Stress in Organizations

Defining Stress

Stress is defined in terms of its physical and physiological effects on a person, and can be a mental, physical, or emotional strain.

Learning Objectives

Define stress within the field of organizational behavior and workplace dynamics

Key Takeaways

Key Points

  • Differences in individual characteristics, such as personality and coping skills, can be very important predictors of whether certain job conditions will result in stress.
  • Stress-related disorders include a broad array of conditions, including psychological disorders and other types of emotional strain, maladaptive behaviors, cognitive impairment, and various biological reactions – each of which can eventually compromise a person's physical health.
  • Categories of work demands that may cause stress include task demands, role demands, interpersonal demands, and physical demands.

Key Terms

  • stress: Mental, physical, or emotional strain caused by a demand that challenges or exceeds the individual's coping ability.



Stress: A black and white photo of a woman that captures her high level of stress.

Stress is defined in terms of how it impacts physical and psychological health; it includes mental, physical, and emotional strain. Stress occurs when a demand exceeds an individual's coping ability and disrupts his or her psychological equilibrium. Stress occurs in the workplace when an employee perceives a situation to be too strenuous to handle, and therefore threatening to his or her well-being.

Stress at Work

While it is generally agreed that stress occurs at work, views differ on the importance of worker characteristics versus working conditions as its primary cause. The differing viewpoints suggest different ways to prevent stress at work. Different individual characteristics, like personality and coping skills, can be very important predictors of whether certain job conditions will result in stress. In other words, what is stressful for one person may not be a problem for someone else.

Stress-related disorders encompass a broad array of conditions, including psychological disorders (e.g., depression, anxiety, post-traumatic stress disorder) and other types of emotional strain (e.g., dissatisfaction, fatigue, tension), maladaptive behaviors (e.g., aggression, substance abuse), and cognitive impairment (e.g., concentration and memory problems). Job stress is also associated with various biological reactions that may ultimately lead to compromised physical health, such as cardiovascular disease.

Categories of Work Stress

Four categories of stressors underline the different causal circumstances for stress at work:

  1. Task Demands - This is the sense of not knowing where a job will lead you and whether the activities and tasks will change. This uncertainty causes stress that manifests itself in feelings of lack of control, concern about career progress, and time pressures.
  2. Role Demands - Role conflict happens when an employee is exposed to inconsistent or difficult expectations. Examples include: interole conflict (when there are two or more expectations or separate roles for one person), intrarole conflict (varying expectations of one role), person-role conflict (ethics are challenged), and role ambiguity (confusion about their experiences in relation to the expectations of others).
  3. Interpersonal Demands - Examples include: emotional issues (abrasive personalities, offensive co-workers), sexual harassment (directed mostly toward women), and poor leadership (lack of management experience, poor style, cannot handle having power).
  4. Physical Demands - Many types of work are physically demanding, including strenuous activity, extreme working conditions, travel, exposure to hazardous materials, and working in a tight, loud office.

Causes of Workplace Stress

Work stress is caused by demands and pressure from both within and outside of the workplace.

Learning Objectives

Evaluate the role of work conditions, economic factors, and organizational social dynamics in the experience of stress in the workplace

Key Takeaways

Key Points

  • Job stress can result from interactions between the worker and the conditions of the work. This can include factors such as long work hours and an employee's status in the organization.
  • Economic factors that employees are facing in the 21st century, such as company layoffs in response to economic conditions, have been linked to increased stress levels.
  • Uncertainty around the future of one's job, lack of clarity about responsibilities, inconsistent or difficult expectations, interpersonal issues between workers, and physical demands of the work can also impact stress levels.
  • Non-work demands, such as personal or home demands, can also contribute to stress both inside and outside of work.

Key Terms

  • stress: Mental, physical, or emotional strain due to a demand that exceeds an individual's coping ability.

Work-Related Stress

Problems caused by stress have become a major concern to both employers and employees. Symptoms of stress can manifest both physiologically and psychologically. Work-related stress is typically caused by demands and pressure from either within or outside of the workplace; it can be derived from uncertainty over where the job will take the employee, inconsistent or difficult expectations, interpersonal issues, or physical demands.

Although the importance of individual differences cannot be ignored, scientific evidence suggests that certain working conditions are stressful to most people. Such evidence argues that working conditions are a key source of job stress and job redesign should be used as a primary prevention strategy.

