Stress at Work

Stress at WorkStress is an experience that disrupts a person’s emotional and physical state, such as having too much work that causes someone to become overtired or getting into an argument with a coworker that results in anger. Life itself is inherently stressful, so it should be no surprise that stress is an integral part of the workplace, and in fact a great deal of a person’s stress comes from work. Studies have shown that stress occurs often at work, with most people able to recall at least one stressful incident in the prior month, and 10 percent to 15 percent of employees saying they had experienced stress at work in the prior day.

Job stress researchers distinguish stressors (factors at work that disrupt a person’s emotional and physical state) from strains (a person’s reactions to stressors). Stressors can involve the nature of the job itself, interactions with other people, and rewards. Strains are classified into behavioral reactions (e.g., calling in sick when not ill or drinking alcohol), physical reactions (headache or heart disease), and psychological reactions (experiencing anger or anxiety). People vary in their ability to cope with stressors, and different people may react in different ways. For example, when assigned a difficult task, one person might work extra hours the next day to successfully complete it, whereas another might call in sick.

The basic job stress process involves the reaction of people to the work environment. During the day at work, people are aware of circumstances and events that are occurring. Some events will be perceived and interpreted by an individual as a stressor in that it will cause a disruption to the daily routine. The person might see the event as a challenge to be met or a threat to well-being. Most likely the disruption will first result in an emotional reaction such as getting angry at a rude customer or anxious over being asked to take on an unfamiliar task. The emotional response will be accompanied by physical changes to the body, which over time could result in physical symptoms such as a headache or stomach distress. Finally, the person might take some sort of action that might be constructive (e.g., seeking assistance for the unfamiliar task) or destructive (e.g., insulting the rude customer).

There are many additional factors that help determine whether a given event will be perceived as stressful and whether or not the stressor will lead to particular strains. Perhaps the most important element is an individual’s control over the situation. If a person feels in control, an event is less likely to be perceived as a stressor, and a stressor is less likely to result in strains. The person’s personality is also important, as some people are more prone to experience stressors and strains than others. Finally, assistance and emotional support from other people can reduce the impact of stressors.

Table 1.  Most Commonly Studied Stressors

  • Interpersonal conflict: Getting into arguments and fights with others that might include insulting, nasty, and rude behavior
  • Organizational constraints: Conditions of work that interfere with people being able to do their job, such as defective materials or unreliable equipment
  • Role ambiguity: Uncertainty about what people’s responsibilities are and what they are supposed to accomplish at work
  • Role conflict: Incompatible demands such as being asked to be in two different locations at the same time
  • Work overload: Either too much work or work that is too difficult for the person to do

Stressors and Strains

Much of the scientific research on job stress has been devoted to determining the conditions and events at work that are perceived by employees to be stressors and how those stressors result in strains. A series of studies have been conducted in which people were asked to relate an incident at work that was stressful, and these incidents were analyzed to look for recurring patterns. These studies have been done not only in the United States but also in Asian countries (e.g., China and India) as well. What they show is that there are certain universally experienced stressors, some occupation-specific stressors, and some stressors that are culturally determined. For example, having conflicts with coworkers and supervisors and having too much work to do are universal stressors experienced by employees across different occupations and countries. Not having enough control at work is mainly an American issue not often mentioned by Asians. However, not being given enough direction by the supervisor is an issue for Asians but not Americans. In terms of occupational differences, engineers find having their time wasted to be particularly stressful, whereas nurses find dealing with patient death to be a problem for them.

Most research on job stress has used a survey approach, asking employees to indicate the level of stressors and strains they experience on the job. The table above contains a list of the most commonly studied stressors and their definition.

Each of these stressors (to be discussed in detail below) has been linked to strains. Table 2 lists commonly studied job strains that have been linked to stressors, in the categories of behavioral, physical, and psychological. Most of these are immediate responses to stressors, although some such as heart disease can take many years of continual exposure to stressors.

