perceptions of skills (e.g., self-efficacy), and gender, as antecedents of coping strategies. Far less research has directly assessed the relationship between situational factors and individuals’ choice of coping strategies. This is an important omission, for not only do individuals perceive and interpret potentially stressful cues from the environment differently; context may also determine which coping strategy works best for individuals given the immediate situation. For example, are coworkers available, able, and willing to help?
Individuals also assess the reactions of others in coping with stress. Will a supervisor react negatively to the coworker stepping in to help? Will a coping approach be acceptable to others in the workplace or tarnish one’s reputation? Given cultural influences on the appropriateness of emotional expressiveness among males and females, it is probable that in the United States, female employees feel much more comfortable expressing their anxiety in the workplace through conversations with coworkers, whereas male employees feel compelled to maintain an image of being strong and in charge.
In sum, individuals deploy specific coping strategies to assess and react to stressful situations. Different coping strategies carry different costs and benefits, including time invested, likelihood of success, risks of failure, and others’ perceptions of coping behavior in the work setting. A particular coping strategy becomes attractive when the benefits outweigh the costs.
Although individuals often have a preferred coping style, they use both problem-solving and escapist forms of coping. Some researchers have argued that, in general, emotion-focused coping is not as effective at reducing experienced stress as problem-focused coping because such efforts do not alter the source of stress. For example, avoiding one’s supervisor or having a drink after work may minimize one’s felt stress for a few hours, but inevitably, the negative emotions return as the effects of alcohol fade and the source of the stress remains unchanged.
An overreliance on emotion or escapist strategies can eventually have a negative influence on one’s self-image, self-confidence, and job performance. Some evidence suggests that individuals who rely exclusively on avoidant or escapist strategies report higher levels of negative consequences, including burnout, job dissatisfaction, physical symptoms, and intentions to quit. However, within limits, escapist coping is not necessarily a negative strategy. For example, exercise and relaxation techniques are helpful in the overall coping process. Additionally, cognitive approaches to escapist coping may be valuable in situations in which the individual is not ready to actively undertake the problem or the situation is resistant to change. Finally, at least one form of emotion-focused coping, seeking and receiving emotional support, appears to provide a buffer against job burnout.
Social support influences the way individuals cope and adapt to challenges. Social relationships increase an individual’s confidence in facing stressful situations, or alternatively, they may provide the information one needs to solve a stressful problem. Evidence suggests that individuals with more social support experience less strain and greater well-being. For example, sales clerks who perceive more support from their supervisors in dealing with difficult customers or a greater willingness of coworkers to take a shift for them experience less anxiety and strain when an unexpected conflict prevents them from reporting to work on time. Alternatively, social support can simply show employees that others understand their difficulties. Research suggests that individuals with greater social support experience higher levels of arousal without the negative effects associated with high-strain jobs. Because arousal, or positive stress, can motivate individuals to accomplish tasks more quickly, social support may be key to an individual’s interpretation of stressors as challenges and opportunities rather than threats.
The relationship between support and strain needs further examination. The exact nature of the support-strain relationship (antecedent, mediator, or moderator) continues to be debated, as does the importance of the source and content of support. In a series of studies, T. A. Beehr and his colleagues investigated the content of social support and identified three types of affective communication among workers: non-work-related, negative work-related, and positive work-related communications. Results indicate the content of social support expressed through conversations among coworkers appears to significantly influence the outcomes of felt stress. When workers gather at lunch to engage in gripe sessions, the “support” received may exacerbate one’s feelings of stress. Alternatively, engaging in conversations at work regarding hobbies, common interests, or the activities of one’s children may provide momentary relief from a stressor, thus allowing a worker to return to work calm and ready to reassess the problem and search for a solution. Conversations that imply others at work simply care about an individual’s well-being may also provide the necessary calming influence to allow workers to think more clearly about possible solutions.
Level of perceived social support has been linked to individual coping styles. Individuals with supportive family networks tend to use more active, problem-focused coping strategies than do individuals with less social support, who are more likely to engage in avoidant coping strategies. Personality traits also appear to influence the seeking and receiving of social support. For example, the extroversion trait may cause some individuals to consistently seek out more support, thereby influencing the amount of support received. Further work is needed to investigate how personality characteristics affect the amount of support received in the workplace.
Improving Coping at Work
Increasingly, organizations are attempting to train their employees to be more proactive in coping with workplace stress and thereby reduce the psychological and physical health problems that accompany chronic stress. Training programs vary from online courses to multiday comprehensive programs. Approaches that focus on the individual include stress management techniques (e.g., yoga, exercise, diet), time management skills, mandatory breaks and vacations, and wellness programs.
However, situational conditions created by the organization’s goals, culture, processes, or compensation packages can significantly influence employees’ coping strategies. Therefore, some organizations are assisting in employees’ coping efforts by focusing on the job itself. Stress management at the organizational level includes job rotation, ergonomic solutions, task or work redesign, increased staffing, and role clarification.
A growing number of organizations have adopted family-supportive work policies and programs such as flexible scheduling. Providing employees with alternative work schedules can reduce the strain arising from competing work and nonwork obligations. The success of such programs largely depends on managerial support for employee use of such programs. For example, employees are more likely to use a policy that allows them to arrive at work late in order to resolve a problem at a child’s school if they are confident that their manager supports such a program. Many organizations with family-friendly policies leave the implementation to the discretion of man-agers, who operate on a case-by-case basis. Such an approach may leave some employees vulnerable to the whims of a manager and inequitable treatment of employees within the same organization.
The stressor-strain relationship unfolds over time—that is, it is a process. The appraisal model of stress provides for a feedback loop, positing that an individual chooses a coping technique and subsequently assesses one’s feelings. If the felt stress remains, an individual may continue coping with the same technique or opt to try another technique. Although it is widely recognized that the experience of workplace stress and coping is a process, there are few published longitudinal studies. There is a critical need for more longitudinal studies to better understand the choice of a coping strategy and the decision to change strategies.
Given the economic costs of long-term job strain and its influence on productivity and turnover, organizations have a strong incentive to identify factors in the organizational environment that contribute to employees’ perceptions of stressors, influence coping choices, and generate chronic strain.
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