Stress Models and Theories

Occupational stress research refers to the study of the negative impact of organizational environments on employees. In the last half century, occupational stress has become an important topic within the field of industrial and organizational psychology, and there is no reason to believe this will change in the near future. In this entry, some of the most common models and theories that have guided occupational stress research are described.

Before providing an overview of the models and theories, it is important to define these two terms. In science, a model is a replica or abstraction of some phenomenon or process. A theory is very similar to a model; the difference, however, is that a theory is more abstract. Specifically, a theory presents a set of ideas and propositions about something, whereas a model represents a detailed description of how those ideas fit together to explain some process or phenomenon.

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In the social and behavioral sciences, models and theories are useful to both researchers and those who apply research findings in real settings. For researchers, models and theories help to guide investigations and serve as benchmarks by which research findings can be evaluated. Many research studies are either direct tests of models or theories or use models and theories to set them up. It is common to evaluate research findings on the basis of whether they are or are not consistent with some model or theory.

Occupational Stress Models and Theories

Before describing the specific models and theories used in occupational stress research, the manner in which they are used in this field of study must be discussed. Like other areas of industrial and organizational psychology, models and theories are used to guide occupational stress research and evaluate research findings. Unlike researchers in other areas, however, few occupational stress researchers conduct direct model tests (one notable exception will be described later). The most likely reason is that models and theories in occupational stress are generic, and thus they are hard to use to directly derive testable hypotheses.

In describing models and theories, a distinction can be made between generic frameworks, general models, and testable theories. Generic frameworks are general theories or theoretical propositions that guide research but cannot be empirically tested. General models represent a higher level of specificity than generic frameworks in that they describe specific steps in the stress process. Though general models can be tested, they rarely are, either because the components of such models are so general or because the models are very complex. Testable theories are the most concrete and, in that sense, represent the only truly testable hypotheses in the field of occupational stress.

Generic Frameworks

Most readers who have had any exposure to the field of occupational stress have heard of Hans Selye, whom many acknowledge as the “father of stress.” Selye, a medical researcher, was studying sex hormones when he noticed that the reactions to adverse physical conditions of the animals he used in his research tended to follow a similar pattern. From these observations, he came up with the general adaptation syndrome (GAS) as a response to stressors, and this has become a common generic framework in stress research.

According to the GAS, when faced with a stressor, an individual will progress through three stages: alarm, resistance, and exhaustion. In the alarm stage, the body’s physiological systems react to a stressor or threat in the environment. This is represented by increased heart and respiration rates, as well as increased production of adrenal hormones; in a sense, the body is preparing for battle. In the resistance stage, the body continues to fight the stressor threat using the same mechanisms that kicked into action in the alarm stage. In some cases, the effort that the body puts forth in the resistance stage is enough to mitigate or at least neutralize the stressor or threat. If this is not the case, the body can only hold out so long, and if the stressor persists, it will ultimately reach the third stage, exhaustion. In this final stage, the mechanisms the body uses to fight the stressor will wear down and sustain damage; in the animals Selye observed, the exhaustion stage often ended in death.

Although the GAS cannot be directly tested in organizational settings, it can be an important lens through which to understand the stress process. Consider, for example, an employee who works for an abusive, rude supervisor. When this employee first encounters the supervisor’s abusive behavior, the stressor is likely to evoke a number of physiological and psychological reactions, which could be considered alarms. If the abusive behavior continues over time, the employee will attempt to cope with the situation in some way, perhaps by trying to reason with the supervisor, fighting back, or simply trying to interact with him or her as little as possible—all of these responses could be considered forms of resistance. Over time, however, if these efforts do not reduce the abusiveness of the supervisor, the employee may develop emotional or physical problems or perhaps leave the organization altogether, which would represent exhaustion.

Another notion that is prevalent in occupational stress research and may be considered a generic framework is that of person-environment fit. The basic idea of person-environment fit, which certainly could be applied to many areas of psychology, is that people tend to be happier and adapt better when they fit into the environment they are placed in. Organizational research—and occupational stress research in particular—has focused on the skill and ability requirements of jobs and the skills and abilities possessed by job incumbents. As one might imagine, the most stressful work situations are those in which an employee lacks the skills and abilities to perform his or her job. It may also be problematic if an employee possesses skills and abilities that are far above those required by the job that he or she is performing.

Though early work on person-environment fit focused on skills and abilities, more recent work has expanded the concept to other areas, such as the fit between organizational culture and an individual’s personality, the fit between work content and an individual’s interests, and the fit between specific types of work organization (e.g., team-based work) and an employee’s skills and preferences. In general, research has supported the basic notion of person-environment fit.

General Models

By far, the most popular general model of occupational stress was developed by researchers at the Institute for Social Research (ISR) at the University of Michigan during the early 1960s. The ISR model, as it is known, was developed to serve as a guide for one of the first large-scale studies of occupational stress funded by the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health.

