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Essay/Term paper: Work stress

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Work Stress

1.0 Introduction

Throughout the eighties and into the nineties, work stress have continued to
rise dramatically in organizations across North America. The eighties saw
employees stressing out from working in a rapidly growing economy. During the
nineties, beginning from the recession of 1992 till present day, employees are
stressed by their own job insecurities in the face of massive downsizing and
restructuring of organizations in order to be competitive on the global stage.
Work stress is a very extensive topic ranging from research on the sources of
stress, the effects of stress, to ways on managing and reducing stress. This
report will focus first on the evidence for the harmful effects of stress at
work, both mentally and physically. The last section will briefly explain why
management should be concerned with rising employee stress and will describe
some actions management can take to alleviate work stress.

2.0 Harmful Effects of Stress

Most research studies indicate a high correlation between stress and illness.
According to authorities in the United States and Great Britain, as much as 70%
of patients that are treated by general practitioners are suffering from
symptoms originating from stress . Everyone experiences stress, however, each
person responds to stress very differently. Their response is dependent on how
each person reacts to stress emotionally, mentally, and physically. There are,
however, common effects of stress for most people on the physical and mental

2.1 Physical Effects

The researcher Blyth in 1973 identified a list of diseases which have a fairly
high causal relationships with stress. His evidence was obtained through
interviews with medical experts, review of reports by the World Health
Organization and consultations with the J.R. Geigy Pharmaceutical Company. The
following is a list of some of the illnesses Blyth had identified :

1. Hypertension 2. Coronary thrombosis 3. Hay fever and other allergies 4.
Migraine headaches 5. Intense itching 6. Asthma 7. Peptic ulcers 8. Constipation
9. Rheumatoid arthritis10. Colitis11. Menstrual difficulties 12. Nervous
dyspepsia 13. Overactive thyroid gland 14. Skin disorders 15. Diabetes
mellitus16. Tuberculosis

Research conducted by Woolfolk and Richardson in 1978 further confirmed Blyth's
list that hypertension, coronary disease, infections, and ulcers are highly
related to the amount of prolonged stress an employee is subjected to. Evidence
for a causal relationship between hypertension and stress was seen in a study of
air traffic controllers. The work stress is enormous for this occupation due to
the high responsibility for the safety of others that people is this field must
bear. This study noted that air traffic controllers experiences a hypertension
rate approximately 5 times greater than other comparable occupational groups .

Only in recent studies was stress linked to coronary disease. As the majority
of heart attacks are caused by fatty substances adhering to the artery walls
(arteriosclerosis), stress is a causal factor in that, at high levels, the
amounts of the two fatty substances, cholesterol and triglycerides, in the blood
steam are elevated. This is evidenced in one study of tax accountants. As the
deadline for the annual tax filing drew nearer, cholesterol levels rose without
decreasing until 2 months later. The situation here shows that cholesterol in
the blood rises gradually with constant exposure to stress.

There is also strong evidence for the causal relationship between stress and
infectious disease. Woolfolk was able to show that employees that are very
fatigue (a symptom of stress) were more susceptible to infections. In his
study conducted upon 24 woman during the flu season, every woman was
administered a certain amount of flu virus into their blood stream. Woman in
the group who were fatigued were administered a smaller dose than those who were
not. Woolfolk found that the women who had just gone through very stressful
experiences were more susceptible to the infection despite a very small dosage
of the flu virus. The other women who were not tired did not get infected even
though they had considerably high dosages of flu virus in them .

