Stress and Stress Management

Just as organizations can support or discourage learning, organizational  characteristics also interact with individual differences to influence other behaviors. In every organization, these characteristics include  sources of stress. Formally  defined,  stress is an individual’s physiological and emotional response to external stimuli that place physical or psychologi- cal demands on the individual  and create uncertainty and lack of personal control when important  outcomes are at stake.58  These stimuli, called  stressors, produce some combina- tion of frustration (the inability to achieve a goal, such as the inability to meet a deadline because of inadequate  resources) and anxiety (such as the fear of being disciplined for not meeting deadlines).

People’s responses to stressors vary according  to their personalities, the resources avail- able to help them cope, and the context in which  the stress occurs. Thus,  a looming dead- line will feel different  depending on the degree to which the individual  enjoys a challenge, the willingness of co-workers to team up and help each other succeed, and family  members’ understanding of an employee’s need to work extra hours, among other factors.

When the level of stress is low relative to a person’s coping  resources, stress can be a positive force, stimulating desirable change and achievement. However, too much stress is associated with many negative consequences, including  sleep disturbances, drug and alcohol  abuse, headaches, ulcers, high blood  pressure, and heart disease. People who are experiencing the ill effects of too much  stress may become irritable or withdraw from interactions with their co-workers, take excess time  off, and have more health problems. For example, a recent study of manufacturing workers in Bangladesh found a significant connection between job stress and absenteeism. Another study of 46,000 workers in the United States found that health  care costs are 147 percent higher  for individuals who are stressed or depressed.59  People suffering  from stress are less productive and may leave the organization. Clearly, too much  stress is harmful to employees   as well as to companies.


Researchers observed that some people seem to be more vulnerable than others to the ill effects of stress. From studies of stress-related heart disease, they categorized people as having behavior patterns called Type A and Type B.60 The Type A behavior pattern includes extreme competitiveness, impatience, aggressiveness, and devotion to work. In contrast, people with a Type B behavior pattern  exhibit  less of these behaviors. They consequently   experience  less conflict with other people and a more balanced, relaxed lifestyle. Type A people tend to experience more stress-related illness  than Type B people.

Most Type A individuals  are high-energy people and may seek positions  of power and responsibility. One example is John Haughom,  senior vice president for health care im- provement at PeaceHealth, a network  of private hospitals in the Pacific Northwest. When Haughom was in charge of establishing an information network of community-wide medical records to support patient care, he typically began his day at 6 a.m. and worked until 11 p.m. His days were a blur of conference calls, meetings, and e-mail  exchanges. “I could move mountains if I put my mind to it,” he says. “That’s  what good executives do.”61

By pacing themselves and learning control  and intelligent use of their natural high-energy  tendencies, Type A individuals   can be powerful forces for innovation and leadership within their organizations, as John Haughom has been at Peace-Health. However, many Type A personal- ities cause stress-related  problems  for themselves and sometimes for those around them. Haughom  eventually reached burnout.  He couldn’t sleep, he began snapping  at colleagues, and he finally took a sabbatical Image not available due to copyright restrictions and learned to lead a more balanced life.62 Type B individuals typically live with less stress unless they are in high-stress situations. A number of factors  can cause stress in the workplace,  even for people who are not naturally prone to high stress.


Workplace stress is skyrocketing worldwide. A recent World Congress on Health and Safety at Work presented studies suggesting that job- related  stress may be as big a danger  to the world’s  people as chemical and biological  hazards.63  In the United States, the number of people who say they are overworked  has risen  from 28 percent in 2001 to

44 percent in 2005, and one-third of Americans between the ages of 25 and 39 say they feel burned out by their jobs. The U.K.’s Health and Safety Executive says that  half  a million people in the United Kingdom are ill because of workplace  stress, and stress-related illnesses are sec- ond only to back pain  as a cause of work absences. In India, growing numbers of young software professionals and call-center  workers are falling prey to depression,  anxiety,  and other  mental  illnesses because of increasing workplace stress.64

Most people have a general idea of what a stressful job is like: difficult, uncomfortable, exhausting, even frightening.  Managers can better cope with their own stress and estab- lish ways for the organization to help employees cope if they define the conditions that tend to produce work stress. One way to identify work stressors is to think about stress caused by the demands of job tasks and stress caused  by interpersonal  pressures and conflicts.

