Stress has been dubbed the “health epidemic of the 21st century” by the World Health Organization. Since early studies, stress was defined as General Adaptation Syndrome (GAS) or the defense response of the body or the psyche to injury or prolonged stress (Selye, 1956).
Subsequently, numerous authors have attempted to define stress. There is no doubt that the most comprehensive conceptualization of stress was given by McEwen (2000) who described it as, “a real or interpreted threat to the physiological or psychological integrity of an individual that results in physiological and/or behavioral responses” (p. 173).
There are different types of stress depending on several factors such as:
- Stress duration.
- The stimuli eliciting the initial reaction.
- The psychological or physiological consequences triggered by the stressful event.
- The environment determining the stress response.
As indicated by points two and four, the workplace is one of the most stressful environments. In this post, we consider the need to address work stress.
Work stress is a type of stress associated with the workplace that can be occasional or chronic, although most cases fall under the second type (Cavanaugh, Boswell, Roehling and Boudreau, 2000).
Types of work related stress
It is also important to note that work stress can be positive or negative (Kung & Chan, 2014).
Positive stress in the workplace
Positive stress (eustress) refers to the response to stressors in an adaptive way. The consequences of such response do not affect the overall health of the individual and its duration coincides with the duration of the stimulus, e.g., the stress response triggered during your first day of work is adaptive (positive stress) because you must be alert to new stimuli (tasks, bosses, colleagues, company procedures, etc.).
Negative stress in the workplace
When does this response stop being adaptive and can thus turn into negative stress? Well, if this stress lasts more than a month, the response intensifies over time and begins to interfere with the worker’s health (problems such as insomnia, tachycardia, anxiety and depression, among others) then it would be a case of negative stress at work and should be taken into account (we recommend reading the meta-analysis by Hargrove, Quick, Nelson and Quick, 2011).
Causes of work stress
There are numerous studies focused on finding the most immediate causes and consequences of occupational stress. The following are some of the most noteworthy conclusions:
- It has been found that being a victim of workplace harassment immediately triggers an intense and prolonged stress response over time (Balducci, Fraccaroli and Schaufeli, 2011; Hoobler, Rospenda, Lemmon and Rosa, 2010; Neall and Tuckey, 2014).
- It has been shown that work stress is, in most cases, due to role overload and role ambiguity (Babatunde, 2013; Ganster and Rosen, 2013).
- In addition, it has been proposed that low salaries are also associated with the onset of job stress (Raver and Nishii, 2010).
- Other authors have observed that the lack of intrinsic motivation, as well as absence of incentives, are direct causes of stress at work (Conley and You, 2014; Karimi and Alipour, 2011).
Conditioning factors of stress at work
In addition, research has shown that certain factors can contribute to job stress and its characteristics. These factors are precipitating or conditioning factors of work-related stress. Although there is no agreed list of these factors, some previous research has considered what these could be: the age of the person experiencing work stress, the type of work, having already suffered from another psychological disorder, the time previously spent unemployed, some personality traits such as neuroticism and psychoticism, the gender of the victim and family responsibilities, among others (Colligan and Higgins, 2006; Ganster and Rosen, 2013).
Consequences of work stress
Finally, the consequences associated with job stress should also be highlighted.
Some studies have focused more on the cognitive consequences involving memory problems (memory lapses and forgetfulness of work-related information), difficulty paying attention to work-related issues, concentration problems, and a decline in the ability to perform several tasks at once (errors in working memory) (Wiegel, Sattler, Göritzand Diewald, 2014; Rickenbach et al., 2014).
Other studies have been more interested in the physical consequences of job stress and have found that individuals often complain of insomnia, abnormal cardiac markers, hypertension and diabetes, thyroid problems and a large majority suffer from symptoms of skin disorders, as well as migraines and tension-type headaches (Ganster and Rosen, 2013; Heraclides, Chandola, Witte and Brunner, 2012; Kivimäki and Kawachi, 2015; McCraty, Atkinson and Tomasino, 2003).
In addition, different studies have examined the emotional consequences of work stress. These include emotional lability, panic attacks, anxiety and depressive symptoms (Tennant, 2001; Brosschot, Verkuil and Thayer, 2016).
In general, it can be concluded that work stress is not always negative but depends on the intensity, duration and adaptive function of the stress response itself. In addition, since there is a lot of research on this subject, we can proactively use the current knowledge regarding its causes, symptoms and consequences to intervene early and prevent stress at work from interfering with our physical and psychological health.