Table 2. Commonly Studied Job Strains That Have Been Linked to Stressors


  • Avoiding work, e.g., calling in sick, taking long breaks
  • Drinking alcohol or taking drugs
  • Getting into fights
  • Poor job performance
  • Smoking
  • Starting arguments


  • Dizziness
  • Headache
  • Heart pounding
  • Stomach distress
  • Heart disease


  • Anger
  • Anxiety
  • Bad mood
  • Frustration with job or people
  • Poor job attitude

Interpersonal Conflict

As noted above, when asked about stressful incidents at work, interpersonal conflict is often mentioned. Getting along with coworkers, supervisors, and others at work is an important aspect of well-being. Working people spend a great deal of their waking hours at work, and so getting along at work is important. Individuals who find themselves isolated from others, in conflict with others, and the brunt of abusive and nasty acts will experience emotional reactions, such as anxiety and sadness that in some cases can be extreme, and they can in turn lead to both behavioral and physical strains such as headaches and stomach distress. This can lead employees to avoid work by calling in sick and taking overly long breaks.

Conflict with supervisors can be particularly problematic, because the supervisor has control over much of the employee’s work life, such as rewards and work assignments. Furthermore, it can be difficult to avoid or ignore a supervisor, resulting in continual unpleasant encounters and possibly the experience of retaliation by the supervisor.

It is not uncommon in organizations for certain individuals to be singled out for bullying by one or more coworkers and supervisors. This can include being the brunt of nasty comments and practical jokes, being excluded from positive social interactions such as going to lunch, and being given no assistance by others. Extreme cases of bullying have led to emotional breakdowns requiring hospitalization. This occurs often in European countries, where job mobility has prevented the individual from switching jobs.

Another possibility is that conflict among employees can escalate into physical violence. Most instances of employee-to-employee violence is mild, consisting of pushing and shoving, but extreme cases of assault with a weapon do occur. Rare cases of homicide are typically featured in the national news, such as the rather well-publicized multiple murders in the U.S. Postal Service. For example, after experiencing months of bullying and harassment by supervisors and then being fired for insubordination, Thomas McIlvane returned to work on November 14, 1991, and killed four supervisors and then himself.

Organizational Constraints

Constraints in the workplace are things that interfere with an employee’s ability to perform the job well. This can include insufficient physical resources such as equipment or supplies, inadequate training, missing information, or lack of time. It seems obvious that constraints would result in poor job performance, but they are also experienced as stressors. Most employees wish to perform their jobs well, and conditions of work that make this difficult will result in strain. Although not as severe as interpersonal conflict, constraints can lead to anger and frustration over the job being made unnecessarily difficult or the inability to perform well. This also can lead to poor job attitudes and avoidance of work.

Role Ambiguity and Role Conflict

Although role ambiguity and role conflict are different kinds of stressors, most researchers have studied them together. Role ambiguity is the lack of clear direction and guidelines about an individual’s responsibilities at work. It is not uncommon for an employee, particularly at professional or supervisory levels, to be given only ambiguous and vague directions about areas of responsibility. Thus within an office it might be unclear about who is to make decisions in some areas; for example, an assistant manager might not be certain whether the purchase of particular items needs to be cleared with his or her superior. Thus there might be anxiety produced over not being sure if he or she should ask permission and risk being seen as indecisive or place the order and risk being accused of exceeding authority.

Role conflict includes a variety of ways in which there can be conflict about responsibilities and tasks. Some conflicts can arise because of incompatible demands by the same supervisor, for example, to work faster but be more accurate. Other conflicts occur because of incompatible demands by two or more individuals; for example, two supervisors ask that their task be done by the end of the day when there is only time to complete one of them. Finally, work/family conflict occurs when there are incompatible demands made between work and non-work, such as having to take a sick child to the doctor on the day of an important work meeting. In the United States and other industrialized countries, there has been a trend toward more single-parent households, households with both parents working, and households with elderly dependents. Such circumstances have produced increased family demands on working people that can produce work/family conflict.

Both role ambiguity and role conflict have been linked to strains, although more to psychological than the other varieties. Both of these variables (with the exception of work/family conflict) have not been found to be often mentioned by people when noting stressful incidents at work, and they have not been found to be as severe as other stressors. On the other hand, work/family conflict has been shown to be important, with links to both physical and psycholog­ical strains. For example, individuals experiencing high levels of work/family conflict will tend to experience physical symptoms, poor job attitudes, negative mood, and symptoms of depression.

