Occupational Stress

A. Introduction

Stress at work – to a certain degree this is well-known to everyone, but however, the World Health Organization highlights that work-related stress can have an adverse impact on workers’ physical and psychological health and well-being (Cox, et al., 2003).


Workers who are stressed are also more likely to be unhealthy, poorly motivated, less productive and less safe at work. Their organisations are less likely to be successful in a competitive market (Cox, et al., 2003).

The European Agency for Safety and Health at Work (2009) reports that in 2005 over 22% of workers in the EU 27 have experienced work-related stress, at an estimated cost to the economy of over €20,000 million. In the UK, in 2014/15 stress accounted for 35% of all work related ill health cases and 43% of all working days lost due to ill health (Health and Safety Executive, 2015, p. 2). According to the CSO’s Quarterly Household Survey in the Republic of Ireland 16.122 cases of work-related stress were reported in 2012.

Though we probably could all agree that a certain amount of stress is normal in life, work-related stress is an increasing problem in the labour force which leads to higher labour turn-over and early retirement, increases illness rates and occurrences of sick-leave absence within organisations and due to that clearly decreases economic productivity and as a consequence also contributes to the pressure on increasing public finances of the public health systems.

It appears obvious that reducing work-related stress must be in the interest of all involved, employers, employees and governments. The following paper in its first part will outline what occupational stress is, what the potential sources are and how it manifests itself. The second part will show how occupational stress is perceived and the impact on actions of those in organisations who may have to deal with it.

B. What is Occupational Stress?

The very broad definition of stress at work from the US Department of Health and Human Services’ National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (1999) states occupational stress as the harmful emotional and physical reactions that occur when the worker cannot qualify the requirements in particular the inability to deal with pressures in the workplace due to the persons inability to cope with working conditions and/or requirements (Holmlund-Rytkönen & Strandvik, 2005).

Effects of Occupational Stress

Stress to a certain degree is something we all have to cope with every day, however, if stress is repeated and/or prolonged occupational stress may lead to uncountable negative psychological, behavioural and physical outcomes on individuals (DeCenzo, et al., 2010). The effects of occupational stress impacts on the individual (Bratton & Gold, 2012, p. 476; Price, 2015, p. 172) as well as on the organisational level as shown in table 1. The list of the outcomes is almost endless, the table names just few.




Physiological diseases

Headache, high blood pressure, high blood sugar, high cholesterol, cardiovascular diseases, digestive problems, skin irritations

Organisational costs

lack of performance, late coming, increasing absence, increasing numbers of workplace accidents, high turnover

Psychological diseases

Depression, sleep disorders, anxiety, boredom, loss of self-esteem and self-confidence, emotional fatigue

Organisational symptoms

Loss of productivity, poor communication, suffering relationships with customers, suppliers and partners

Unwanted feelings and behaviours

Low motivation, job dissatisfaction, job insecurity, reduced overall quality of (work) life, burnout, alcohol and/or drug abuse, reduced efficiency



Table 1 - Individual and organisational effects of occupational stress

Causes and Sources of Occupational Stress

Lawrence Murphy (1995) categorised the sources of occupational stress quite short but explicitly:


Categories of Job Stressors


Factors unique

to the job




·         Workload (overload & underload)

·         Isolation at the workplace

·         Physical environment (noise, air quality, etc.)

·         Pace/variety/meaningfulness of work

·         Autonomy (e.g., The ability to make your own     decisions about your job or about specific tasks)

·         Hours of work

Role in the



·         Role conflict (conflicting job demands, multiple     supervisors/managers)

·         Role ambiguity (lack of clarity about responsibilities, expectations, etc.)

·         Level of responsibility




·         Under/over promotion

·         Job insecurity (fear of redundancy either from    economy, or lack of tasks or work to do)

·         Less than expected career development     opportunities and overall job satisfaction

Relationships at work


·         Difficulty with administration, co-workers, subordinates

·         Threat of harassment and violence



·         Meaningful participation in decision-making Management Style

·         Communication patterns

Adapted from Murphy, 1995


Table 2 - Causes of Occupational Stress

Similar to what Murphy recognised already twenty years ago the HSE UK (Health and Safety Executive, n.d.) and the Health and Safety Authority in Ireland (Health Service Executive, 2012) have identified six main areas pictured in figure 1 known as the ‘management standards’ or ‘stressors’ which contribute to poor employee health and wellbeing if not properly managed and also decrease individual and organisational productivity and support increasing sickness and absence rates:

Demands – In a ‘healthy’ work environment staff should neither be overloaded with work but should be able to cope with the expectations of their employer and nor should have too less work which could be as stressing as too much workload (French, et al., 2015, p. 173). There should be a proper balance between efforts recognised and rewards received. Work patterns as alternating shifts (e.g. day/night) are as stressful and require proper management as the working environment as for instance noise, temperature, lighting or ventilation, e.g. an employee that does not appreciate the constant blowing of the air condition may develop an aversion of the workplace and therefore be stressed immediately when entering the workplace.