Lastly, evidence that ulcers are associated with high stress levels have been
conclusively proven by Woolfolk. Ulcers occur when digestive juices burn a hole
in the stomach lining. A person under stress or anxiety would stimulate the
rapid secretion of digestive juices into the stomach. Thus, when a person is
subjected to constant tension and frustration, he / she has a high likelihood
that an ulcer would occur. Evidence for this was provided by the study
performed by Dr. Steward Wolf. He was able to monitor activities of a patient
stomach, and where the patient responded to an emotional situation, he observed
the excessive secretion of stomach acids. Woolfolk and Richardson further the
studies by showing increased levels of stomach acids during high exposure to

2.1 Psychological Effects

Most organizations have recognize that stress can have an adverse effect on the
efficiency of their employees. In 1978, the International Association of Chiefs
of Police (IACP) cited their study report that there are essentially three
psychological reactions to consistently high stress levels: repression of
emotion, displacement of anger, and isolation.

Repression of emotions occur often in human service professionals such as
policemen or accountants. Their roles demand that they suppress their emotions
when interacting with clients. Thus, when the stress levels begin to rise as
they deal with more and more clients, they would put up an even greater
resistance to their own emotions . Over time, the professional may not be able
to relax that emotional resistance. All their emotions would be masked and
retained within themselves, resulting ultimately in mental and emotional

In stressful times, employees are often displeased or angry with something.
However, there are usually limited channels in which employees can express their
views. Since opinions, views, and feelings cannot always be expressed to anyone
to change the current situation, there would be an accumulation of anger and
frustration within the individual. Up to a certain point, the anger would be
released, usually at the wrong person or time, such as colleagues, clients, or
family members. This symptom has a tremendous impact on society because there
is a potential that it may hurt others people. Take for example the US postal
shootings over last few years. All of them were a result of accumulated anger
and frustration of US postal workers where they eventually released all that
pent-up anger at one time towards other colleagues. Moreover, many cases of
spousal abuse, child abuse, alcohol abuse, dysfunctional families are a result
of overstressed employees unable to diffuse or cope with the anger and
frustration building up within them.

The 1978 IACP's report stated that isolation is a common side-effect of working
under tremendous stress. For many service practitioners, they are not always
readily welcomed by the clients that they serve. A prime example would be
policemen who are shunned often by the public. Over time, a feeling of
isolation and rejection would envelop the person. The natural thing to do would
be to withdraw from others who do not understand their plight, resulting in
profound human loneliness .

The symptoms mentioned above are usually long-term effects. There are many
other short term, psychological effects of stress that can be readily seen or
felt. The following is by no means a
definitive list of mental effects as it only illustrates some of the symptoms
that could readily identified in a person under constant stress : 1. Constant
feeling of uneasiness 2. Irritability towards others 3. General sense of boredom
4. Recurring feelings of hopelessness in life 5. Anxiety regarding money 6.
Irrational fear of disease 7. Fear of death 8. Feelings of suppressed anger 9.
Withdrawn and isolated 10. Feelings of rejection by others (low self-esteem) 11.
Feelings of despair at failing as a parent 12. Feelings of dread toward an
approaching weekend 13. Reluctance to vacation14. Sense that problems cannot be
discussed with others 15. Short attention span 16. Claustrophobic

3.0 Management's Role in Reducing Work Stress

Employee stress can have an enormous impact to an organization in terms of cost.
As many studies have shown, there is a high correlation between stress and job
performance. At moderate levels, stress is beneficial in that it can cause
individuals to perform their jobs better and attain higher job performance.
However, at high levels, stress can decrease productivity instead. This is the
case often seen in employees at many organizations . Furthermore, aside from
costs associated with lost productivity, there are costs with respect to stress-
related absenteeism and organizational medical expenses. Specifically, these
include costs of lost company time, increases in work-related accidents
disrupting production, increases in health care costs and health insurance
premiums, and most importantly, decreases in productivity .

There are numerous methods that organizations could adopt to reduce undue stress
in their employees. However, measures taken to counter this problem are usually
tailored specifically for the particular organization. Therefore, this report
has chosen two separate actions which are fundamental to most organizations that
management can take.

