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Industrial & Organisational : Introduction : Personnel : Organizational psychology : Occupations: Work environment: Index : Outline

Occupational stress or workplace stress is the harmful physical and emotional response that occurs when there is a poor match between job demands and the capabilities, resources, or needs of the worker. [1] Stress-related disorders encompass a broad array of conditions, including psychological disorders (e.g., depression, anxiety, post-traumatic stress disorder) and other types of emotional strain (e.g., dissatisfaction, fatigue, tension, etc.), maladaptive behaviors (e.g., aggression, substance abuse), and cognitive impairment (e.g., concentration and memory problems). In turn, these conditions may lead to poor work performance or even injury. Job stress is also associated with various biological reactions that may lead ultimately to compromised health, such as cardiovascular disease. [2]


Stress is a prevalent and costly problem in today's workplace. About one-third of workers report high levels of stress.[1] One-fourth of employees view their jobs as the number one stressor in their lives. [3] Three-fourths of employees believe the worker has more on-the-job stress than a generation ago. [4] Evidence also suggests that stress is the major cause of turnover in organizations. [1]


The APA[1] lists the following warning signs of occupational stress:

  • Loss of pleasure in work
  • Depression (Sleep or appetite disturbance, lethargy, negative mood)
  • Inability to focus or concentrate; forgetfulness
  • Anxiety
  • Substance use/abuse or other compulsive behaviors to manage stress
  • More frequent clinical errors
  • Less contact with colleagues
  • Workaholism
  • Persistent thoughts about work content
  • Increased cynicism, over-generalized negative beliefs
  • Increased isolation from or conflict with intimates
  • Chronic irritability, impatience
  • Increased reactivity and loss of objectivity and perspective in work
  • Suicidal thoughts

Health and Healthcare Utilization

Problems at work are more strongly associated with health complaints than are any other life stressor-more so than even financial problems or family problems. [5] Many studies suggest that psychologically demanding jobs that allow employees little control over the work process increase the risk of cardiovascular disease. [6] On the basis of research by the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health and many other organizations, it is widely believed that job stress increases the risk for development of back and upper- extremity musculoskeletal disorders. [6] High levels of stress are associated with substantial increases in health service utilization. [1] Workers who report experiencing stress at work also show excessive health care utilization. In a 1998 study of 46,000 workers, health care costs were nearly 50% greater for workers reporting high levels of stress in comparison to “low risk” workers. The increment rose to nearly 150%, an increase of more than $1,700 per person annually, for workers reporting high levels of both stress and depression. [7] Additionally, periods of disability due to job stress tend to be much longer than disability periods for other occupational injuries and illnesses. [8]

Causes of Workplace Stress

Link between mental health and poor working conditions

Main article: Mental health and working conditions

Kornhauser, 1965[9] in his study of the mental health of blue collar workers found that poor mental health was directly related to unpleasant working conditions, the necessity to work fast, to expend a lot of physical effort and to work excessive and inconvenient hours.

Effects of shift work

Main article: Health effects of shiftwork,
Main article: mental health effects of shiftwork

Cobb and Rose (1972) <Cobb, S & Rose, R (1973) Hypertension, Peptic Ulcer and Diabetes in Air Traffic Controllers. Journal of the Australian Medical Association, 224, 489-492.</ref> in their study of Air traffic controllers found that shift work affects blood temperature, metabolic rate, blood sugar levels, mental efficiency, work motivation, sleep patterns and family/social life. The longer the work shift, the greater the stress, with rotating shifts being the worst, followed closely by night shifts.

Effects of lack of control of work environment

A number of studies have identified that lack of control over the workplace environment can be associated with poor health.

French & Caplan 1972 [10] found that people who admitted to feeling work pressure were observed to suffer more interruptions from visitors and phone calls and by implication a reduced level of control in their working conditions.

Karasek et al (1981) [11] reported that hectic and psychologically demanding jobs increases the risk of developing coronary heart disease symptoms and premature CHD death. Low intellectual discretion and low personal schedule freedom was also associated with increased risk of cardiovascular disease.

Karasek et al (1982) [12] Proposed 4 categories: high demands, low control = strain; high demands, high control = active; low demands, low control = passive; low demands, high control = relaxed. They argued that perceived control over one’s work environment is crucial, and increasing demands are harmful only when environmental constraints prevent optimal coping and opportunities for personal development.

Sharit, J & Salvendy, G (1982) Occupational stress: review and reappraisal. Human Factors, 24, 129-162. A large number of factors qualifying as potential sources of occupational stress have been highlighted in the literature. However, if any one variable were to be singled out as a predominant source, they would choose uncertainty.

