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Managing work related stress

9 December 2011

± minute read

    Managing work related stress
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The workforce of the modern organisation is becoming more diverse, which in turn results in more complex problems and situations coming forth. Role conflict, work overload and role confusion along with mutual trust is just some of the problems that tend to arise. The manager of a present-day large organisation probably experiences the same, or more, stressors than other employees. In addition to the generic sources of stress, managers in contemporary organisational settings and ever-changing work environments experience stress from other challenges, such as acquisitions of companies, retrenchments and downsizing workforces, uncertainty of managerial jobs due to structural changes in organisations, economic declines and affirmative action, and personnel policies. This may limit the scope of career development for certain groups and put greater demands on managers to achieve better results, sometimes with even more restrictions on resources and more pressure from employees and unions on mangers to negotiate better working conditions, remuneration and other benefits. 


1.     Defining stress 

 “…stress is circumstances that threaten or are perceived to threaten one’s well-being and that thereby tax one’s coping abilities.”  Weiten (2001, p.530)

In addition, Feldman (2001) indicates that stress is the response to events that threaten and challenge us. This threat can be in terms of the person’s health, family or workload that needs to be managed and maintained. Feldman (2001) outlines that the first step to managing stress is primary appraisal. The assessment of an event to determine whether its implications are positive, neutral, or negative. If people determine that the implications are negative, they appraise the event in terms of how harmful it has been in the past, how threatening it appears to the future, and how likely it is that the challenge can be addressed successfully. The next step is secondary appraisal, the assessment of whether one’s coping abilities and resources are adequate to overcome the harm, threat, or challenge posed by the potential stressor. During this stage, people seek to determine whether their personal resources are sufficient to meet the dangers posed by the situation. Therefore, it is considered that when the potential harm, threat, and challenge produced by circumstances are high, and coping abilities are limited, people will experience stress. As indicated by Bergh and Theron (1999) intense stress effects are attributed to the manager’s position, his or her roles and the expectations linked to all these responsibilities. Managers are decision-makers, innovators, coordinators, conflict solvers and risk takers, and many stressors may affect their behaviour. Managers spend much energy as representatives of employers and as negotiators between employees and employers, which may leave them devoid of sufficient resources to cope with personal stress. Work role stressors may have spill over effects at home in reactions such as frustration, anger, irritability, anxiety, fatigue, sexual disinterest, excessive substance abuse and an increase in other stress-related diseases. 


2.     Possible sources of stress 

Stress can be produced by work situations that are ambiguous, that overload (or under load) one’s capacities, which require extraordinary time commitments, or that put one in the middle of two conflicting people or groups. The following sources of stress have been identified by Greenhaus, Callanan and Godshalk (2000); stress can have its roots in organisational policies or practices, in the demands of the job itself, and in the nature of the physical and social context of work. Moreover, different major occupational groupings can produce varying degrees of stress. Stress can be produced by work and non-work pressures and by such career concerns as employment discrimination and threatened job loss. The presence of an environmental stressor does not inevitably produce stress. It depends on how the situation is interpreted or appraised. Some people may not see a situation as particularly important, thereby reducing the level of perceived stress. What is perceived as stressful by one person may not be seen as stressful by another. Even though certain job conditions may inherently have an adverse influence on employee’s emotional reactions, they may not have a negative effect on overall subjective well-being because of the economic necessity of the given job. Hatvany (1996) indicates that it is necessary to identify the possible work characteristics that contribute to the development of stress-related work conditions for employees and employers. These characteristics are considered as the factors that contribute to the context of the work and are outlined as follows below.