3.1 Reduction of Employee Stress as an Organizational Policy

The first step any organization should take to help its employees reduce and
cope with stress is to incorporate into the company policies a positive and
specific intent on reducing undue stress. This would indicate that top
management is committed to such a stress reduction program. Furthermore, the
amendment to the policies should also include a recognition that this initiative
will benefit the achievement of other organizational goals by enhancing the
productivity of employees through lowered stress levels . After the inclusion
of the broad mission goal of reducing employee stress, management should draft
out plans which specifically lays out the provisions to accomplish that goal.
As earlier mentioned, there are many approaches to stress reduction, thus the
provisions should detail only the methods specific to the organization. For
example, they could specify that employees undergo periodic physical and
psychological examinations and personnel surveys to ascertain current stress
levels. Another alternative would be to provide personal counseling to
employees to identify undue stress levels and then to advise any corrective
measures for the individual. In any case, the most important beginning step is
a total reexamination and revision of company policies, plans, and procedures to
enhance employees' own methods of coping with stress, and simultaneously,
promote an organizational climate which actively assists employees to minimize
their stress.

3.2 Fundamental Techniques to Employee Stress Reduction

One method management can employ to alleviate employee stress is to make them
fitter to deal with the everyday pressures of work . There are three basic
management techniques that would accomplish this goal. Managers should be clear
about their expectations of employees and clearly convey these expectations to
each person. Secondly, management should devise a performance-evaluation-
feedback system such that each employee would be aware of his / her performance
level based on the feedback received. Lastly, employees should be fully capable
of performing their job tasks. Stress arises when employees do not possess the
necessary skills to carry on with the work assigned to them. Therefore, job
training programs are essential to reducing anxiety and stress associated when
employees feel that they do not possess sufficient skills or knowledge to
perform the job that they were hired for.

3.2.1 Communicating Management's Expectations

In an organization, it would appear that all employees have a clear
understanding of their roles they were hired for and the duties expected of them.
This assertion is often valid for employees working at the front line, such as
workers on an assembly line. Strict procedural guidelines dictates the tasks
and procedures each worker would assume. However, at higher levels in the
organizational hierarchy, an employee's duties and responsibilities may not be
as apparent. A middle manager or team leader's role could entail many different
responsibilities and duties such as managing, coordinating, leading, planning,
etc. Despite a detailed job description when the individual was hired, there
often exists a cloud of ambiguity as to what the position exactly encompasses
given the wide-ranging scope of the position . Work stress arises as a result
of this because employees would be distressed over uncertainty of the
sufficiency of their tasks in relevance to their position and role. Furthermore,
employees may not be clear as to the amount of work expected of him or her.
When employees do not know how much effort they should commit to their jobs in
order to satisfy their superior's expectations, a certain level of employee work
stress would arise in that the individual would be constantly worried about the
adequacy of his / her level of effort. In essence, employees need to know
exactly the tasks expected of them and the level of effort to put into those

The issue here is essentially a communications problem between management and
employees. Management should communicate its expectations to employees whether
as a group or individually. Since increased communications is the primary
solution in this case, management should also promote a working environment
where employees are encouraged to voice their concerns, questions, etc. to their
respective superiors. Managers, themselves, should adapt a managing style that
is sensitive and responsive to employee stress. Communication of management
expectations can be achieved by analyzing each role in the organization to
clarify priorities and resolve conflict between roles. This approach would
first, clarify any ambiguity an employee may have about his / her position.
Secondly, it effectively eliminates the stress from not knowing what or how
much to do. Informing employees of their role expectations is only the
beginning to reducing stress levels . Employee also require feedback from their
performance measures.

3.2.2 Providing Feedback to Employees

Once role expectations are known, employees require feedback on their
performance to determine whether those expectations are met. In the absence of
feedback, employees would be worrying if their current levels of effort are
satisfying the expectations of them. A state of ambiguity would arise again,
resulting in increased stress levels.

