Work-Related Stress and Its Management - Principles of Management

Joe Straitiff realized that his leisure life was in trouble when his boss hung a huge neon sign saying “Open 24 Hours.” The former Electronic Arts (EA) software developer also received frequent e-mail messages from the boss to the team, saying that he would see them on the weekend. “You can’t work that many hours and remain sane,” says Straitiff.

“It’s just too harsh.” Straitiff’s complaints were not exaggerations. Two days after joining EA’s Los Angeles operations, video programmer Leander Hasty was sucked into a “crunch” period of intense work on Lord of the Rings: The Battle for Middle Earth. Soon the entire team was working 13-hour days, seven days per week.

Exasperated, Hasty’s fiancée, Erin Hoffman, wrote a lengthy diatribe on the Internet describing the dire situation. “The love of my life comes home late at night complaining of a headache that will not go away and a chronically upset stomach,” she wrote. Within two days she received more than 1,000 sympathetic messages from people at EA and other video game companies. This flashpoint sparked several lawsuits against EA for unpaid overtime.

Employees at Electronic Arts and many other organizations are experiencing increasing levels of work-related stress. Stress is an adaptive response to a situation that is perceived as challenging or threatening to a person’s well-being. The stress response is a complex emotion that produces

A World Full of Stressed- Out Employees

A World Full of Stressed- Out Employees

physiological changes to prepare us for “fight or flight”—to defend against a threat or flee from it. Specifically our heart rates and perspiration increase, muscles tighten, and breathing speeds up. Our bodies also move more blood to our brains, release adrenaline and other hormones, fuel our systems by releasing more glucose and fatty acids, activate systems that sharpen our senses, and use resources that would normally go to our immune systems.

We often hear about stress as a negative experience. This is distress —physiological, psychological, and behavioral deviation from healthy functioning. However, some level of stress—called eustress —is also a necessary part of life because it activates and motivates people to achieve goals, change their environments, and succeed in life’s challenges. Our focus will be on the causes and management of distress because it has become a chronic problem in many societies. Figure above highlights the extent of work-related stress around the world.


The stress experience is a physiological response called the general adaptation syndrome that occurs through the three stages shown in Figure below. The alarm reaction stage occurs when a threat or challenge activates the physiological stress responses that were just noted.

Our energy level and coping effectiveness initially decrease because we have not prepared for the stress. The second stage, resistance , activates various biochemical, psychological, and behavioral mechanisms that give us more energy and engage coping mechanisms to overcome or remove the source of stress. To focus energy on the source of the stress, our bodies reduce resources to the immune system during this stage. This explains why we are more likely to catch a cold or other illness when we experience prolonged stress.

People have a limited resistance capacity, and if the stress persists, they will eventually move into the third stage, exhaustion . Most of us are able to remove the source of stress or remove ourselves from that source before becoming too exhausted. However, people who frequently reach exhaustion have increased risk of long-term physiological and psychological damage.


Stress takes its toll on the human body. Many people experience tension headaches, muscle pain, and related problems due to muscle contractions from the stress response. Studies have found that high stress levels also contribute to cardiovascular disease, including heart attacks and strokes. They also produce various psychological consequences, such as job dissatisfaction, moodiness, depression, and lower organizational commitment. Furthermore, various

General Adaptation Syndrome

General Adaptation Syndrome

behavioral outcomes have been linked to high or persistent stress, including impaired job performance, poor decision making, and more workplace accidents and aggressive behavior. Most people react to stress through “fight or flight,” so increased absenteeism is another outcome because it is a form of flight.


The general adaptation syndrome describes the stress experience; but to manage work-related stress, we must understand its causes. Stressors include any environmental conditions that place a physical or emotional demand on a person. As you might imagine, people face numerous stressors at work. In this section we highlight three of the most prevalent stressors: harassment and incivility, workload, and lack of task control.

Harassment and Incivility F or almost seven years Devander Naidu took more abuse from his boss than most of us would experience in a lifetime. The assistant security and fire control manager received ongoing verbal abuse, racial taunts (Naidu is Indo-Fijian), threats of physical violence, swearing, insults to his wife, and lewd behavior from his senior manager responsible for security and fire at News Ltd. (the Australian subsidiary of News Corp., which owns Fox Network).

The manager also forced Naidu to perform construction work at his home during work hours. Naidu complained about these incidents to his manager at Group 4 Securitas, the security firm that actually employed him, but the Group 4 manager did little to help, fearing loss of the News Ltd. contract. Over time Naidu developed severe depression and posttraumatic stress disorder as a result of the psychological abuse.

The senior manager was sacked after News Ltd.’s internal investigation found sufficient evidence of his behavior problems. (Naidu’s situation became known only when News Ltd. investigated claims by female staff that the senior manager had sexually harassed them.) Naidu later sued and won compensation against News Ltd. and Group 4 for their failure to stop the senior manager’s harassment.