Control – Decision making in the workplace is important for employees to effectively use their skills, e.g. how employees complete their tasks is important for their pace of work and therefore could create stress if they have to follow a routine that does not suit their needs; low levels of job control are typically linked to high levels of stress.


Support – Support at work from line-management, superiors and colleagues includes all thinkable areas (e.g. appropriate IT support, training, information etc.) and is crucial to avoid stress at work. If an employer does not provide adequate resources and for that reason an employee spends inept amounts of his working time for instance with IT-support to resolve technical issues he could easily feel stressed as the shortage in time may easily increase the workload for the rest of the day. As important is the support of a healthy work-life-balance. Employees that for instance are constantly required to do overtime will feel that they only live for work which could cause stress and dislike. Training and encouragement provided by management must be appropriate to enable an employee to fulfil his duties. In situations where the feeling comes up that no or not enough training was given to cope with a certain case the stress level rises as the responsibility to resolve the case in a given time frame increases.


Relationships at work – Proper conflict management is key to a stress-free work environment. No employee must be subject to unacceptable behaviours, e.g. bullying and harassment. All employees have the right to be treated equal which includes promoting positive working practices to avoid conflict. Low levels of trust and support amongst colleagues and subordinates are likely to increase stress.


Role – All employees must be aware of what is expected of them in their role and how their contribution is important to the organisation’s strategy and the organisation must ensure that the person does not have conflicting roles.


Change – Change is pervasive in today’s work live and proper change management is crucial; ensuring that employees are aware of change, engaging them and communicate how it will affect them is essential to keep the impact on stress levels as low as possible.


Antoniou et. al. (2003) grouped sources of stress at work into two categories: exogenous (work environment) and endogenous (individual’s personality traits) which reflects in the perception of factors that could create stress at work.


Correctly the Irish Health and Safety Authority (2009) importantly takes into consideration that the individual perception of the environment is crucial to how stress is individually defined: ’Stress can be broadly defined as the negative reaction people have to aspects of their environment as they perceive it.’

C. How Occupational Stress is Perceived

Earlier in this paper we defined stress as a psychological, emotional and/or behavioural response to a perceived threat, characterized by the perception of changes in habits and rituals and exacerbated by loss of control. In other words, when stressed we feel threatened and fear the loss of control. Hence stress is actually not about reality but more about the individual methods of coping with the input, about people’s behaviour based on their perception of what reality is and not on reality itself (Robbins & Judge, 2013).

Occupational stress may be easily compared with the effect of electricity on a bulb, if the voltage is right the bulb will light up, however, if the voltage is too high and not properly channelled the bulb will blow up. Yerkes and Dodson (1908) recognised already more than 100 years ago that performance increases with physiological or mental arousal (stress) but only up to a point. When the level of stress becomes too high, performance decreases.


Figure 2 - The Yerkes-Dodson Law (Gino, 2016)

Of course the level of stress is not the same for everyone even in the same situation as the individual perception plays a major role in picturing any situation as a potential threat, similar to some light bulbs can tolerate higher voltages and others cannot. And it is indeed only human perception that is responsible for a situation being evaluated as stress or as a challenge. When a person feels challenged by something, a positive adrenaline rush usually occurs, leading to increased self-confidence and greater motivation and resiliency but conversely, when a person feels threatened by something, the exact opposite occurs with the result often being negative, counterproductive anxiousness, physical tremors and/or other behavioural symptoms, for instance feeling sick. Thinking forward the described may result in two people facing the exact same situation being perceived totally differently from one as a challenge with the prescribed positive effects and by the second person as a threat with the mentioned negative symptoms. Where one person “rolls up the sleeves” and makes the best of a tough situation, prepares well and makes a plan how to proceed, the second person may follow a road laced with pessimism and hopelessness, convoluted with negative thoughts believing the worst things will happen and consequently over-stresses the situation and therefore his coping patterns actually exacerbate the stress.

Occupational stress is stress caused or aggravated by work. It simply refers to when a person perceives the work environment in such a way that his or her reaction involves feelings of an inability to cope. It may be caused by deadlines, real pressures or anxieties within the working environment and as mentioned before it is a major difference how an individual perceives an imbalance between the demands placed on them on the one hand, and their ability to cope on the other and it often occurs in situations characterised before by low levels of Control and Support (Cox, et al., 2003).

The classic stressful situation is one in which the person‘s resources are not well matched to the level of demand and where there are constraints on coping and little social support. Stress, itself, is an individual psychological state. It is to do with the person‘s perception of the work environment and the emotional experience of it (Cox & Griffiths, 2005).