Work characteristics that contributes to stress  

Work characteristics

Organisational function and culture

  • Poor work environment
  • Poor problem solving environment
  • Poor communication
  • No support systems

Organisational Role

  • Role confusion
  • Role conflict
  • High levels of work responsibility

Career Development

  • Career uncertainty
  • Career stagnation
  • Poor status
  • Poor remuneration
  • Work uncertainty
  • Poor social status related to work


  • No involvement in decision-making processes
  • Low levels to no control over work
  • No decision-making ability relating to work-related aspects

Interpersonal work relationships 

  • Social isolation
  • Poor relationships with superiors
  • Interpersonal conflict and violence
  • Lack of social support systems

Home / Work  

  • Conflicting expectations between home and work
  • Low levels of support from the home

(Adapted from Hatvany, 1996, p.12) (Adapted from Hatvany, 1996, p.12) 


3.     The management of work-related stress 

Coping behaviours enable individuals to avoid harmful effects of stressful situations. Effective coping does not eliminate stress from our lives but reduces it to manageable levels and prevents it from producing severe emotional or physical strain. Greenhaus et al. (2000) outlines three broad categories of coping responses. First, the situation that causes the stress can be changed, thereby reducing or modifying the actual stressors. This can be done by seeking clarification of job standards, reducing work load, taking on more varied assignments, or changing jobs. A second type of coping response changes the meaning of the stressful environment without necessarily changing the stressors themselves. The individual can look for the positive and ignore the negative features of the situation, or change the work or life priorities to be more consistent with the situation in which they find themselves. A third form of coping attempts to manage the strain symptoms themselves. Relaxation techniques such as meditation or biofeedback, yoga, physical exercise, and recreation can effectively reduce such physical strain as elevated pulse rate and blood pressure. 

Edgar Schein in Greenhaus et al. (2000) developed a four-step approach that is consistent with coping with work-related stress. Step one involves the diagnosing of the situation and correctly identifying the real source of the problem. In this step, an understanding must be developed whether the stress comes from work, family, personal concerns, or some combination of these sources. Step two involves self-assessment. It is essential to take the time to reflect on feelings and motives and to be familiar with other defences that shield people from an insightful understanding of themselves. In step three, a coping response is selected. Through communicating with peers, family members, friends, neighbours and community resources about problems and stresses and by establishing supportive relationships with others, one can choose an appropriate coping response. It is important to identify either an external coping resource or an internal resource so that the appropriate coping response is selected. The chosen coping response may involve changing an aspect of the stressful environment, shifting one’s priorities and the meaning of the environment, or managing the strain symptoms themselves. 

Step four involves understanding the effect (if any) of the coping response and making adjustments when necessary. Edgar Schein’s approach emphasises the importance of other people as sources of information and support. Social support has long been recognised as an invaluable aid to individuals undergoing conflict and stress, and its utilisation is itself a form of coping. Support from others can help people alter the stressful environment and protect them from the harmful effects of stress. Understanding oneself, as well as the sources of stress and available resources, is a necessary preliminary step, but it is important to recognise that supportive relationships are not a one-way street. Especially with informal sources such as family and friends, one has to be willing to give support to receive it. 



Individuals have different needs, competencies, and perspectives, a situation that is stressful to one person may not be stressful to another. A high level of stress can manifest itself in physiological, emotional and behavioural changes. It can also ultimately lead to a decrease in job satisfaction, involvement, and performance and an increase in absenteeism and turnover. People who survive stressful conditions have likely learned and developed effective coping skills and have used supportive relationships with others. These coping responses may be directed towards changing the stressful environment, reappraising the environment, or reducing the resultant strain symptoms through such activities as relaxation and physical exercise. In a similar manner, organisations can help alleviate employee stress through a series of programmes designed to change the stressful conditions, help employees adjust to the conditions, and reduce the negative strain symptoms. 

References Bergh, Z.C. & Theron, A.L. (2001). Psychology in the work context. Cape Town: Oxford University Press. Feldman, R.S. (2001). Social Psychology (3rd ed.). USA: Prentice-Hall Inc. Greenhaus, J.H., Callanan, J.E. and Godshalk, E.W. (2000). Career management principles (3rd ed.). Fort Worth, TX: Dryden. Hatvany, I. (1996). Putting pressure to work. London: Pitman Publishing. Weiten, W. (2001). Psychology themes and variations (5th ed). USA: Wadsworth.

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