  • Task demands are stressors arising from the tasks required of a person  holding a par- ticular job. Some kinds of decisions are inherently  stressful: those made under time pressure, those that have serious consequences, and those that must be made with incomplete information. For example, emergency room doctors are under tremen- dous stress as a result  of the task demands of their jobs. They regularly have to make quick decisions based on limited information that may determine  whether  a patient lives or dies. Almost all jobs, especially those of managers, have some level of stress associated with task demands. Task  demands also sometimes  cause stress because of role ambiguity, which  means that people are unclear about what task behaviors are expected of them.
  • Interpersonal demands are stressors associated  with relationships in the organization.

Although in some cases interpersonal relationships can alleviate stress, they also can be a source of stress when  the group puts pressure on an individual or when conflicts arise between individuals.  Managers can resolve many conflicts  using techniques that will be discussed in Chapter 14. Role conflict occurs when an individual  perceives incompat- ible demands from others. Managers often feel role conflict because the demands  of their superiors conflict with those of the employees in their department. They may be expected to support employees and provide them with opportunities to experiment  and be creative, while at the same time top executives are demanding  a consistent  level of output that leaves little time for creativity and experimentation.

Almost everyone experiences some degree of job stress associated  with these factors. For example,  consider  the stress caused  by task demands  on Verizon’s call center representatives.

The situation for call center representatives in other countries, who are handling  calls for U.S.-based  companies  such as American Express, Citibank, Sprint, and IBM, can be even more stressful. There, the high stress caused by task demands is compounded by interpersonal issues, primarily “hate calls” from American  customers angry over the loss of U.S. jobs. A survey by the Indian magazine Dataquest found that most call center employees find these calls “psychologically  disturbing”  and identify them as a major cause of job stress.65


Organizations that want to challenge their employees and stay competitive  in a  fast- changing environment will never be stress-free. But because many consequences of stress are negative, managers need to make stress management  a priority. In Britain, lawmakers implemented a new requirement that employers meet certain conditions that help to man- age workplace  stress, such as ensuring  that employees are not exposed to a poor physical work environment,  have the necessary skills and training to meet their job requirements, and are given a chance to offer input into the way their work is done.67

A variety of techniques can help individuals  manage stress. Among the most basic strat- egies are those that help people stay healthy:  exercising regularly,  getting  plenty of rest, and eating a healthful  diet.

Although individuals can pursue stress management strategies on their own, today’s en- lightened companies support healthy habits to help people manage stress and be more pro- ductive.  Stress costs businesses billions of dollars a year in absenteeism, lower productivity, staff turnover, accidents, and higher health insurance and workers’ compensation costs.68 In today’s workplace, taking care of employees  has become  a business  as well as an ethical priority.

Supporting employees can be as simple as encouraging people to take regular breaks and vacations. Consider that more than a third of U.S. employees surveyed by the Families and Work Institute currently don’t take their full allotment of vacation time.69 Some compa- nies, including BellSouth, First Union, and Tribble Creative Group,  also have designated quiet rooms or meditation centers where employees can take short, calming breaks at any time they feel the need.70  The time off is a valuable investment when it allows employees to approach their work with renewed energy and a fresh perspective.

Companies develop other programs aimed at helping  employees reduce stress and lead healthier, more balanced lives. Some have wellness programs that provide access to nutri- tion counseling  and exercise facilities.  A worldwide study of wellness programs conducted by the Canadian government found that for each dollar spent, the company  gets from

$1.95 to $3.75 return payback from benefits.71  Other organizations create broad work–life balance initiatives that may include flexible work options such as telecommuting and flexi- ble hours, as well as benefits  such as onsite daycare, fitness centers, and personal services, such as pickup and delivery of dry cleaning. Daily flextime is considered by many employees to be the most effective work–life  practice, which means giving employees the freedom to vary their hours as needed,  such as leaving early to take an elderly parent shopping or taking time off to attend a child’s school play.72

The study of organizational  behavior reminds  managers that employees are human resources with human needs. By acknowledging the personal aspects of employees’ lives, work–life  practices communicate that managers and the organization care about employ- ees. In addition,  managers’ attitudes make a tremendous difference in whether employees are stressed out and unhappy or relaxed, energetic, and productive.

Source: Daft Richard L., Marcic Dorothy (2009), Understanding Management, South-Western College Pub; 8th edition.

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