The ISR model proposes that all employees in organizations encounter objective characteristics of the work environment, such as the amount of work they are assigned. These objective characteristics of the work environment are perceived or appraised by the employee, and based on this appraisal, there is some short-term reaction that may be psychological, physical, or behavioral in nature. If an employee exhibits these short-term reactions for a long period of time, his or her response may ultimately lead to poor mental or physical health.

In addition to describing the process by which stress leads to mental and physical health problems, the ISR model proposes that each step in this process may be affected by characteristics of the individual (e.g., demographic characteristics, personality traits), as well as the interpersonal relations within the individual’s work environment. This aspect of the model has become very important, particularly in recent years, because much occupational stress research has focused on how individual differences influence the stress process.

Although occupational stress researchers have not focused on testing the ISR model, its importance to the field of occupational stress cannot be overstated. Its focus on the psychological interpretation of the work environment, in particular, has influenced the way researchers measure stressors. Specifically, most occupational stress researchers assess work-related stressors by using employees’ perceptions of stressful aspects of the work environment. Unfortunately, however, this focus on perceptions led researchers to pay too little attention to the objective environment—a criticism often leveled at occupational stress research conducted by social and behavioral scientists.

The other general model of occupational stress that has influenced a great deal of research was described by Terry Beehr and John Newman in an extensive review published in 1978. According to this model, characteristics of the individual interact with characteristics of the work environment through perceptual or appraisal processes. Based on the precise nature of this interaction, there may be consequences for both the individual employee and the organization in which he or she works. For the individual, these consequences may include health problems, whereas the organizational consequences may include decreased productivity and increased health care costs. The final step in the model is represented by adaptive responses on the part of both the individual and the organization. This simply represents actions that people and organizations take to mitigate the effects of stress when they are recognized.

The final component of Beehr and Newman’s model, which cuts across all other components, is time. This component simply recognizes that all of the steps in the stress process are embedded in a temporal framework. For example, in some cases, stressful conditions at work may occur suddenly—an unexpected layoff or a violent incident, perhaps. In other cases, stressful conditions take much more time to manifest themselves— a relationship with a coworker deteriorates over time, or physical working conditions gradually deteriorate. Employee and organizational responses to these conditions will likely be much different.

Readily Testable Models

Over the past 25 years, the most tested occupational stress model has been the demands-control model developed by Robert Karasek during the late 1970s. The basic idea put forth in this model is very straightforward: The most stressful situations are those in which employees are subjected to high work demands yet have low control over decisions concerning their work. Another way to look at the demands-control model is that demands and control interact in such a way that job demands are related most strongly to strain when control is low. Many blue-collar jobs fit this high demand-low control pattern; that is, employees are expected to do or produce a great deal, yet have little say in how they do their jobs or how the organization operates.

Since Karasek proposed the demands-control model in the 1970s, the model has been modified based on research findings. Specifically, research has shown that the demands-control interaction is stronger among employees who lack high levels of social support from others. Thus, it has become common for researchers to refer to Karasek’s model as the demands-control-support, or DCS, model. A small number of empirical studies have shown that the inter-action is stronger among individuals with high self-efficacy. Self-efficacy refers to an individual’s belief that he or she is capable of carrying out some task or course of action; individuals with low self-efficacy are less likely than their high-self-efficacy counterparts to derive the benefits of high control. As yet, however, self-efficacy has not been included as a part of the demands-control model by most researchers.

Support for the demands-control model has been quite mixed, for a number of reasons. Perhaps the most important reason is that there is no agreement as to exactly what constitutes support for the model. According to Karasek, minimum support for the model is represented by the additive effects of job demands and control, even if the interaction between the two is not supported. By this criterion, the model has received abundant support. Some, however, view the true test as the interaction between demands and control. If this criterion is applied, support is much more modest.

The other model that is quite testable—though it has not been tested as extensively as the demands-control model—is the effort-reward-imbalance model developed by Johannes Siegrist in Germany. According to this model, people evaluate their work situation in terms of the effort they put into it relative to the rewards they derive. In stressful situations, employees feel as though they are putting a great deal into their job or doing a great deal for their organization, yet they feel as though they are not receiving rewards that are commensurate with these efforts.

A final model proposed relatively recently (1992) is the cybernetic model developed by Jeff Edwards. Edwards proposed that employees compare their current work situation with what they desire their work situation to be. If this comparison results in a negative discrepancy, or if the current situation is not what the employee wants it to be, the employee experiences the job as stressful. The model goes further, however, and describes the process by which employees attempt to change this negative discrepancy. Although Edwards’s theory is complex, it is also much better at describing the stress process in real time than many other stress theories. As yet, this theory has not been explicitly tested, but in the future, it has a great deal of potential in occupational stress research.


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