Devander Naidu experienced extreme and prolonged psychological harassment . Psychological harassment includes repeated and hostile or unwanted conduct, verbal comments, actions, or gestures that affect an employee’s dignity or psychological or physical integrity and that result in a harmful work environment for the employee. This covers a broad landscape of behaviors—from threats and bullying to subtle yet persistent forms of incivility.

Unfortunately psychological harassment exists to some degree in almost all workplaces, and much of it is caused by managers. One study found that 40 percent of federal court employees in Michigan had experienced workplace incivility within the past five years. Two large surveys reported that 9 percent of European workers and nearly 20 percent of British workers suffered from workplace bullying over the previous 12 months.

More than half of the 1,800 lawyers polled in an Australian survey said that they had been bullied or intimidated on the job. Psychological harassment has become such a problem that some European governments explicitly prohibit it in the workplace. When the province of Quebec, Canada, recently passed the first workplace antiharassment legislation in North America, more than 2,500 complaints were received in the first year alone!

Sexual harassment is a type of harassment that includes unwelcome conduct of a sexual nature that detrimentally affects the work environment or leads to adverse jobrelated consequences for its victims. One form of sexual harassment, called quid pro quo , includes situations in which a person’s employment or job performance is conditional on unwanted sexual relations (for example, a male supervisor threatens to fire a female employee if she does not accept his sexual advances).

The second and more common form of sexual harassment, called hostile work environment , includes sexual conduct that interferes with an individual’s work performance or creates an intimidating, hostile, or offensive working environment. The definition of sexual harassment leads to complications—and interpersonal stress— because men have a narrower interpretation than do women of what constitutes hostile work environment sexual harassment. Sexual harassment sometimes escalates into psychological harassment after the alleged victim complains about the sexual wrongdoing.

Work Overload A half-century ago social scientists predicted that technology would allow employees to enjoy a 15-hour workweek at full pay by 2030. So far it hasn’t turned out that way. Americans experience considerable work overload —working more hours and more intensely during those hours than they can reasonably cope with. Surveys by the Families and Work Institute report that 44 percent of Americans say they are overworked, up from 28 percent who felt this way three years earlier. This work overload is also the main cause of work–family conflicts because overworked employees have insufficient time to satisfy their nonwork roles of being a parent, spouse, and so forth.

Why do employees work such long hours? One explanation is the combined effects of technology and globalization. “Everyone in this industry is working harder now because of e-mail, wireless access, and globalization,” says Christopher Lochhead, chief marketing officer of Mercury Interactive, a California-based consultancy with offices in 35 countries. “You can’t even get a rest on the weekend,” he says.

A second cause, according to a recent study, is that many people are caught up in consumerism; they want to buy more goods and services, which requires more income earned through longer work hours. A third reason, called the “ideal worker norm,” is that professionals expect themselves and others to work longer work hours. For many people, toiling away far beyond the normal workweek is a badge of honor—a symbol of their superhuman capacity to perform better than others.

The ideal worker norm is particularly strong in Japan, Korea, China, and other Asian countries, which has led to the increasing incidence of karoshi —death from overwork.

The Japanese government records 100–200 cases each year, but these include only cases in which family members receive compensation. Experts say the karoshi death toll in Japan is probably closer to 10,000, and that up to 1 million white-collar employees are at risk. According to the Japanese government, employees who work more than 80 hours of overtime per month have a significantly higher risk of karoshi. Currently more than 20 percent of male Japanese employees exceed that level of overtime.

Low Task Control As a private driver for an executive in Jakarta, Eddy knows that traffic jams are a way of life in Indonesia’s largest city. “Jakarta is traffic congestion,” he complains. “All of the streets in the city are crowded with vehicles. It is impossible to avoid this distressing fact every day.” Eddy’s boss complains when traffic jams make him late for appointments, which makes matters even more stressful.

“Even watching soccer on TV or talking to my wife doesn’t get rid of my stress. It’s driving me mad.” Eddy and many other people experience stress due to a lack of task control. Along with driving through congested traffic, low task control occurs where the employee’s work is paced by a machine, the job involves monitoring equipment, or the work schedule is controlled by someone else. Computers, cell phones, and other technology also increase stress by limiting a person’s control of time and privacy.

The extent to which low task control is a stressor increases with the burden of responsibility the employee must carry. Assembly-line workers have little task control, but their stress can also be fairly minimal if their level of responsibility is also low. In contrast, sports coaches are under immense pressure to win games (high responsibility) yet have little control over what happens on the playing field (low task control). Similarly, Eddy (the Jakarta driver) is under pressure to get his employer to a particular destination on time (high responsibility), but he has little control over traffic congestion (low task control).


