Work Stress

Work now more than ever consumes large portions of people’s lives. The importance of work in people’s lives, alongside the demands on one’s time and energy, can be a tremendous source of stress. Increases in work stress may result from people having longer work hours, threats of job loss due to organization downsizing, or a host of other factors, such as the day-to-day strains in the work environment. Aspects of one’s personal life can make dealing with stress at work even more difficult. Although many sources of stress are apparent in everyday life, most people would probably report at least some level of stress at work. In some cases, work stress can be the number one source of stress in people’s lives. Work stress can result from a lack of control over work, which can leave a person feeling undervalued and underappreciated, or it can be due to particular issues in the workplace environment, such as shift work, long work hours, time pressures, noise, surveillance and monitoring, and working with hazardous products. Interpersonal conflicts with coworkers and supervisors can also contribute to increases in work stress.

Work stress is perceived and interpreted differently by individuals, and people will cope and respond to stress in different ways. Situations that may impose stress on one individual may not be stressful to others. Individual characteristics such as personality traits and coping style can influence how a person responds to work stress. Although these characteristics can be partly responsible for how people respond to stress, working conditions such as workload demands and pressures, conflicting expectations, or fear of layoffs or being fired can influence the amount of stress that one feels. Individuals with certain personality characteristics, such as type A personality traits or people prone to depression, may respond more often and more intensely to work-related stress. Work stress can also result from an imbalance between a person’s efforts and the personal rewards he or she receives from work: for example, workers who take on responsibilities above and beyond their normal workload but who do not receive the promotion they felt they deserved.

Work stress can depend on a person’s developmental stage of life, with sources of work stress being different for a new high school graduate compared to a worker in his or her 60s. Demographic and personal factors can also be associated with work stress and include age, gender, race and ethnic differences, financial problems, family issues (i.e., caring for children or aged parents, dual-career couples). Work stress can result from a poor fit between the worker and the environment. Poor person-environment fit can lead to psychosocial stresses and strains that adversely affect the worker. A poor fit between the person and work environment can be longstanding or brought on by recent changes in the work environment, such as requiring workers to learn new forms of technology (i.e., computers).

Importance of Work in People’s Lives

The importance of work in people’s lives cannot be underestimated, and work means different things to different people. For some individuals work provides an income and is essentially a means to survive, whereas for others it gives purpose to their lives and is a means to express or fulfill their interests. Some people use work as a means to occupy their time, and there are other individuals for whom work provides self-respect, a sense of identity, and feelings of pride. It is not uncommon to find individuals who live to work, while other people work to live. Both perspectives on the meaning of work in people’s lives can be associated with work stress. For example, for individuals who live to work, their identity may be closely tied to work. They may work long hours in order to succeed and be promoted and, therefore, be more regularly exposed to stress-producing aspects of the work environment. For individuals who work to live, fear of losing their job, and therefore their income, may significantly contribute to work stress.

Work Stress and Health

While there may be some benefits to small amounts of stress, such as helping one to remain productive and challenged at work, prolonged stress can have debilitating consequences. Despite work posing an exciting challenge for people, it can significantly contribute to health problems that include both physical and psychological symptoms. Although work stress is not a disease, work stress is a negative health outcome. Work stress can lead to health problems, including the onset of new health concerns such as cardiovascular disease or it can exacerbate existing conditions such as asthma, irritable bowel syndrome, or high blood pressure. Mood and sleep disturbances, headaches, fatigue, chronic pain, and gastrointestinal problems can be associated with work stress. Depression and anxiety can also be linked to prolonged work stress. These health concerns can lead to increased absenteeism, decreased work performance, and increased health insurance expenditures. Most concerning is the relationship between work stress and behavioral problems, such as anger that can lead to violence in or out of the workplace. Work stress can also contribute to alcohol or other drug abuse, whereby people use alcohol and other drugs to regulate their emotions and cope with difficult and stressful work situations. Increased caffeine consumption and smoking may also result from work stress.

Coping with Work Stress

Given that stress in the workplace may be common and, at times, unavoidable, helping employees cope with stress is an important task for employers. Employee Assistance Programs, known as EAPs, can often serve as a first line of defense for people experiencing unmanageable work-related stress. EAPs may offer different types of educational programs to help employees cope with work stress. EAPs often offer stress management programs, which may help employees learn how to identify forms of stress in their lives; learn relaxation, time management, and coping strategies; and become aware of the effects of stress on health. EAPs also typically offer individual counseling, which can help people with personal skills reduce work stress. Personal counseling is also available to employees whose home life or personal life contributes to work stress. Counselors may help the individual cope, for example, by figuring out ways to reduce work environment conflict or to balance work and family and personal life. A counselor’s role may also be to help the individual develop and utilize a supportive network of friends and family and coworkers. Additionally, finding ways to use leisure to cope with work stress may also be helpful. Leisure time may be especially helpful in decreasing depression and anxiety brought on by work stress.

Work stress can lead to job dissatisfaction and employee turnover as well as to burnout, which is caused by a prolonged imbalance between work and the individual. Coping with stress can hopefully prevent burnout. Individuals who feel that they work in a supportive atmosphere and who feel that their work provides them with challenges are at lesser risk for burnout. Individuals who have strong interpersonal qualities and social supports may be less likely to develop burnout. Developing a person’s inner set of strengths through counseling may help to ward off burnout, build resiliency, and help work to be perceived as more satisfying and less stressful. Prevention and intervention strategies should be geared toward the individual.

Measuring Work Stress

In order to assist individuals with devising coping and intervention strategies to manage work-related stress, it may be helpful to formally assess levels of occupational stress. A tool that can be used to comprehensively measure work-related stress is the Occupational Stress Inventory-Revised Edition (OSI-R). It consists of three questionnaires comprising 140 items (total) designed to measure three domains of occupational adjustment: occupational stress, psychological strain, and coping resources. The OSI-R can be completed in 30 minutes and provides information about the domains using 14 scales. The results can be used to help individuals understand sources of their occupational stress, work roles that contribute to their stress, and outcome information about coping strategies and interventions.


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