Interpersonal relationships in the work place

Main article: Interpersonal relationships as mediators of workplace stress

Ivancevich, J & Matteson ((1980) [13] reported that relationships with colleagues can provide valuable support or, conversely, can be a huge source of stress (e.g. if people are being bullied). They found that the support of colleagues mediated the effects of job strain on cortisone levels, blood pressure, glucose levels and the number of cigarettes smoked. They also analysed stress in the domain of career development – factors such as lack of job security, fear of redundancy, obsolescence or retirement, and numerous performance appraisals, induced stress. People suffering from career stress often showed high dissatisfaction, job mobility, poor work performance and less effective interpersonal relationships at work.

Cooper, C, Cooper, R & Eaker, L (1988) Living With Stress. London: Penguin Books. Person-environment fit is important. Sources of support can affect people’s response to/perception of stress. Organisational workers sometimes complain they do not have a sense of belonging, lack adequate opportunities to participate, feel their behaviour is unduly restricted and are not included in office communications and consultations.

Above extract from Holmes, G (2010) Psychology in the Real World: Community-based groupwork. PCCS Books[2]

Job stress results from the interaction of the worker and the conditions of work. Views differ on the importance of worker characteristics versus working conditions as the primary cause of job stress. The differing viewpoints suggest different ways to prevent stress at work. According to one school of thought, differences in individual characteristics such as personality and coping style are most important in predicting whether certain job conditions will result in stress-in other words, what is stressful for one person may not be a problem for someone else. This viewpoint leads to prevention strategies that focus on workers and ways to help them cope with demanding job conditions. [1] Although the importance of individual differences cannot be ignored, scientific evidence suggests that certain working conditions are stressful to most people. Such evidence argues for a greater emphasis on working conditions as the key source of job stress, and for job redesign as a primary prevention strategy. [1] Personal interview surveys of working conditions, including conditions recognized as risk factors for job stress, were conducted in Member States of the European Union in 1990, 1995, and 2000. Results showed a trend across these periods suggestive of increasing work intensity. In 1990, the percentage of workers reporting that they worked at high speeds at least one-fourth of their working time was 48%, increasing to 54% in 1995 and to 56% in 2000. Similarly, 50% of workers reported they work against tight deadlines at least one-fourth of their working time in 1990, increasing to 56% in 1995 and 60 % in 2000. However, no change was noted in the period 1995–2000 (data not collected in 1990) in the percentage of workers reporting sufficient time to complete tasks. [14] A substantial percentage of Americans work very long hours. By one estimate, more than 26% of men and more than 11% of women worked 50 hours per week or more in 2000. These figures represent a considerable increase over the previous three decades, especially for women. According to the Department of Labor, there has been an upward trend in hours worked among employed women, an increase in extended work weeks (>40 hours) by men, and a considerable increase in combined working hours among working couples, particularly couples with young children. [15] [16]

Signs of Workplace Stress

Mood and sleep disturbances, upset stomach and headache, and disturbed relationships with family and friends are examples of stress-related problems. The effects of job stress on chronic diseases are more difficult to see because chronic diseases take a long time to develop and can be influenced by many factors other than stress. Nonetheless, evidence is rapidly accumulating to suggest that stress plays an important role in several types of chronic health problems-especially cardiovascular disease, musculoskeletal disorders, and psychological disorders. [1]


A combination of organizational change and stress management is often the most useful approach for preventing stress at work. [1]

How to Change the Organization to Prevent Job Stress[17]

  • Ensure that the workload is in line with workers' capabilities and resources.
  • Design jobs to provide meaning, stimulation, and opportunities for workers to use their skills.
  • Clearly define workers' roles and responsibilities.
  • Give workers opportunities to participate in decisions and actions affecting their jobs.
  • Improve communications-reduce uncertainty about career development and future employment prospects.
  • Provide opportunities for social interaction among workers.
  • Establish work schedules that are compatible with demands and responsibilities outside the job.

