Work stress is often perceived as a problem of the individual

Some academics and media sources have suggested that stress as a psychosocial phenomenon is currently on the increase, specifically in the United Kingdom (e. g. Cooper, 2004). Cooper claims that contemporary workplaces are breeding grounds for stress, such is the high emphasis placed on work by many and the changing nature of work. For example, increasing working hours for many workers, due to some demanding more hours and pressures from technological changes and global and domestic market demands.

In addition, the blurring of boundaries in the work-home interface and more women entering paid work, have raised the potential to adversely affect well-being (Snow, Swan, Raghavan, Connell & Klein, 2003). Although work stress was first studied in 1964, by Kahn, Wolfe, Quinn, Snoek and Rosenthal, these recent changes have raised awareness in the past 20 years or so, that work stress is more prevalent now and problematic rather than beneficial. According to Newton (1995:1), work stress ‘has become so prevalent that for most people in the West it is unavoidable’.

It was recently suggested to be ‘the new backache’ by the CBI1 as a popular reason for absenteeism. The Health & Safety Executive estimate it costs i??3. 7 billion annually and five million people feel ‘very stressed’ in the UK2. However, the number of sufferers may be even higher due to under reporting or even lower through misreporting. Due to the prevalence of work stress intrinsic in modern life, it is important to theorise where the roots of the problems arise and so suggest what possible actions to take.

This essay attempts to firstly define what work stress is, as it is not merely an outcome as one may think. Secondly, an exploration at the individual level of analysis will illustrate the common and much theorised approach to stress, which focuses on personality and managing the individual. Critical analysis of this psychological perspective will suggest that while important, this is incomplete. The work stress phenomenon originates much deeper than the individual alone, from the surrounding relationships and structures in society.

Therefore, the organisational roots of stress such as low investment in health and safety and role pressure will be explored. Again, going beyond the organisation, wider macro issues such as gender stereotypes, social and political factors suggest that work stress research and HRM should take a holistic approach to fully appreciate what is involved. Indeed, brief recommendations to those involved, such as HR managers and researchers will be made. Prior to exploring the issues, defining work stress is required due to its subjective nature and often misconception of what it actually is.

It is both a psychological and physiological response, to a physically or mentally challenging environment shown by signs of strain which violates the individual. Cooper and Clarke (2004) go beyond this in defining it as ‘an overall process which is neither in the individual or environment alone, where an individual perceives the demands of a particular encounter about to exceed the available resources and therefore threatens well-being’ (p. 5). This illustrates its psychosocial nature and that it cannot be thought of as a static illness, but as a process derived from many factors.

Indeed, it is common for authors in this area to analyse stress as an independent variable, as a mediator or more commonly as an outcome, which can be measured by behavioural, physiological and psychological elements (Beehr, 1998). As stress occurs in the social space, many variables can impact on whether it occurs. However, work stress has not always has been perceived as a psychosocial phenomenon, as early studies in the 1960’s and 1970’s focused upon individual characteristics, ignoring social aspects.

One such example was an empirical psychological study by Friedman and Rosenman (1974). A questionnaire was circulated to managers to assess their personality and behaviour. Relationships were found between those characterised as Type A personalities and a higher incidence of illness. Type A’s were characterised as hostile, time pressured and anxious and thus more susceptible to stress than more placid Type B’s. Friedman et al. (1974) concluded that this reflected a personality disposition to stress.

Other such studies also focused upon intra-individual variables such as hardy personalities (Kobasa, 1979a) and the need for control (Jones, 1977). As these were American studies, this perhaps reflected the American culture of the time, of a strong individualistic ethos. However, even now, a personality approach still persists as Winstanley and Whittington, (2002) associated stress with coping styles and more recently Daniels, Harris, and Briner, (2004) analysed cognitive affectivity.

Moreover, many researchers realise that negative affectivity, which is a personal disposition to think pessimistically, influences an individual’s reaction to stress (e. g. Watson & Clark, 1984; Spector, Chen & O’Connell, 2000). In response to the individual focused research and the recognised high costs to the individual’s welfare, organisational health and society cohesion. Attempts to rectify this have focused upon stress management techniques, which have been applied to the workplace and become popular with researchers, consultants, the layperson and the media.