Work Overload

Stress at WorkThere are two types of work overload: being asked to do too much work and being asked to do work that is too difficult. Too much work can arise because of organizational constraints that prevent efficiency, insufficient numbers of staff members to share the load, or inequitable distribution of work, where some individuals have heavier workloads than others. It can also arise because an individual is unable or unwilling to handle what should be a reasonable workload, thus putting an extra load on others. An individual might not have the skill to perform the job efficiently or might have low motivation and waste a great deal of time making it difficult to complete tasks. Work that is too difficult can arise because the job is poorly designed, making it difficult for anyone to perform, or because the individual doesn’t have the necessary skills. The solution for work overload depends on the cause and whether it resides in the organization or employee. On the organization side, reduction of overload might require redesign of the job, reduction of constraints, hiring of more employees, or reducing the amount of work to be done. On the employee side, it might require selection of individuals better able to handle the load, particularly if the work is too difficult, or training employees to increase their efficiency and skill.

Work overload is a stressor frequently noted by people across countries and occupations. It has been linked to a variety of behavioral, physical, and psychological strains, although reactions to work overload can be different than to other stressors. Whereas other stressors may produce high levels of emotional distress, overload produces fatigue that in the long run can have detrimental effects on health and well-being.

Working Hours

Related to work overload is the number of hours a person works within a day and within a week. Often working hours arise from heavy workloads, but it is possible that an organization produces work overload by requiring more work within the same amount of time. The standard 8 hours per day, five days per week is being increasingly replaced by longer work days (e.g., 10 hours per day) and longer workweeks that can exceed 50 hours. Long workweeks are a particular problem in organizations that have engaged in downsizing, where the survivors are expected to complete the work of those who have left the organization. Long workdays have not been shown to produce particular strains other than fatigue with some jobs. However, long workweeks have been linked to heart disease when people are required to work in excess of 48 hours per week and wish to work less and when they don’t get extra compensation for extra work. In part this had led to working-hour restrictions in the European Union, but such restrictions have not been adopted elsewhere in the world.


A critical element in the connection between the environment, perceptions of stressors, and strain is the control employees have over their work situation. Certain environmental events, such as the assignment of a difficult task, are not automatically perceived as stressors, and stressors don’t automatically result in strain. These connections are affected by the control the employee has over the situation. For example, if the individual is able to refuse the assignment without penalty, or influence how, when, and where the assignment will be completed, it is much more likely that the event will be seen favorably as a challenge to be met rather than unfavorably as work overload.

There are different ways in which employees can have control over workplace stressors. Employees may have control over tasks, being able to choose which ones are to be performed, the procedures by which they are performed, and the scheduling of tasks. This enables employees to regulate stressors by finding approaches to tasks to reduce strain, taking breaks to reduce strain, or avoiding stressful tasks entirely. They might have control over other people, for example, the ability to avoid working with a particularly quarrelsome individual. Employees might be able to choose their own work schedule or their own location. This helps eliminate role conflict as well as avoid individuals at work with whom the employee has conflicts.

For control to be effective, an individual must perceive that he or she has control over the stressor. Just giving an employee control that the employee does not recognize is not effective. Although it might seem that control is clear cut, in many organizations employees are not certain how much control they are allowed to exert. This can be part of role ambiguity when organizational policies are ambiguous about how much latitude an employee is permitted.

Jobs differ considerably in the amount of control they allow. For example, an assembler working in a traditional factory is required to perform a particular operation, such as attaching the wheels to an automobile. There is relatively little latitude that can be allowed, as the speed of the line and the task demands specify what needs to be done and when. A middle-level manager, on the other hand, has a job with tasks that are much less defined, allowing a great deal of employee control.

Research on control has shown that it relates to both psychological and physical strains. Employees with low levels of control tend to have poor job attitudes and experience emotional distress at work. They also experience physical symptoms, and research has even linked low control to heart disease. However, the link between control and strain is complex, as will be discussed in the following discussion of the demand/ control model.

Demand/Control Model

The demand/control model states that control buffers the effects of stressors that are termed demands. Specifically, it suggests that when an employee has low control, a demand (stressor) is likely to lead to a strain. When control is high, demands will be seen more as challenges and not lead to strain. Put another way, when control is low, as demands increase in frequency and severity (e.g., arguments with others or workload), strain will increase as well. When control is high, increased demands will not lead to strain.

Jobs by their nature may tend to be high or low in both demands and control. Jobs that are of relatively low demand do not cause concerns about strains, and so for those sorts of jobs, control might not be important. However, other jobs by their nature may be high in demands, and for those jobs, low control can be a problem. Thus it is recommended that jobs with high levels of demands be given high control.