- Babatunde, A. (2013). Occupational Stress: A Review on Conceptualisations, Causes and Cure. Economic Insights-Trends & Challenges, 65(3).
- Balducci, C., Fraccaroli, F.,&Schaufeli, W. B. (2011). Workplace bullying and its relation with work characteristics, personality, and post-traumatic stress symptoms: An integrated model. Anxiety, Stress & Coping, 24(5), 499-513.
- Brosschot, J. F., Verkuil, B., & Thayer, J. F. (2016). The default response to uncertainty and the importance of perceived safety in anxiety and stress: An evolution-theoretical perspective. Journal of anxiety disorders, 41, 22-34.
- Cavanaugh, M. A., Boswell, W. R., Roehling, M. V., & Boudreau, J. W. (2000). An empirical examination of self-reported work stress among US managers. Journal of applied psychology, 85(1), 65.
- Cepyme News. (2018). España es el país europeo con más estrés laboral. Retrieved on 25 September 2018 from: https://cepymenews.es/espana-es-el-pais-europeo-con-mas-estres-laboral/
- Colligan, T. W. & Higgins, E. M. (2006). Workplace stress: Etiology and consequences. Journal of workplace behavioral health, 21(2), 89-97.
- Conley, S. & You, S. (2014). Role stress revisited: Job structuring antecedents, work outcomes, and moderating effects of locus of control. Educational Management Administration & Leadership, 42(2), 184-206
- Ganster, D. C. & Rosen, C. C. (2013). Work stress and employee health: A multidisciplinary review. Journal of Management, 39(5), 1085-1122.
- Hargrove, M. B., Quick, J. C., Nelson, D. L., & Quick, J. D. (2011). The theory of preventive stress management: a 33‐year review and evaluation. Stress and Health, 27(3), 182-193.
- Heraclides, A. M., Chandola, T., Witte, D. R., & Brunner, E. J. (2012). Work stress, obesity and the risk of type 2 diabetes: gender‐specific bidirectional effect in the whitehall II study. Obesity, 20(2), 428-433.
- Hoobler, J. M., Rospenda, K. M., Lemmon, G., & Rosa, J. A. (2010). A within-subject longitudinal study of the effects of positive job experiences and generalized workplace harassment on well-being. Journal of Occupational Health Psychology, 15(4), 434.
- Karimi, R. &Alipour, F. (2011). Reduce job stress in organizations: Role of locus of control. International Journal of Business and Social Science, 2(18), 232-236.
- Kivimäki, M. &Kawachi, I. (2015). Work stress as a risk factor for cardiovascular disease. Current cardiology reports, 17(9), 74.
- Kung, C. S. & Chan, C. K. (2014). Differential roles of positive and negative perfectionism in predicting occupational eustress and distress. Personality and Individual Differences, 58, 76-81.
- McCraty, R., Atkinson, M., & Tomasino, D. (2003). Impact of a workplace stress reduction program on blood pressure and emotional health in hypertensive employees. The Journal of Alternative & Complementary Medicine, 9(3), 355-369.
- McEwen, B. S. (2000). The neurobiology of stress: from serendipity to clinical relevance. Brain research, 886(1-2), 172-189.
- Neall, A. M. & Tuckey, M. R. (2014). A methodological review of research on the antecedents and consequences of workplace harassment. Journal of Occupational and Organizational Psychology, 87(2), 225-257.
- Raver, J. L. & Nishii, L. H. (2010). Once, twice, or three times as harmful? Ethnic harassment, gender harassment, and generalized workplace harassment. Journal of Applied Psychology, 95(2), 236.
- Rickenbach, E. H., Almeida, D. M., Seeman, T. E., & Lachman, M. E. (2014). Daily stress magnifies the association between cognitive decline and everyday memory problems: An integration of longitudinal and diary methods. Psychology and aging, 29(4), 852.
- Selye, H. (1956). The stress of life. Nueva York: McGraw-Hill Book Company
- Tennant, C. (2001). Work-related stress and depressive disorders. Journal of psychosomatic research, 51(5), 697-704.
- Wiegel, C., Sattler, S., Göritz, A. S., & Diewald, M. (2016). Work-related stress and cognitive enhancement among university teachers. Anxiety, Stress, & Coping, 29(1), 100-117.