These have tended to focus on helping the individual to learn to cope with work stress themselves as emotion managers. Such examples are goal setting, managing our mental imageries and positive rational thinking. 3 One such approach is that of Philips’s (1995) stress management guide, of which a brief critical evaluation will now be presented. A practical approach is taken to work stress by Philips (1995), in targeting her book at the busy manager who requires the knowledge in concise ‘how to do it’ style.

She focuses upon employee counselling as a preferred approach to work stress. Specifically how the manager can become an effective counsellor by releasing the full potential of their staff and effectively managing one-to-one situations. She believes it is crucial for the manager to recognise that: ‘counselling in management means: being non-directive, confidentiality, helping to release tension and creative energy, the individual wants it and ownership of the problem stays with the individual’. (Philips, 1995: 1).

This seems plausible as it appears to attend to the individual in solving their problems in the workplace, at the point of distress. As a form of recognition that not all is well and that management wishes to de-stress the worker and understand their need to maintain well-being. Furthermore, as it is non-directive, this promotes a facilitating rather than a controlling role in managing the stress. However, although there are obvious benefits if the counselling is effective, problems arise with this approach.

From personal experience, the role of the manager as a facilitator rather than a director, I feel is idealistic. Especially as evident in many large organisations, if the counselling is done by a line manager rather than the divorced HR department, arguably many managers would find it difficult to be non-directive. Furthermore, although many counselling managers will promise confidentiality, in reality this appears questionable. If for example, an employee is returning to work after a long period of absence, what is discussed will rarely remain between the counselling manager and employee.

Often, the reasons why they are stressed and who is involved will be revealed to senior managers, HR personnel, possibly others involved and idle gossip is also common. Moreover, this focus on treating the individual leads to anonymity problems, again as a personal experience, often when called upon for counselling whilst working, other colleagues are present and anonymity is lost. A major problem with Philip’s approach, specific to the argument presented here, is that stress counselling leads the stressed individual to accept ownership of the problem.

Work counselling just treats the individual thoughts and behaviour where stress is often perceived as misbehaviour as a reluctance to work. Other problems such as work design, work pressure, etc, may only be discussed with the counsellor, but rarely concluded as the main problem and so is rarely dealt with this way. Tackling the individual rather than structural issues is perhaps perceived as requiring less time and cost. An example of this is at engineering company BAE systems. Recently they have introduced a ‘return to work policy’ for long term absentees, the majority of which are off for stress.

Counsellors, managers and colleagues have attributed the problem with employee misbehaviour rather than wider issues such as long hours, supervisor pressure or domestic stress. This is understandable, if only one or a few employees are absent through stress rather than the majority of the workforce. Managers and human resource employees are trained to focus on conditioning the behaviour of employees. A further reason why stress is treated as an individual pathology is because it is invisible (Taylor, Baldry, Bain & Ellis, 2003).

If something cannot be objectively observed like stress, it is often rendered purely within the psyche as an inability to cope. Only the resulting behaviour is perceived. This invisibility is problematic as a worker off for two months for stress will be perceived more negatively than somebody off the same length with a broken leg. Work stress is not often viewed a valid reason for sickness, because of this invisibility. A characteristic of all these studies and approaches above is that they are narrowly focused on the individual’s disposition to work stress.

Research methods that are used, focus on a positivist approach, explaining behaviour in terms of specific cause and effect relationships. This is in line with organisational psychology’s goals, who in accordance with the BPS profession4, have a duty to use methods adhering to strong statistical analysis. This is rather reductionist considering the multifaceted nature of stress as already mentioned. This discourse of ‘working on the individual’ which has been popularised by the individualism approach,5 is even more likely to lead to the perception of misbehaviour.

