Occupational Stress

Occupational stress is a broad concept that has been defined in a variety of ways in the popular and professional literature. It is generally agreed that occupational stress consists of the harmful physical and psychological consequences to individuals that result when an imbalance exists between demands of the work environment and individual needs, abilities, and resources. Most people experience some level of occupational stress on occasion, and it is generally believed that such short-lived, episodic experiences do not pose serious or lasting harm to the individual. However, when a significant level of occupational stress persists for an extended period of time, potentially serious physical and psychological harm may occur. Although occupational stress is most often considered to be undesirable, the notion of good stress, also referred to as eustress, has been used to describe stress that motivates and energizes the worker to learn new skills and perform more effectively, without the debilitating impact typically associated with occupational stress. In the case of good stress, the result of having successfully mastered the challenge posed by the stressful condition is a sense of personal satisfaction and achievement.

Occupational stress in the American workplace is widespread and appears to be growing. When asked about primary sources of stress in their lives, a substantial number of people point to conditions in their work environments such as long hours, workload, poor communication, management problems, and lack of support, to name several examples. Recent surveys of workers suggest that as many as 80% of workers experience stress in their work, and 40% of respondents find their work to be very or extremely stressful. Occupational stress poses a very real threat to the quality of life for employees within an organization as well as a serious threat to the productivity and profitability of the organization itself.

Individual and Organizational Perspectives on Occupational Stress

Efforts to explore the origin of occupational stress have approached the question from the perspectives of both the individual and the workplace environment. Obviously, characteristics of the individual and the work environment interact to produce the various individual and organizational outcomes observed in studies of occupational stress.

Individual Perspective

When individuals experience stress, the brain mobilizes the body’s systems for defensive action in what is commonly known as the fight-or-flight response. This response is characterized by an increase in various bodily hormones that stimulate an increase in several vital functions such as heart rate, respiration, blood pressure, and muscle tension. This fight-or-flight response plays a key role in humans’ ability to protect themselves when in potentially dangerous situations, either by fleeing or fighting. However, if the stressful situation persists unresolved, the prolonged arousal of vital functions may eventually deplete the body’s resources, contributing to injury or disease.


According to the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH), a federal agency responsible for research and policy on matters of work-related illness and injury, several symptoms have been identified as early warning signs of occupational stress. These symptoms may include headaches, difficulty concentrating, sleep disturbances, upset stomach, mood disturbances, job dissatisfaction, and disturbed relationships. These early warning signs are fairly easy to recognize. Of greater concern, however, is the fact that prolonged occupational stress can contribute, in concert with other factors, to more serious physical and mental health problems that are chronic in nature and potentially life threatening. NIOSH has identified three broad categories of health problems believed to be associated with prolonged stress that include cardiovascular disease (e.g., heart disease, high blood pressure), musculoskeletal disorders (e.g., tendonitis, lower back pain), and psychological disorders (e.g., anxiety, depression).

In addition to physical and psychological difficulties, it has also been shown that individuals experience stress as a result of competing work and family roles, that is, work-family conflict. With the increase in the number of women in the workforce, the growing number of dual-worker families, and the changing nature of men’s and women’s roles in American society, it is not surprising that a significant number of people report difficulties managing the often competing demands associated with their work and family roles. Many employees with families report feeling torn between expectations of them in the workplace and their responsibilities as spouses and parents. This conflict can further contribute to the level of stress experienced.

Influencing Factors

It has been well established that individual characteristics have a significant impact on an individual’s perception, experience, and management of stress. Two individuals employed in the same work setting may provide very different reports of their own occupational stress as a result of their unique perspectives, preferences, needs, values, abilities, and experience. Perspectives may be so divergent that one person experiences stress as a positive phenomenon, serving to arouse and motivate strong performance or signify the need for a change in work or lifestyle. Another person may experience stress as negative and disruptive of performance. Often, both perspectives prove true; that is, stress may be viewed as positive and functional in the short term, but, over time, prolonged stress becomes deleterious to the individual as it weakens, erodes, and undermines psychological and physical health.

The nature and extent of occupational stress experienced, as well as one’s response to it, appears to be influenced by several different personality characteristics. Not surprisingly, individuals who are highly idealistic, set unrealistic goals, overidentify with others, and have a high need for self-affirmation tend to demonstrate greater vulnerability to occupational stress. Individuals who have an internal locus of control (tend to attribute outcomes to their own efforts rather than to factors outside of their control such as luck or chance) tend to be somewhat less susceptible to occupational stress than those with an external locus of control. Self-efficacy, the belief that one has the ability to respond effectively to the demands of the work situation, appears to buffer against the negative impact of stress. Finally, an active coping style, or one in which the individual faces challenges directly and proactively, has been associated with lower levels of occupational stress as well as with more effective response strategies for managing existing stress.


When the focus of occupational stress is the individual, the emphasis of intervention is on helping the individual to manage the stress being experienced in a way that minimizes or eliminates the negative impact of stress on work performance and the individual’s health. Many companies provide stress management assistance to their employees as a benefit of employment. This assistance might include psychoeducational programs designed to teach workers about occupational stress and its potential effects on life and health as well as strategies for reducing work-related stress. Such strategies might also include training in specific behavioral management techniques such as time management and relaxation, for example. Employee assistance programs (EAPs) are another form of help that is frequently provided on-site by employing organizations. EAPs are typically staffed by professionals with training in mental health service delivery and offer individual counseling for both work-related and personal problems. According to NIOSH, although interventions focused on stress management are often relatively inexpensive and effective in reducing symptoms of occupational stress, the benefits are often short-lived. Furthermore, because the problem of occupational stress is so widespread, interventions that target employees more broadly have the potential for greater impact. Finally, interventions focusing on the individual often ignore or overlook the real sources of the problem that exist in the work environment. For these reasons, interventions that are targeted at the work environment are often preferable.

