Stress is universal and far common than the common cold and can be far more dangerous. It is a phenomenon which produces negative consequences and it is argued that Evolution should have dropped this aspect of human physiology many generations before (Martin, 1998). It has not and it is becoming a major problem for individuals, organisations and society.
Since the mid 1950s occupational stress has been a topic to organisational researchers and managers. Books, research papers and journals have been developed to this topic in order to examine the causes or to control its consequences. Reasons for this interest vary, but a common view is that stress caused by work is significant in its impact both on individual employees and organisations in which they work. (War, 1996)
Sethy and Schulter (1984) (quoted by War, 1996) outlined four major reasons why job stress and coping have become important issues:
1) Concern for individual employee health and well-being.
(E.g. coronary heart disease, high blood pressure, job related accidents)
2) The financial impact on organisations.
(Including days lost due to stress related illness and injury)
3) Organisational effectiveness
4) Legal obligations on employers to provide safe and healthy working environment.
Both organisations and individuals are highly concerned about stress and its effects and this essay will particularly discuss whose responsibility actually it is to manage excessive stress at the workplace. It is alone the individual’s responsibility to find solutions for the impacts of work stress or would it be more effective if organisations would manage this issue. In order to answer this question, two aspects need to be examined. Firstly, what effects has stress on the individual (psychological, behavioural or medical) and how these effects can be controlled or eliminated. Secondly, how stress effects the organisation regarding for example work productivity. For both organisations and individuals examples will be given for managing stress and a balance will be shown for the responsibilities which each of them have.
Definition of Stress
It is not very easy to find a generally acceptable definition of “stress”. Different people and different groups of people for example doctors, engineers, psychologists, management consultants, linguists and laypeople define stress in their own distinctive ways. (Fontana, 1989)
In general, stress refers to pressure on an individual that are in some way perceived as excessive, or intolerable, and also to the psychological and physical changes, in response to those pressures. (Understanding Stress, 1988)
Stress- Impacts on The Individual
As said before there are three main areas in which stress would impact on the individual, psychological, behavioural and medical.
Psychological consequences such as anxiety, depression, nervousness, irritability, tension, moodiness and boredom are the usual impacts of stress. In addition to this there are low self-esteem, poor decision making, short attention span, hypersensitivity to criticism and mental blocks (Cox 1978, quoted by Martin 1998)
However, behavioural consequences are for example being bad tempered, increased smoking, drinking, drug abuse, violent outburst, general aggression, moodiness, going absent from work, sickness, demanding perfection from subordinates.
The third and last area is the medical consequences which are related to the physical effects of stress on and requires medical conditions. Examples are heart disease, stroke, high blood pressure, headaches, back problems, ulcers, intestinal disorders and skin conditions. (Quick and Quick 1984 quoted by Martin 1998) Sweating, dryness of mouth as well as the effects of alcohol and drug abuse are impacts of stress and were identified by Cox 1978. Moreover, Hog (1988) found links with cancer, allergies, rheumatoid arthritis, diabetes, asthma, sleep and sexual disorders as impacts of stress on the individual.
Managing Excessive Stress- Individuals
Having identified the effects of stress on the individual it is very important to find effective ways of stress management techniques. The first step is to recognise excessive stress and the simple decision that something must be done about the present situation. According to Fontana (1989) this step is called mobilisation. It is very important to take this step because without it there cannot be any progress. The second step is knowledge which means that the individual need to identify the stressors and the final stage is to take action and evaluate the outputs which can wary depending on the individual as well as the situation.
According to Lazarus and Folkman’s typology (1984, quoted by War 1996) there are two main strategies of stress coping behaviours, firstly, the problem-focused and secondly the emotion-focused strategy. The problem-focused strategies concentrate on direct action to remove the stressor or to reduce its impacts, while emotion- focused behaviours are indented to minimize the psychological (emotional) effects of a stressor on the individual.
Edwards (1992 quoted by War 1996) has described mechanisms to cope with job related stress in keeping Lazarus and Folkman’s typology.
- Change the objective situation
- Adjustment of desires to conform with perception
- Downplay the discrepancy between desires and perceptions.
In addition to these mechanisms individuals can cope with stress via regular exercise, diet or use of relaxing and meditation techniques, in order to avoid the negative effects of stressful work conditions to build up. This final strategy is a form of proactive coping, whereas the tree previous approaches represent strategies to cope with stressors as they arise.
Finally, it is very important to indicate that there are situations in which the individual has control or influence over the environment. Pressures and demands which arise in situations like these, cannot be countered directly by individual action alone.
Stress-Impacts on the Organisation
The organizational effects of stress can be categorized under three headings: attitude, performance and withdrawal. (Martin 1998)
The attitude of the employee towards the organization could change as a result of stress. For example they begin to hate their job or express feelings of hostility towards other individuals, departments, customers or suppliers. Stress can have a significant influence on motivation and willingness do function as an effective employee for the organisation.
It is generally known that to little stress can reduce operational performance as can do too much stress. Under excessive stress, employees are less likely to work with high levels of efficiency or effectiveness. Attention to detail suffers and quality is likely to reduce. As mentioned before the effects of stress create medical and psychological problems which influence the performance of an organisation through increased sickness and absence level as well as placing employees at high risk level of accidents at work. As a consequence more people are needed to cover those people who are off which is a reason for the increase in the cost of operations.
There are two different ways of withdrawal, physical and psychological. Physical withdrawal includes temporary absence, whereas psychological withdrawal involves action of physically doing things to absence oneself from work. Withdrawal is indicating that although still at work and working, the individual does not really care about the organisation or its future.
Managing Excessive Stress- Organisations
Most stress management programmes focus attention on the individual either assisting employees or help them to cope with job-related stressors. There is more concern in organisations withcopingwith the consequences of stress rather than eliminating or reducing the actual stressors themselves. (Khan and Byosiere, 1992 quoted by War 1996) There is a wide range of stress reducing programmes for employees rather then interventions to change the nature of work which would bring a more effective solution for the problem. Employee assistance programmes such as counselling and support services for employees have shown a promising approach of dealing with stress, however their effectiveness is limited. Training or counselling employees to cope with stress are just short-term solutions but have long-term benefits for mental health and well-being. Elkin and Rosch (1990) have summarized a wide range of other strategies which are directed towards increasing worker autonomy, participation and control. These strategies include: redesigning tasks, redesigning the physical work environment, role definition and clarification, establishing more flexible work schedules, participative management, employee- centred career development programmes, providing feedback and social support for employees and more equitable reward system. These are approaches which could prevent stress at work rather than treat stress once it has developed.
Having also described the impacts of stress on the organisation and the ways of managing them on an organizational level the question is whose actually responsible in managing stress at the workplace? Responsibility for stress management must be shared by all members of an organisation and individuals need to assume personal responsibility for their situation and for the behaviour they show in coping with stress. However, it is generally known that prevention is better than cure and that managing the consequences of excessive stress reduces the overall performance of the organisation by increasing the cost of running the business. Therefore the organisation has several responsibilities to prevent stress rather than coping with the consequences towards the health and safety of its workers. Nevertheless, management need to design jobs which improve rather then detract employee’s physical and mental heath. Cooperation between organisations and individuals in dealing with the sources of excessive stress will result in work environments that are both more productive for organisations and healthier for people who work within them.
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