However, this is not to say they have no relevance at all, as an awareness is needed of how individual differences contribute. In summary, what becomes clear is that we cannot ignore the persistent individual approach, but that this is limited alone in understanding the work stress process. Support for this comes from Goffman (1959), as he illustrated that we are social actors on a dramaturgical stage based upon interactions and attachments and Gergen (1973) in his social constructionist approach, that the self is located in the social through interpersonal relationships.

Furthermore, Luke’s (1973) notion of the un-abstracted individual, that is, studying the individual within their environment and not independent of it, is required. More recently, Daniels et al. (2004) have claimed research focusing only on individual personality differences in relation to work stress will find haphazard results, if the important element of social experience upon the individual is ignored. A recent attempt to combine levels of analysis was Siegrist’s, (1996) effort-reward imbalance model.

This explains that work stress occurs when an individual perceives injustice between the efforts they make and recognition they receive from management. This recognised that the individual’s response to stress is dependent not only on their perception of fairness but also dynamics at the interpersonal and organisational level affects stress. This is a plausible example of extending the individual level of work stress. Therefore, complementary analyses at other levels such as the organisational and social levels are plausible additions.

Many roots of stress at the organisational level have been found including: interpersonal relationships (Doumas, Margolin & John, 2003) organisational culture (Briner & Reynolds, 1999), differing sub-cultures (Cooper & Bramwell, 1992), job insecurity and management style (Sparks, Faragher & Cooper, 2001). One problem considered here in detail is the organisational roles which employees take on, which has been extensively explored in many studies (e. g. Cox, 1993; Swanson, Power & Simpson, 1998).

The rationale being that many demands placed on the individual can lead to psychological imbalance, which if negatively perceived and unmediated, can increase the level of strain and likelihood stress will be suffered. A real-life example is now shown to illustrate an employee whilst under stress with high role overload and the common blame attribution to an individual when mistakes are made. In 1990, a cockpit windscreen blew out of an aeroplane over Oxfordshire, leaving the captain hanging out of the window. In all plane accidents an investigation is conducted to explore what went wrong.

The AAIB (1992)6 reported that the plane had been released to fly by the manufacturer the previous day. In trying to make sense of the situation, immediate blame was put upon the one engineer on night shift who signed the plane ready to fly, but who had put the wrong sized bolts on the windscreen. However, delving deeper led the report authors to assign blame with the organisation for placing undue pressure of highly stressful workload onto one individual. Although the engineer admitted to cutting corners he said this was ‘normal practice’ and actually thought what he had done was in line with what his employers wanted.

Therefore in this case, stressful conditions were created by the context of the organisation which facilitated the development of stress, leading to this costly mistake. This organisational culture had the deadlines rather than safety at the forefront of its activities, which prompted violating and misbehaving conditions. A further organisational problem is a lack of serious investment (finance and time) into health and safety by HR, which is necessary to tackle work stress. The organisation has a responsibility under the Health and Safety at Work Act (1974) to ensure the health and safety of employees.

However, this is a costly enterprise and little surveillance occurs upon HR departments, as workplaces are only visited once every 17 years (Boyd, 2003). The Management of Health and Safety at Work Regulations (1992) as a recent risk assessment policy tries to enforce responsibility, but this is unpopular for bureaucratic reasons. If these policies are not thoroughly enforced by HRM, stress is more likely to flourish. Perhaps, only when a strong enough business case that promotes economic advantages, will HRM of organisational violations be taken seriously.

Furthermore, Boyd (2003) argues that a reactive rather than a proactive approach is taken to stress; that is, focusing on the symptoms rather than prevention. However, there is a strong argument for HRM to use a proactive approach (Boyd, 2003) i. e. in training employees on all levels to form positive relationships, or offering family friendly working hours where possible to prevent stress. Why let these violations occur in the first place? Many organisations have short-term views so do not welcome large upfront costs or they are willing, but just cannot afford to.

It is clear so far, that in theorising and trying to manage work stress, focusing on one level of analysis alone, particularly the micro level of the individual, is limited. The problems stemming from the organisation are also significant but we can go further beyond this, by analysing work stress from a macro sociological perspective, which is rarely done in the literature.