A systematic approach in providing periodical performance feedback to all
employees in the organization is required. One common approach adopted by many
companies are staff and staff-development schemes. They entail a periodical
one-on-one interview between managers and each of his / her subordinates.
During the interview, the manager would inform the employee of his / her
performance relative to previously set standards (ie. expectations). The
employee would be encouraged to provide his / her concerns regarding the
performance evaluation. Any problems and / or requests for assistance would be
communicated to the manager at this point. To conclude the interview, the
employee would set attainable future goals to improve or maintain the current
performance level.

Royal Bank is a strong advocate of staff-development schemes. Employees meet
with their managers once every four months to discuss the employees' performance
to-date. The interview process is characterized by the supportive and
encouraging roles every manager adopts towards their subordinates. Unlike many
other appraisal interviews, managers do not only focus and highlight employee
weaknesses. When certain deficiencies in performance are discussed, managers
recognize that negative feedback is uncomfortable to both parties and can also
be counter-productive. Thus, they usually identify areas for improvement to
employees in a very supportive approach. The objective is to rectify the
deficiency by motivating the employee to change, rather than imposing additional
stress on him / her by merely pointing the weakness(s) out.

3.1.3 Job Training Programs

Job training programs provide employees with a broader knowledge and skills
enabling them to better handle the expectations from their roles. Employee
stress is often caused by the lack of skills or knowledge to meet designated
objectives and goals. These programs usually take on two forms - knowledge-
based development and skills-based development. Knowledge-based development
programs usually involve a conference or seminar where the aim is to broaden
the attendees' knowledge of a certain topic such as infomatics seminar briefing
employees on the latest networking technologies. The knowledge gained from such
programs may or may not be utilized in the everyday job routines of employees.
Alternatively, skill-based development programs focus on training employees to
become more proficient in the use of certain behaviours such as assertiveness
training. While job training programs can reduce work stress, there are
essentially three conditions to its success . First, the job training must be
required by the employee. No benefit would be derived if an employee is trained
for something that is not relevant to the work he / she performs everyday.
Secondly, management must discourage any perception by employees that training
programs are a form of reward or punishment, or else the entire purpose of the
training initiative would be lost. Finally, preparation is required to benefit
fully from the program.

4.0 Conclusion

Work stress places a very high toll on both employees and employers. An
employee subjected to high levels of stress could experience both physical and
mental side-effects. Physical side effects such as hypertension, coronary
disease, infections, ulcers could greatly decrease the lifespan of the person.
The psychological effects such as repressed emotions, anger, and isolation have
a direct negative impact on organizational productivity. Thus, organizations
have a great responsibility in reducing the stress of their employees, and in
general be concerned about their well-being.

There are numerous methods to counter the stress problem. The report has cited
only the basics which are applicable to most organizations. The first step for
management is to set out the intention to reduce employee stress in as an
organizational goal. Provisions detailing the organization's planned approach
should be drafted.

Informing employees of management's expectations is one method to reduce a large
portion of the anxiety employees may have about their jobs. Secondly,
management must provide subordinates feedback on their performance. Management
should also provide job training for all employees to enable them to better
perform their jobs and reduce the stress associated with the feeling of
inadequacy to perform one's duties.


Alluisi, E. A., Fleishman, E. A. (1981). Stress and performance effectiveness.
Hillsdale, N.J.: L. Erlbaum Associates.

Arroba, T., James, K. (1987). Pressure at work: a survival guide. London;
Montreal: McGraw-Hill.

Greenberg, S. F., Valletutti, P. J. (1980). Stress and the helping professions.
Baltimore: P. H. Brookes.

Greenwood, J. W. (1979). Managing executive stress: a systems approach. New
York; Chichester: Wiley.

Kompier, M. (1994). Stress at work: Does it concern you?. Shankill, Ireland:
European Foundation for the Improvement of Living & Working Conditions.

Robbins, S. (1996). Organizational behaviour: concepts. controversies,
applications. Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey: Prentice Hall Inc.

Smither, R. D. (1988). The psychology of work and human performance. New York:
Harper & Row.


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