Organizational Perspective

Organizations are complex systems structured to accomplish specific tasks (e.g., manufacture a product, provide a service) and to provide control and accountability. Although modern theories regarding organizations tend to discourage rigid, hierarchical, bureaucratic designs, these characteristics are true of most current organizations, at least to some degree. Many of these features of organizations, as well as the environments within which they operate, are sources of stress for employees who work in them. The symptoms of occupational stress may be found in the behavior of employees or in patterns within the organization’s structure.


Many different symptoms point to stress in the work environment. High levels of job dissatisfaction and related concerns are almost certain to arise eventually in stressful environments. Chronic absenteeism and tardiness are often common in highly stressful work environments, too. An unusually high turnover rate among employees is another common symptom of occupational stress that can be quite costly to the organization in terms of the time and resources required to train new people. Negative social behaviors, such as aggression, may occur more frequently in highly stressful environments. The term going postal, coined after several incidents in which disgruntled postal employees shot and killed fellow workers, has come into popular use to refer to workplace anger and violence. Increasing frequencies of stress-related physical and psychological problems among employees contribute to substantial increases in healthcare costs. Declines in productivity and the quality of workmanship are also common manifestations of a highly stressful work environment. Left unresolved, these symptoms can have devastating effects on the organization and the people employed there.

Influencing Factors

It is generally agreed that work environments have become increasingly more stressful over time. Downsizing (cutting positions or services to save costs), outsourcing (delegating jobs or services to external specialists to cut costs), and the growth of non-permanent employment contracts are examples of changes that have contributed substantially to making employees’ work lives more stressful. Many workers believe their jobs are less secure than before and feel as though they have less control over their work lives. One of the most prominent theories of job stress hypothesizes that job demands interact with control to influence the amount of stress likely to be experienced. For example, high job demands are likely to be experienced as more stressful when employees have less control over their work than when they have more control.

Organizations are often described as complex human systems, composed of several important subsystems that are highly interdependent. These subsystems, although referred to by various names, exist within all organizations and compose the organization’s structure. Three commonly identified subsystems include the operational (includes communication, roles, authority, power, norms, reward systems), purposive (includes goals, objectives, mission, core values), and methodological (includes technology, procedures, materials used) subsystems. Not surprisingly, different types and sizes of organizations operate most effectively with different types of structures. When given elements of an organization’s structure are poorly designed or managed, the result can be considerable workplace stress. For example, expectations for employees with specialized skills to serve in multiple roles may result in excessively heavy workloads and long hours for those individuals. Likewise, excessive noise or overcrowding in the workplace may occur as a result of specific technology or procedures being used. Both of these examples illustrate how structural elements of the organization can produce stressful conditions for workers. If such conditions are permitted to persist over time, it is likely that symptoms of stress will eventually emerge both in the work environment (e.g., through reduced productivity) and in the physical and psychological health of employees.

Leadership style is a very important element of organizational structure that can greatly impact workplace stress. Leaders can influence the nature and quality of the work environment in several important ways. For example, leaders can either encourage or discourage open communication across individuals and groups within the organization. Rigid, bureaucratic leaders typically tend to discourage employees from communicating effectively with one another (horizontally) and with the leaders themselves (vertically). Poor communication may inhibit the quantity and quality of information that is available and considered in decision making within the organization. Potentially negative outcomes from poorly informed decisions may further contribute to workplace stress.


Given the magnitude and breadth of the problem of occupational stress, it is generally believed that interventions that focus on changing the structure of the organization (work environment) will produce more effective and more enduring outcomes than interventions focusing on individual employees. In light of the fact that so much of work-related stress can be attributed to problems in organizational structure, it makes good sense to design organizations in ways that facilitate strong work performance while minimizing the stress experienced by employees of the organization. In the past, it was largely assumed that stress was an inevitable companion to organizational productivity. However, considerable evidence has emerged to suggest that the opposite is true; that is, productivity and worker satisfaction will be higher in organizational environments that optimize the health and welfare of employees.

Remedial approaches that focus on treating individual casualties of the stress produced in work environments will always be necessary and appropriate. Thus, there will be a continuing place for procedures designed to foster more effective management of stress at the individual level. However, the most desirable approach is one that is preventive in nature. Such an approach will require creating and maintaining work environments that are highly sensitive and responsive to the needs of workers. In reality, the most successful efforts to addressing workplace stress will likely incorporate both individual and organizational interventions.

There are many different models for facilitating organizational change, but they tend to share several common elements. For example, those to be affected by future change(s) ought to be included in all aspects of the change process. This kind of inclusion fosters ownership of the change, increases the likelihood that the change will meet the needs of those affected by it, and reduces the likelihood of resistance due to perceptions that change is being imposed. Collaboration among affected parties in identifying problems and designing and implementing changes will increase the likelihood that plans are based upon sound information and diverse perspectives. The feelings and preferences of individuals must be considered along with factual data. Finally, the worth and dignity of the indi-vidual is of paramount importance.


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