One notable exception is Taylor and Bain’s (2004) approach to the stressful life of call centres who argued for a critical realist approach:- …. we also reject both positivism and postmodernism, accepting the long-establish conviction in the social sciences that social structures, as well as the meanings which actors bestow upon their situation and activities, must be taken into account in explaining events. ‘ (Taylor and Bain, 2004: 276). Newton (1995) further supports this in proposing that we need to consider the wider level of analysis to work stress, by considering the real inequalities, oppressions and divisions in society.

He argues that the stress literature could have been written by an alternative structural discourse, with more emphasis on sociological rather than psychological analysis. Newton suggests that stress can be reflected in the power relations between men and women and supervisor and subordinate, which goes beyond attributing blame with the stressed subject, by considering the relationships between workplace actors which reflect structural processes and norms in wider society.

The following points of gender, political issues, individualistic culture supports the notion that the roots of workplace stress may equally reside external to the workplace as they do within the individual and organisation and that these processes feed into the workplace. One such way are gender norms and stereotypes which can impact on whether work stress is perceived or experienced. Pollert’s (1981) sociological study of stress focused upon women’s reactions to closing the factory they worked for, by exploring their working conditions rather than subjective reports alone.

By combining objective structural assessments with subjective experiences, this is beneficial as it acknowledges ‘the social structural and subjective elements of social reality’ (Handy, 1994: 91). Pollert (1981) found that the roots of work stress were the dual burdens of work, but also recognised the power relations inherent in the organisation as men were in positions of power and the women subordinates were undervalued as uneducated, wives and mothers. However, these stereotypes by the management and union were reinforced by the women themselves as they self-fulfilled the primary identities imposed on them.

Parkin (1993) supports this, arguing that the expression of emotion is gendered in organisations as the dominant emotionality’s are those of the men and any deviation is frowned upon. For example, stressed men are frequently labelled as ‘women’ and stressed women perceived as fulfilling their weaker emotional gender inferiority. What the gender issue illustrates is that work stress is reflected in the ascribed gender roles and patriarchal ideals manifested in society which continue in the workplace and guide power relations, thoughts and behaviour.

Pollert’s study illustrated the structural conditions of gender norms and stereotypes which frustrating and stressful in themselves were exaggerated by the meanings placed on these by the women, which shaped their perceptions to accept the prescribed gendered feelings/roles. Therefore, work stress was not merely due to individual personalities, but due to the accepted gender group norms. Although an old study, Pollert is an exemplar study the stress discourse could do with more of.

Similar to gender inequalities, further divisions are perpetuated by current government policies which arguably for many, create stressful circumstances between work and family life. A current issue is the phenomenon of increasing working hours in the UK, which has led to a perception of a ‘time squeeze’ upon workers and their families. For many, the work and home boundaries have become blurred where work seems to overtake life, which Cooper, (2004)7 suggests is highly stressful. Policies aim to control this such as the EU Working Time Directive (1993) which limits the number of hours worked per week to 48.

However, this is where discrepancies arise as the UK government have offered an opt out where if agreed, employers and employees can go beyond this limit and often they do, sometimes by working beyond clocked hours. This supports Thompson’s (2003) argument of disconnections in capitalism, as the government rhetoric of what should happen differs in practice. The family friendly policies promoted by New Labour are in theory wonderful and individuals and groups have been active in demanding these, but when it comes down to employers authorising these, this can create antagonism between employer, employee and colleagues.

The airy-fairy control by the government further perpetuates levels of stress, as frustrations arise from workers told they have the right to ask for flexible working hours, but this is more often than not rejected, or if granted is often perceived unfair by employees without families. The government will realise this but their business-friendly agenda imposes heavily (Roper, Cunningham & James, 2002) and shows their difficulty in satisfying all interests and achieving a ‘win, win situation’ (Bolton, 2004).