Some degree of stress is good (eustress), but for the most part managers need to figure out how to minimize distress among their staff. Most stress management strategies can be organized into the five categories summarized in Figure below: withdraw from the stressor, change stress perceptions, control stress consequences, receive social support, and remove the stressor.

Withdraw from the Stressor One set of strategies for minimizing workplace stress is to permanently or temporarily remove employees from the stressor.

Permanent withdrawal occurs when employees are transferred to jobs that better fit their competencies and values. Temporarily withdrawing from stressors involves distancing oneself for a short time (perhaps a few minutes or weeks) from the stressor. Some companies even set up workplace temporary retreats to help employees manage stress. Online marketing firm Brann Baltimore created an Aquarium Room complete with soothing blue lights, blue walls, and bubble columns. The room, which overlooks the National Aquarium in Baltimore, even has a “sandbox” so

Workplace-Related Stress Management Practices

Workplace-Related Stress Management Practices

employees can dip their bare feet in sand. When employees at Liggett-Stashower Inc. need a short break from the daily stresses of work, they retreat to one of three theme rooms specially designed for creativity and respite.

Staff at the Cleveland advertising firm can enter the bowling room and knock down a few pins. Or they might try out the Zen room, which serves as a quiet, relaxing place to think. The third choice is a karaoke room where employees can sing their stress away. “The higher the stress level, the more singing there is going on,” says Kristen Flynn, a Liggett art director.

Days off and vacations represent somewhat longer temporary withdrawals from stressful conditions. One study of a police and emergency response service department found that this leisure time significantly improved employees’ ability to cope with work-related stress. Paid sabbaticals are offered by several employers, including McDonald’s restaurants and accounting firm KPMG. A four-month fully paid sabbatical is mandatory every five years at Ball Janik, a law firm in Portland, Oregon.

Change Stress Perceptions Employees often experience different levels of stress in the same situation because they have different levels of self-confidence and optimism.

Consequently corporate leaders need to find ways to strengthen employees’ confidence and self- esteem so that job challenges are not perceived as threatening. A study of newly hired accountants reported that personal goal setting and self-reinforcement can reduce the stress people experience when they enter new work settings. Humor is another way to improve optimism and create positive emotions by taking some psychological weight off the situation.

Control the Consequences of Stress Coping with workplace stress also involves controlling its consequences. For this reason many companies have fitness centers where employees can keep in shape. Research shows that physical exercise reduces the physiological consequences of stress by helping employees moderate their breathing and heart rates, muscle tension, and stomach acidity.

Another way to control the physiological consequences of stress is through relaxation and meditation. For instance, employees at pharmaceutical company AstraZeneca practice a form of meditation called Qi Gong during department meetings and coffee breaks. Research has found that Qi and other forms of meditation ease anxiety, lessen blood pressure and muscle tension, and moderate breathing and heart rates.

Along with fitness and relaxation or meditation, many firms have shifted to the broader approach of wellness programs. These programs educate and support employees in better nutrition and fitness, regular sleep, and other good health habits.

Many large employers offer employee assistance programs (EAPs) —counseling services that help employees overcome personal or organizational stressors and adopt more effective coping mechanisms. Most EAPs are broad programs that assist employees with any work or personal problems. Family problems often represent the largest percentage of EAP referrals, although this varies with industry and location.

For instance, Vancouver City Savings Credit Union received an award from the American Psychological Association for the posttraumatic stress counseling program offered to employees after a robbery. EAPs can be one of the most effective stress management interventions if the counseling helps employees understand stressors, acquire stress management skills, and practice those skills.

Receive Social Support Social support from coworkers, supervisors, family members, friends, and others is generally regarded as one of the more effective stress management practices.Social support refers to a person’s interpersonal transactions with others and involves providing either emotional or informational support to buffer the stress experience. Seeking social support is called a “tend and befriend” response to stress, and research suggests that women often follow this route rather than the “fight or flight” alternative mentioned earlier.

Social support reduces stress in at least three ways. First, employees improve their perceptions that they are valued and worthy. This, in turn, increases resilience because they have higher self-esteem and confidence to cope with stressors. Second, social support provides information to help employees interpret, comprehend, and possibly remove stressors.

For instance, social support might reduce a new employee’s stress if coworkers describe ways to handle difficult customers. Finally, emotional support from others can directly help to buffer the stress experience. This last point reflects the idea that “misery loves company.” People seek out and benefit from the emotional support of others when they face threatening situations.

Social support is an important way to cope with stress that everyone can practice by maintaining friendships. This includes helping others when they need a little support in facing life stressors. Managers can strengthen social support by providing opportunities for social interaction among employees as well as their families. They also need to practice a supportive leadership style when employees work under stressful conditions and need this social support.

Mentoring relationships with more senior employees may also help junior employees cope with organizational stressors.

