Before proceeding, answer the following questions to get a better handle on occupational stress. If you are presently employed, answer these questions as they relate to your job. If you are not working now but have worked, answer these questions as they relate to your last job.
What Is Occupational Stress?
Occupational stress is an extremely difficult construct to define. Obviously, it is stress on the job, but stress on the job occurs in a person. Here is where we run into problems, since any worker brings to the job a level of predisposition to be stressed. Several sources of occupational stress exist. Some of these stressors are intrinsic to the job. Some are related to the employee’s role within the organization, some to career development, some to relationships at work, and some to the structure and climate of the organization.
Interacting with these work stressors are the individual’s characteristics. These are brought to the workplace rather than being a function of it, but they are important ingredients in occupational stress, nevertheless. These characteristics include the worker’s level of anxiety and neuroticism, tolerance of ambiguity, and Type A behavior pattern.
Added to the brew are the sources of stress that come from outside the workplace and outside the worker. These extra organizational sources of stress come from family problems, life crises, financial matters, and environmental factors. Mix it all up and out come symptoms of occupational health problems that may develop into full-blown disease. Different workers have different levels of anxiety and tolerances of ambiguity, and different workers experience different amounts of family and financial problems. To assume that all of these ingredients can be quantified is naïve.
Why Is Occupational Stress Of Concern?
One of the reasons why occupational stress has been receiving so much attention of late is that businesses are genuinely beginning to care about employee welfare. You don’t buy that? Well, how about this? Work stress is costing businesses billions of dollars.
It is estimated by the International Labor Organization that stress on the job costs businesses over $200 billion annually. These costs include salaries for sick days, costs of hospitalization and outpatient care, and costs related to decreased productivity. Other stress-related factors are catching the eyes of business leaders. For instance, health-benefit costs to employers have increased dramatically.
Employees trained over a long period of time, at great cost, may break down when stressed on the job. They may make poor decisions, miss days of work, begin abusing alcohol and other drugs, or die and have to be replaced by other workers who need training. All of these are costly.
American businesses have taken note of employer-employee relationships. Fear of government regulation in support of employee health has led some businesses to act now rather than “under the gun” later. In an attempt to attract the best employees, some companies have beefed up their fringe-benefit packages. Programs to reduce occupational stress and promote physical fitness are included as such inducements.
Occupational Stress And Disease
The link between occupational stress and disease is a difficult one to prove since the workers’ characteristics and the stressors outside of the workplace complicate this relationship. There is, however, evidence that supports the conclusion that occupational stress is related to illness and disease. This evidence falls into two categories: physiological and psychological.
Physiological arousal accompanies occupational stress. Airplane pilots have been found to have an elevated heart rate and military pilots have elevated blood pressure during takeoff and landing. However, blue-collar jobs that are paced by machines have also been found to be physiologically arousing. Further, jobs that involve a hurried pace and relative lack of control over that pace by the worker lead to increased heart and blood pressure rates.
Many studies have implicated occupational stress in the development of illness and disease. The relationship of cardiovascular disease to occupational stress has been a consistent finding among researchers. In addition to coronary heart disease, work stress has been linked to hypertension, diabetes, and peptic ulcers.
Occupational stress also has consequences for your psychological health. For example, it has been found that some occupational stressors can result in low self-esteem, increased job tension, and lower job satisfaction.
Workers report more occupational stress when work objectives are unclear, when they have conflicting demands placed upon them, when they have too little or too much to do, when they have little input into decisions that affect them, and when they are made responsible for other workers’ professional development.
- Lack of Participation
One of the factors of the workplace and the organization’s modus operandi that is related to stress is the degree of participation. Workers’ perceptions of the degree of participation in the decision-making process, the degree to which they are consulted on issues affecting the organization, and their involvement in establishing rules of behavior at work have proven to be related to job satisfaction, job-related feelings of threat, and feelings of self-esteem. Others have found that nonparticipation is related to overall poor physical health, escapist drinking, depression, dissatisfaction with life, low motivation to work, intention to leave the job, and absenteeism.
- Role Problems
A clear sense of your role in an organization and a sense that you can ‘play the part’ are important in keeping stress at a minimum. A variety of role-related problems may arise for workers who lack these feelings.
- Role Overload
When job demands are so great that the worker feels an inability to cope, stress will develop. You can imagine the feeling of having too much to do in too little time.
- Role Insufficiency
When workers lack the training, education, skills, or experience to accomplish the job, they feel stressed. A poor fit between workers’ talents and the organization’s expectations creates disharmony and dissatisfaction.
- Role Ambiguity
When aspects of the job and workplace are unclear, frustration and stress are likely to develop. Workers should know the criteria for career advancement, the priorities of the organization, and generally, what is expected of them.
- Role Conflict
Sometimes, workers are caught in a bind. Two supervisors each expect something different. The worker may be faced with conflicting demands. This is the ‘damned if you do, damned if you don’t’ dilemma.
The factors that are typically thought related to dissatisfaction on the job are salary and conditions of the workplace. However, even if workers were paid well and worked in hygienic conditions, they might still be dissatisfied. A class of work related factors, called motivational factors can affect job dissatisfaction. These factors include the degree of stimulating tasks involved, the amount of recognition for jobs done well, relationships with fellow workers, and the amount of encouragement to take on responsibility.
Too much work, even if you enjoy it, can itself be an occupational stressor. Some of us either enjoy our work so much or find so little pleasure in our nonworking lives that we immerse ourselves in our jobs.
Workaholics have the following characteristics:
To combat workaholism, try these tips:
The workaholic enjoys work and, therefore, might not notice the harm it is doing. The family often suffers more than the workaholic since time is taken away from them. Family responsibilities are also added to them because of the workaholic’s work style. To intervene between workaholism and poor family health, time should be scheduled for family activities that will get the workaholic away from the telephone and job commitments.
Too much work or frequent frustration at work can lead to a syndrome of physical and emotional exhaustion. This syndrome is called burnout. Burnout is an adverse work stress reaction with psychological, psychophysiological, and behavioral components. Moreover, burnout appears to be a major factor in low worker morale, high absenteeism and job turnover rates, physical illness and distress, increased alcohol and drug use, marital and family conflict, and various other problems.
The symptoms of burnout include:
If you dislike your job and it is causing you to either feel ill or behave in ways that are detrimental to your career and/or home life, you can always quit that job. Short of that, you can ask for a change in job responsibilities, or you can request a less stressful job within the same organization. If you are experiencing burnout, learn to organize your time better and to say no when asked to take on additional jobs. Here are some rules that might help:
Recognizing that your perceptions of your occupational stress are as important as actual events precipitating that stress, you will need to intervene in these perceptions. These suggestions should help:
Managing Occupational Stress
In conclusion, occupational stress may be difficult to define and measure because of the personal stressors people bring to their jobs and their varying personality characteristics, but we all know when we are experiencing it. Fortunately, we can manage occupational stress by using the stress model to set up roadblocks between occupational stress and illness and disease. We can change jobs, perceive the stressors associated with our jobs as challenges rather than burdens to bear (perception intervention), practice relaxation techniques, and exercise regularly to use up the accumulated products of stress. However, anything we do is our own choice. Grinning and bearing it won’t help; neither will always complaining about our jobs or our bosses.