Studies of Work-Related Stress

Large-scale surveys of working conditions—including conditions recognized as risk factors for job stress—were conducted in member states of the European Union in 1990, 1995, and 2000. Results showed a time-related trend that suggested an increase in work intensity. In 1990, the percentage of workers reporting that they worked at high speeds for at least one-quarter of their working time was 48%; this increased to 54% in 1995 and 56% in 2000. Similarly, 50% of workers reported that they worked against tight deadlines at least one-fourth of their working time in 1990; this increased to 56% in 1995 and 60% in 2000. However, no change was noted in the period from 1995 to 2000 in the percentage of workers reporting sufficient time to complete tasks (data was not collected in 1990 for this category).

A substantial percentage of Americans work very long hours. By one estimate, more than 26% of men and more than 11% of women worked 50 hours or more per week (outside of the home) in 2000. These figures represent a considerable increase over the previous three decades—especially for women. According to the Department of Labor, there has been an upward trend in hours worked among employed women, an increase in work weeks of greater than forty hours by men, and a considerable increase in combined working hours among working couples, particularly couples with young children.

Power and Stress

A person's status in the workplace can also affect levels of stress. Stress in the workplace has the potential to affect employees of all categories, and managers as well as other kinds of workers are vulnerable to work overload. However, less powerful employees (those who have less control over their jobs) are more likely to experience stress than employees with more power. This indicates that authority is an important factor complicating the work stress environment.

Economics and Stress

Economic factors that employees are facing in the 21st century have been linked to increased stress levels as well. Researchers and social commentators have pointed out that advances in technology and communications have made companies more efficient and more productive than ever before. This increase in productivity has resulted in higher expectations and greater competition, which in turn place more stress on employees.

The following economic factors can contribute to workplace stress:

  • Pressure from investors who can quickly withdraw their money from company stocks
  • Lack of trade and professional unions in the workplace
  • Inter-company rivalries caused by global competition
  • The willingness of companies to swiftly lay off workers to cope with changing business environments

Social Interactions and Stress

Bullying in the workplace can also contribute to stress. Workplace bullying can involve threats to an employee's professional or personal image or status, deliberate isolation, or giving an employee excess work.

Another type of workplace bullying is known as "destabilization." Destabilization can occur when an employee is not given credit for their work or is assigned meaningless tasks. In effect, destabilization can create a hostile work environment for employees, negatively affecting their work ethic and therefore their contributions to the organization.

Stress Outside of the Workplace

Non-work demands can create stress both inside and outside of work. Stress is inherently cumulative, and it can be difficult to separate our personal and professional stress inducers. Examples of non-work stress that can be carried into the workplace include:

  • Home demands: Relationships, children, and family responsibilities can add stress that is hard to leave behind when entering the workplace. The Academy of Management Journal states that this constitutes "an individual's lack of personal resources needed to fulfill commitments, obligations, or requirements."
  • Personal demands: Personal demands are brought on by the person when he or she takes on too many responsibilities, either inside or outside of work.

Consequences of Workplace Stress

Stress can impact an individual mentally and physically and so can decrease employee efficiency and job satisfaction.

Learning Objectives

Recognize the potentially severe consequences of work-related stress on an individual, particularly over time

Key Takeaways

Key Points

  • Problems at work are more strongly associated with health complaints than any other life stressor.
  • Participation problems such as absenteeism, tardiness, strikes, and turnover take a severe toll on a company.
  • Individual distress manifests in three basic forms: psychological disorders, medical illnesses, and behavioral problems.
  • When individual workers within an organization suffer from a high degree of stress, overall efficiency can substantially decrease. Stressed workers will ultimately foster a negative culture and show reduce operational capabilities.

Key Terms

  • stress: Mental, physical, or emotional strain due to a demand that exceeds an individual's ability to cope.
  • psychosomatic: Pertaining to physical diseases or symptoms that have psychological causes.



Symptoms of stress: Stress can manifest as various symptoms affecting one's body, mind, behavior, and/or emotions.

Negative or overwhelming work experiences can cause a person substantial distress. Burnout, depression, and psychosomatic disorders are particularly common outcomes of work-related stress. In general, individual distress manifests in three basic forms: psychological disorders, medical illnesses, and behavioral problems.

Psychological Disorders

Psychosomatic disorders are a type of psychological disorder. They are physical problems with a psychological cause. For example, a person who is extremely anxious about public speaking might feel extremely nauseated or may find themselves unable to speak at all when faced with the prospect of presenting in front of a group. Since stress of this type is often difficult to notice, managers would benefit from carefully monitoring employee behavior for indications of discomfort or stress.