Research on this model has not been entirely supportive, suggesting that the interplay between control and demands is likely more complex than the model suggests. Nevertheless, there is evidence that control can serve as a buffer with a variety of physical and psychological strains, some of which might be related to heart disease.

Machine Pacing

Most jobs allow employees to pace their own tasks, although hovering supervisors might put pressure on individuals to maintain the workload. However, some tasks are regulated by machines, for example, with assembly lines or computer systems. Many traditional factories have products move down a conveyor belt with employees lined up to perform a series of assem­bly tasks. Since the tasks must be done in order, the conveyor belt controls the pace of work. Individuals have little latitude to control pacing, since new items appear at a fixed interval, for example every eight sec­onds. If the person leaves his or her station, the entire process breaks down, so breaks must be carefully scheduled. Some computer systems work similarly in that the employee is given a fixed amount of time to complete each task, with the system prompting the employee to move on to the next task at the required time. Still other systems track response time, for example, for a telephone operator, and will give feedback if the person is taking too long to answer or is spending too long on the phone with a customer.

Research on machine pacing has clearly shown that it can be stressful and that it is linked to strains. Studies that have compared machine pacing to self-pacing have found it to be associated with anxiety at work, poor job attitudes, and physical symptoms. A series of studies at the University of Stockholm have linked machine pacing to physiological responses of employees. In these studies, employees’ urine samples were assessed for the presence of stress-related hormones. Machine pacing was found to be associated with elevated levels of adrenaline, noradrenaline, and cortisol. The first two hormones are associated with effort and likely reflect that it was a harder task to keep up with the machine. Cortisol is associated with distress, and these results suggest that employees found the machine pacing to be a strain. Of particular concern is that elevated levels of cortisol have been linked to heart disease, suggesting that long-term exposure to machine pacing might contribute to this serious illness.

Coping and Social Support

Employees are not passive recipients of stressors, but rather they actively engage their environments, adapting the workplace to themselves and themselves to the workplace. As noted earlier, control allows the individual to avoid and modify stressors, thereby regulating to some extent the frequency and severity of exposure. However, not all stressors can be controlled, so individuals may have to make personal adjustments to deal with them. Both the nature of the situation and the person determines how stressors are addressed.

Coping refers to the means by which employees deal with stressors, by either making adjustments to the workplace or to themselves. Problem-focused coping is an approach by which the individual attempts to change the stressful situation. For example, if the stressor is a heavy workload caused by an additional assignment, the person might work out a plan to increase efficiency to complete the work within the allotted time, ask a coworker for assistance, or negotiate the postponement of other tasks until the assign­ment is completed. If the stressor is a conflict with another employee, the person might attempt to reach a resolution, either by trying a different approach with the other employee or asking a supervisor to mediate the conflict. Problem-focused approaches are most likely when individuals perceive control over the situation and are confident that they can be successful in dealing with the stressor.

Emotion-focused coping, on the other hand, deals with the person’s own strain reactions rather than the stressor itself. This might entail attempting to reduce the strain through distraction (e.g., playing a game of tennis after work), drinking alcohol or taking other substances that might reduce the emotional response, or talking things over with a family member or friend. Both means of coping can be effective in dealing with strain, but problem-focused coping is considered more effective. Furthermore, people are not limited to one or the other, and often both forms of coping are used. For example, an employee might successfully deal with a stressful situation at work (problem-focused) but then go the gym afterwards to work out the frustrations of the day.

Social support is the assistance people (e.g., coworkers, including supervisors, friends, or family members) give one another in dealing with stressors. Paralleling coping, social support can be material in helping the person deal with the stressor, or it can be emotional in helping the person deal with the strain. Material support consists of help with doing tasks or dealing with issues related to stressors. With workload, for example, a coworker might agree to help with some tasks. With work/family conflict, the supervisor might agree to reschedule a meeting so that the employee can take a child to a doctor’s appointment. Emotional support is lending a sympathetic ear to the person who wants to talk about their work problems, or spending time with the person doing activities (e.g., playing tennis) that help cope with work stress.

Although social support can be effective in helping an individual cope with stressors, the same individuals who provide support can also be a significant source of stressors. The coworker who today helps with a task might tomorrow expect the same help, and the family member who today is sympathetic might tomorrow be a source of conflict. However, social support in combination with control can be an effective means for employees to deal with stressors at work, either by helping to reduce them or by helping to reduce strain responses.