St. Paul Fire and Marine Insurance Company conducted several studies on the effects of stress prevention programs in hospital settings. Program activities included (1) employee and management education on job stress, (2) changes in hospital policies and procedures to reduce organizational sources of stress, and (3) establishment of employee assistance programs. In one study, the frequency of medication errors declined by 50% after prevention activities were implemented in a 700-bed hospital. In a second study, there was a 70% reduction in malpractice claims in 22 hospitals that implemented stress prevention activities. In contrast, there was no reduction in claims in a matched group of 22 hospitals that did not implement stress prevention activities. [18]

See also

References & Bibliography

  1. 1.0 1.1 1.2 1.3 1.4 1.5 1.6 1.7 {{NIOSH (1999). Stress at Work. U.S. National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, DHHS (NIOSH) Publication Number 99-101.}}
  2. NIOSH Work Organization and Stress Related Disorders. United States National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health. URL accessed on 2007-12-01.
  3. Northwestern National Life Insurance Company [1991]. Employee burnout: America's newest epidemic. Minneapolis, MN: Northwestern National Life Insurance Company.
  4. Princeton Survey Research Associates [1997]. Labor day survey: state of workers. Princeton, NJ: Princeton Survey Research Associates.
  5. St. Paul Fire and Marine Insurance Company [1992]. American workers under pressure technical report. St. Paul, MN: St. Paul Fire and Marine Insurance Company.
  6. 6.0 6.1 {{Sauter S, Hurrell J, Murphy L, Levi L [1997]. Psychosocial and organizational factors. In: Stellman J, ed. Encyclopaedia of Occupational Health and Safety. Vol. 1. Geneva, Switzerland: International Labour Office, pp. 34.1-34.77.}}
  7. Goetzel, RZ, Anderson, DR, Whitmer, RW, Ozminkowski, RJ, Dunn, RL, Wasserman J [1998]. The relationship between modifiable health risks and health care expenditure: An analysis of the multi-employer HERO health risk and cost database. J Occup Environ Med, 40:843-854.
  8. NIOSH [2001]. NIOSH Worker Health Chartbook. National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, Pub. No. 2004-146.
  9. Kornhauser, A (1965) Mental Health of the Industrial Worker. New York: John Wiley.
  10. French, J & Caplan, R (1972) In. Marrow, A (ed.) The Failure of Success. New York: Amacon.
  11. Karasek, R, Baker, D, Marxer, F, Ahlbom, A & Theorell, T (1981) Job decision latitude, job demands and cardiovascular disease. American Journal of Public Health, 71 (7), 694-705.
  12. Karasek, R, Theorell, T, Schwartx, J, Pieper, C & Alfredsson, L (1982) Job psychological factors and coronary heart disease. Advances in Cardiology, 29, 62-67. ,
  13. Ivancevich, J & Matteson, M (1980) Stress at Work. Illinois: Scott, Freeman and Company.
  14. Ten Years of Working Conditions in the European Union, 2005. European Foundation for the Improvement of Living and Working Conditions. URL accessed on 2007-12-01.
  15. Report on the American Workforce. United States Department of Labor, Bureau of Labor Statistics. URL accessed on 2007-12-01.
  16. Jacobs JA, Gerson K [2004]. The time divide: Work, family, and gender inequality. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.
  17. Sauter SL, Murphy LR, Hurrell JJ, Jr. [1990]. Prevention of work-related psychological disorders. American Psychologist 45(10):1146-1158.
  18. Jones JW, Barge BN, Steffy BD, Fay LM, Kuntz LK, Wuebker LJ [1988]. Stress and medical malpractice: organizational risk assessment and intervention. Journal of Applied Psychology 73(4):727-735.

Key texts


  • Sauter, S., Hurrell, J. Jr., Cooper, C. (Eds.). (1989). Job control and worker health. New York: Wiley.


  • Israel, B. A., House, J. S., Schurman, S. J., Heaney, C., & Mero, R. P., (1989). "The relation of personal resources, participation, influence, interpersonal relationships and coping strategies to occupational stress, job strains and health: A multivariate analysis". Work & Stress, 3, 163-194.
  • Lazarus, R. (1991). "Psychological stress in the workplace". Journal of Social Behavior and Personality, 6, 1-13.
  • Jackson, S. E. (1983). "Participation in decision making as a strategy for reducing job-related strain". Journal of Applied Psychology, 68, 3-19.
  • Locke, E. A., & Taylor, M. S. (1990). "Stress, coping, and the meaning of work". In W. Nord & A. P. Brief (Eds.), The meaning of work (pp. 135-170). New York: Heath.
  • Long, B. C. (1988). "Stress management for school personnel: Stress inoculation training and exercise". Psychology in the Schools, 25, 314-324.
  • Sutton, R., & Kahn, R. L. (1984). "Prediction, understanding, and control as antidotes to organizational stress". In J. Lorsch (Ed.), Handbook of organizational behavior. Boston, MA: Harvard University Press.
  • Wiersma, U., & Berg, P. (1991). "Work-home role conflict, family climate, and domestic responsibilities among men and women". Journal of Applied Social Psychology, 21, 1207-1217.

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