Medical Illnesses

Physiological reactions to stress can have a long-term impact on physical health. In fact, stress is one of the leading precursors to long-term health issues. Backaches, stroke, heart disease, and peptic ulcers are just a few physical ailments that can arise when a person is under too much stress.

Behavioral Problems

A person can also exhibit behavioral problems when under stress, such as aggression, substance abuse, absenteeism, poor decision making, lack of creativity, or even sabotage. A stressed worker may neglect their duties, impeding workflows and processes so that the broader organization slows down and loses time and money. Managers should keep an eye out for such behaviors as possible indicators of workplace stress.

Organizational Effects of Stress

Stress in the workplace can be, so to speak, "contagious"—low job satisfaction is often something employees will discuss with one another. If stress is not noted and addressed by management early on, team dynamics can erode, hurting the social and cultural synergies present in the organization. Ultimately, the aggressive mentality will be difficult to remedy.

Managers are in a unique position when it comes to workplace stress. As they are responsible for setting the pace, assigning tasks, and fostering the social customs that govern the work group, management must be aware of the repercussions of mismanaging and inducing stress. Managers should consistently discuss job satisfaction and professional and personal health with each of their subordinates one on one.

Reducing Workplace Stress

A combination of organizational change and stress management is a productive approach to preventing stress at work.

Learning Objectives

Examine the various ways in which job stress can be prevented or reduced in an organization

Key Takeaways

Key Points

  • Stress management refers to a wide spectrum of techniques and therapies that aim to control a person's levels of stress, especially chronic stress, to improve everyday functioning.
  • To reduce workplace stress, managers can monitor each employee's workload to ensure it is in line with their capabilities and resources.
  • Managers can also be clear and explicit about general expectations and long-term objectives to ensure there is no discrepancy between what the manager is looking for and what the employee is working toward.
  • Managers must keep culture in mind when approaching issues of workplace stress. They must quickly dismantle any negative workplace culture that arises, such as bullying or harassment, and replace it with a constructive working environment.

Key Terms

  • stress: Mental, physical, or emotional strain due to a demand that exceeds an individual's ability to cope.

Stress management refers to a wide spectrum of techniques and therapies that aim to control a person's levels of stress, especially chronic stress, to improve everyday functioning.

Preventing Job Stress

If employees are experiencing unhealthy levels of stress, a manager can bring in an objective outsider, such as a consultant, to suggest a fresh approach. But there are many ways managers can prevent job stress in the first place. A combination of organizational change and stress management is often the most effective approach. Among the many different techniques managers can use to effectively prevent employee stress, the main underlying themes are awareness of possibly stressful elements of the workplace and intervention when necessary to mitigate any stress that does arise.

Specifically, organizations can prevent employee stress in the following ways:

Intentional Job Design

  • Design jobs that provide meaning and stimulation for workers as well as opportunities for them to use their skills.
  • Establish work schedules that are compatible with demands and responsibilities outside the job.
  • Consider flexible schedules—many organizations allow telecommuting to reduce the pressure of being a certain place at a certain time (which enables people to better balance their personal lives).
  • Monitor each employee's workload to ensure it is in line with their capabilities and resources.

Clear and Open Communication

  • Teach employees about stress awareness and promote an open dialogue.
  • Avoid ambiguity at all costs—clearly define workers' roles and responsibilities.
  • Reduce uncertainty about career development and future employment prospects.

Positive Workplace Culture

  • Provide opportunities for social interaction among workers.
  • Watch for signs of dissatisfaction or bullying and work to combat workplace discrimination (based on race, gender, national origin, religion, or language).

Employee Accountability

  • Give workers opportunities to participate in decisions and actions that affect their jobs.
  • Introduce a participative leadership style and involve as many subordinates as possible in resolving stress-producing problems.

Stress Prevention Programs

St. Paul Fire and Marine Insurance Company conducted several studies on the effects of stress prevention programs in a hospital setting. Program activities included educating employees and management about workplace stress, changing hospital policies and procedures to reduce organizational sources of stress, and establishing of employee assistance programs. In one study, the frequency of medication errors declined by 50% after prevention activities were implemented in a 700-bed hospital. In a second study, there was a 70% reduction in malpractice claims among 22 hospitals that implemented stress prevention activities. In contrast, there was no reduction in claims in a matched group of 22 hospitals that did not implement stress prevention activities.

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