As a result of this completely different cognitive perception of pressures at work people behave totally different when under pressure:

Ø  Some people feel very threatened but keep it to themselves;

Ø  Others behave aggressively, without admitting that this is caused by stress;

Ø  Others react rather quiet and calm, feeling unthreatened and relaxed;

Ø  Others, being highly aware of their moods report that they are not very stressed by the issue, but enjoy its challenge;

Ø  Others with low threat-tolerance find smaller, simpler demands made of them quite threatening and start feeling stressed very quickly.

But still it is hard to find out to what degree the work environment and factors outside of work contribute to the individual employee’s stress level. At times people experience stressful life events and therefore may find themselves less able to cope with deadlines at work, even though work is not the actual cause and had never been a problem before. It appears that workplaces with good communications, respectful relations and healthy systems of work, with high levels of Control and Support, manage better to help people recognise and manage the type of stress which may have more than one cause and therefore such workplaces tend to achieve the best results in creating a healthy and productive workforce.

Cross et.al. (2016) recognised very well that the collaborative overload is another huge stressor. Teamwork and communication, meetings and collaborative work takes up tremendous amounts of the daily working time and reduces the real amount left for the actual work to a minimum. And as well this is just a question of the individual perception. Many people enjoy the interaction with colleagues and are very capable of planning and delegating their actions and meetings while other, more introverted, people may more enjoy doing their work quietly, undisturbed and therefore, for them, more efficiently. And again this comes down to Control and Support: ‘Leaders must learn to recognize, promote, and efficiently distribute the right kinds of collaborative work, or their teams and top talent will bear the costs of too much demand for too little supply.’ (Cross, et al., 2016).

Robbins and Judge (2013, p. 167) identified a number of factors (figure 3) that influence individual perception which may inhere in the perceiver, in the object or target, or in the context of the situation.

The interpretation of these factors is heavily influenced by personal characteristics – attitudes, personality, motives, interests, past experiences, and expectations. And probably therefore most important to the individual perception of stress factors are personality traits and characteristics.


Friedman and Rosenman (1976) described two distinct personality types - Type A and Type B. The Type A personality generally performs better at a higher stress level and may be described as ambitious, rigidly organized, highly status-conscious, sensitive, impatient, anxious, proactive, and concerned with time management. People with Type A personalities are often high-achieving ‘workaholics’. They push themselves with deadlines and hate both delays and ambivalence.


In contrast the Type B personality people generally live at a lower stress levels and typically work steadily and though they also may enjoy achievement they have a greater tendency to disregard physical or mental stress when they do not achieve. When faced with competition, they focus less on winning or losing than their Type A counterparts but more on enjoying the game regardless of the outcome. Unlike the multi-tasking type A type B individuals are more attracted to creative careers such as writer, counsellor, therapist or actor, however, network and computer systems managers, professors, and judges are more likely to be Type B individuals as well. Their personal character may enjoy exploring ideas and concepts. They are often reflective, and think of the ‘outer and inner world’.


To stay abreast of changes and to meet concerns all involved who may have to deal with issues relating to occupational stress, governments, employers on all managerial levels and employees need to work together to develop intervention arrangements and prevention programmes. Jordan et. al. (2003) have developed a ‘Good Practice Model in Stress Prevention’ (figure 4) which may only be one example, though a very good one, of how to deal with stress in the workplace, how to intervene and to prevent stress in the first place. They assume that a programme designed to reduce workplace stress is more likely to be successful when there exists a culture of involvement and inclusion of all employees in the programme’s implementation and where there are high levels of communication and co-operation.


Figure 4 - Good Practice Model in Stress Prevention

D. Conclusions

As a word, stress is generally used in a rather negative sense which is mostly influenced by human’s perception of pressure. Pressure, may it be time pressure, decision making pressure or pressure caused by workload, to a certain amount is positive and performance increasing but exceeding that amount it may have negative impacts, on performance and on human health. To what degree this amount of pressure or stress is tolerable by an employee person is totally individual as it is completely influenced by human perception and consequently stress is not about reality but about perceived reality and about the perceived ability to cope.


As a problem, stress became extraordinarily widespread in almost epidemic proportions. Due to its individual perception it affects people differently, is difficult to measure and has a fraught relationship with both ill-health and unhappiness. And just as resources are being directed at it, there remain concerns about the precise nature of stress and what it says about contemporary society and workplace practices.


For those reasons it is hugely important that certain management standards that contribute to poor employee health and wellbeing must be properly and actively managed to sustain individual and organisational productivity and to avoid increasing sickness and absence rates.

It appears obvious that in certain cases due to individual perception an individual management is necessary and therefore it is every supervisor’s, line manager’s and/or HR manager’s responsibility to follow up on employees’ reports on badly managed areas as described by the HSE (Health Service Executive, 2012) to avoid any endangerment of employees’ well-being.



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