Remove the Stressor The stress management strategies described so far may keep employees “stress-fit,” but they don’t solve the fundamental causes of stress. For this reason some experts argue that the only way companies can effectively manage stress is by removing the stressors that cause unnecessary strain and job burnout. Removing stressors usually begins by identifying areas of high stress and determining their main causes.

Managers can also reduce stress by giving employees more control over their work and work environment. They can also ensure that employees are assigned to positions that match their competencies.

Noise and safety risks are stressful, so improving these conditions would also go a long way to minimize stress in the workplace. Workplace harassment can be minimized by carefully selecting employees and having clear guidelines for behavior and feedback to those who violate those standards. Finally, managers must find ways to give employees better work– life balance , which refers to minimizing conflict between work and nonwork demands. Work–life balance has become such an important issue that it receives closer attention in the next section.


One of the top issues facing managers in recent years is how to create a work environment that offers employees work–life balance. Work–life balance was seldom mentioned a couple of decades ago. Most employees assumed that they would put in long hours to ascend the corporate ladder. Asking the boss to accommodate nonwork responsibilities and interests was almost a sign of betrayal.

But two-income families, the increasing number of work hours over the past decade, and Gen-X/Gen-Y expectations have made work–life balance a mandatory condition in today’s employment relationship. In fact, various surveys report that work–life balance is one of the top factors that job applicants consider when looking for work and one of the most important indicators of career success—far ahead of salary, job responsibility, and other factors.

Managers can support work–life balance in many ways. To begin, they can offer flexible work hours in which employees can arrange to begin and end their workdays earlier or later, depending on their personal needs or preferences. Best Buy has adopted this approach with striking results. Not long ago the Minneapolis-based electronics store chain encouraged a 24/7 work ethos.

One manager gave out awards to the employees who turned on the lights in the morning and turned them out at night. Darrell Owens recalls staying at work for three straight days to write a report that was suddenly due. The Best Buy veteran got a bonus and vacation but ended up in hospital. Today Best Buy offers a more flexible work arrangement called ROWE: results-oriented work environment. Employees now work when and where they like to get the job done. They can arrive early or late for work, head home to chauffeur kids for an hour, and then resume work with cell phone or e-mail access.

Employees mark on a whiteboard whether they are in the office and, if not, whether they are available by cell phone or e-mail during the day. The ROWE initiative has resulted in lower employee turnover, higher morale and team performance, and much better work–life balance.

Job sharing is another work–life balance initiative in which a position is split between two people. In a typical arrangement two employees work different parts of the week with some overlapping work time in the weekly schedule to coordinate activities. A third strategy is to offer maternity, paternity, and other forms of personal leave so employees have more time and flexibility to raise a family, care for elderly parents, or take advantage of a personal experience.

The U.S. Family and Medical Leave Act grants employees up to 12 weeks of unpaid job- protected leave per year for the birth and care of the newborn child. However, almost every other developed nation requires employers to provide paid maternity leave. Volvo is one of the more generous companies in the United States, offering 40 weeks of paid maternity leave.

Telecommuting Along with flexible hours, job sharing, and personal leave, companies are helping employees to experience more work–life balance through telecommuting (also called teleworking ). Telecommuting occurs when employees work at home or a remote site, usually with a computer connection to the office.

Consider Karen Dunn Kelley’s daily commute. She puts her school-aged children on the bus, feeds breakfast to her 19-month-old before handing him off to a nanny, and then takes a short walk from her house to the office over her garage. Kelley is an executive with Houston-based AIM Management Group, yet the home office where she oversees 40 staff and $75 billion in assets is located in Pittsburgh.

More than a quarter of American employees consider themselves telecommuters, and more than 20 percent work at home at least one day each month. Approximately 10 percent of Canadian and 6 percent of Japanese employees telecommute; the Japanese government wants to increase that figure to 20 percent by 2010 as a way to reduce traffic congestion. Some research suggests that telecommuting potentially lessens employee stress by offering better work–life balance and dramatically trimming time lost through commuting to the office.

Under some circumstances it also increases productivity and job satisfaction. Nortel Networks reports that 71 percent of its U.K. staff members feel more empowered through telecommuting. Others point out that telecommuting reduces the cost of office space and improves the environment by cutting pollution and traffic congestion.

Against these potential benefits, telecommuters face a number of real or potential challenges. Although telecommuting is usually introduced to improve work–life balance, family relations may suffer rather than improve if employees lack sufficient space and resources for a home office. Some studies also report that telecommuting may increase the number of people who work long hours, take time away from family, and increase pressure after normal work hours.

Unfulfilled social needs are another common complaint, particularly among telecommuters who rarely visit the office. The bottom line of telecommuting is that it can potentially improve work–life balance, but it still requires management support to ensure that this balance occurs.

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