Individual Differences

People differ tremendously in their responses to the workplace. Given the same situation, for example, a difficult job assignment, one person might perceive it as a stressor, whereas another will perceive it as a wanted challenge. If the former person is unsure of his or her abilities, the assignment might seem overwhelming and threatening. If the latter person is ambitious and anxious to show the boss what he or she can do, the assign­ment is a long-awaited opportunity. The former person might experience anxiety and frustration, whereas the latter person will be enthusiastic and excited.

Three personality variables are particularly relevant to stress, two because of their link to perceived control and one because of its link to emotions. Locus of control refers to people’s belief about whether or not they can control rewards at work, and self-efficacy is people’s belief in their own abilities. People with an internal locus of control believe they are in control. People with an external locus of control believe outside forces are in control, such as powerful others (e.g., supervisors) or luck and fate. Because they see the workplace as controllable, those with an internal locus of control are less likely to perceive stressors than their external counterparts. When they do see stressors, those with an internal locus of control will be likely to attempt problem-focused coping strategies to deal with them directly. Thus internals perceive fewer stressors and experience less strain.

Similarly, those who have high self-efficacy believe they have the capability to do their jobs effectively. Particularly when it comes to task-related stressors (e.g., workload), those high in self-efficacy will be less likely to perceive stressors than those low in self-efficacy. Rather, they will see challenging situations they believe they can effectively address. If they do perceive stressors, they will be more likely to engage in problem-focused coping approaches to directly deal with them.

People differ in their tendencies to experience neg­ative emotions, as reflected in their level of negative affectivity (NA). Those high in NA tend to frequently experience anxiety and other negative emotions and can be quite sensitive to the environment. Such indi­viduals have been shown to be predisposed to perceive stressors and respond emotionally. They exhibit high levels of psychological strains and physical symptoms associated with strong emotions, such as headaches and stomach distress. By contrast, those low in NA will be less sensitive to both stressors and strains and will likely experience negative emotions far less frequently.

Stress Interventions

Stress at WorkHigh levels of job stress can produce negative con­sequences for both individuals and their employing organizations. For the individual, it can adversely affect both physical and psychological health and well-being. For the organization, it can adversely affect employee attitudes and job performance. The management of job stress can have positive outcomes for both employees and employers.

There are three approaches one can take to the control of job stress. Primary approaches focus on the stressors themselves. Appropriate workloads, reasonable working hours, clear expectations, and coordination among managers to avoid conflict can all help reduce job stressors. However, even under ideal circumstances, job stressors cannot be completely avoided. They can be an inherent part of many jobs, such as a paramedic or police officer. This makes it essential to have additional strategies.

Secondary approaches are designed to assist employees in dealing with stressors, either through problem-focused or emotion-focused strategies. Most of these techniques involve training to either enhance job skills or stress management skills. Job skills can be helpful in dealing with stressors inherent in tasks. Greater job skills can help employees work faster and thus get their jobs done in less time. It can also reduce the effort required. Stress management training teaches employees strategies for dealing with stressors or controlling strains. Stressor training concerns techniques for handling stressors, such as how to avoid conflicts with others. When strain is experienced, emotional reactions can be controlled through relaxation techniques, such as exercise, meditation, or yoga.

Tertiary approaches are used when the person has experienced sufficient levels of strains that they are causing significant problems that interfere with the ability to do the job. Employee assistance programs are available in most large organizations for employ­ees who are having emotional or personal problems, which are often associated with stress both on and off the job. Clinical psychologists and other mental health professionals can provide treatment for individuals who are in need of this level of assistance.


Job stress is an integral component of the workplace, as it comes with the territory in most occupations. The job stress process involves both job stressors in the environment and job strains experienced by employees. Common job stressors can reside in the job itself, such as workload, or in the social environment of work, such as conflict among employees. Strains that are responses to stressors can be physical, psychological, or behavioral, and often all three can occur together. In order to maintain both a healthy workforce and organization, job stress needs to be managed by both employees and their employ­ers. Although it can’t be eliminated, job stress can be kept at an acceptable level so that it doesn’t distract employees from doing their jobs and doesn’t adversely affect their health and well-being.

See also:


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