It is clear that the government’s aim to combat work stress by trying to control working hours and promoting family flexible practices is not succeeding as hoped for. Organisational actors have placed their own interpretations on these policies which has led to differing experiences. A final possible root to workplace stress is a socio-cultural issue of the rise of individualism at the expense of collectivism, which Hofstede (1980) argues is especially evident in advanced industrial western societies such as the UK. This has occurred external to the workplace as well as within.

Sociologists such as Parsons (1949)argue that there has been a decline in larger families and communities towards the occurrence of small-sized isolated nuclear families. However since Parsons’ argument, the nuclear type has been joined by an increase in single person and two person households. Arguably, the family support mechanism has somewhat been diluted, which impacts on the availability of a supportive resource alleviating work stress. For example in my own study, when returning home after work, the lack of family support contributed to higher stress perceptions (Ambler, 2005).

This is evident of a culture of ‘you are on your own’ popularised by Thatcher’s government in the 1980’s which destroyed the collectivism of the unions and promoted her ‘no such thing as society’ ideology. The decline in family size and emphasis on individualism in society and work may be a factor in why individuals are stressed. These divorces of the individual from the collective, keep people in their place and reinforce a lack of support to fall back on in stressful times at work.

However, the lack of support within and external to the workplace will not cause work stress in itself, but rather buffers against it. Individuals therefore, can be active in the stress process by seeking supports within the community or workplace. This human agency suggests that individuals may in certain conditions act against the structural conditions sowing the seeds for work stress to flourish. Overall, the analysis covered here shows that the established individual disposition to stress, the organisational context and the wider macro context all impact on work stress.

Yet the contexts surrounding the individual at any one time, particularly external to the workplace are often neglected by researchers and managers. Researchers could take a more socio-contextual approach such as interviewing colleagues, managers and/or family members to complement self-response questionnaires, which would offer managers a more realistic understanding of work stress rather than its reductionist nature at present. With regards to managers and HR staff, in the foreseeable future, the problem of work stress will not disappear so how can this be managed, recognising that many factors contribute to work stress?

I would argue that companies can manage this better than many of them do, even though there appears to be differing conflicts within the organisation and wider structural factors. The financial case is important, but I feel more could be done in alleviating pressure for workers as a top down process rather than the conventional bottom-up method of the worker tackling their inadequacies and becoming ‘stress-fit’. A basic suggestion is, an awareness of contextual factors is needed, as although obvious, these may not be to some managers.

Managers may argue these fall outside their control, however they and the government need to take more responsibility by creating conditions encouraging well-being and minimising those which are stressful. Designated spaces could be created, especially in larger organisations to discuss problems out in the open. With return to work policies, discussions should centre around what the organisation can do to help, for example negotiating work conditions rather than pathologising the worker as problematic.

From personal experience, HR departments are usually divorced from the situation where the stressed individual is, and I would suggest they could make more effort in reconciling themselves with the actual working context. Furthermore, prescriptions such as Philip’s (1995) stress management guide cannot be taken at face value, as what works in one organisational context may not in another. This is also true of family friendly policies in managing work-family stress, as HR managers need to assess what will work in particular departments.

For example, arriving in work after 9am may be fine for engineers but not for reception staff. In conclusion, it is clear that work stress is a big challenge for workers and organisations and should be regularly monitored by HR and managers, such is the continually changing nature of the organisation and its external environment. It is suggested here that the popular stress discourse is individualistic by its emphasis on personality and managing the stressed individual, reflecting that most feel that it is still an individual problem.

Furthermore, although some may argue most of the workplace stress research is done within the work context, it is de-contextualised from the important factors of wider structures of gender role ideology, family life, culture and political ideology. There is a paradox here, as work stress is a psychosocial phenomenon as accepted by definition in the literature. However, clearly the individualisation of stress confines the social to a minor role. Although social support in relation to stress is explored, this is still often theorised as a problem of the individual unable to build relationships, rather than a cultural problem of no supports.

Pollert’s (1981) study illustrates the isolated nature of sociological approaches to work stress as very few studies from this wider social approach have entered the stress discourse, yet as shown, work stress is a multilevel problem. Although the individual level of analysis was critiqued here, this is not to say the alternative sociological approach is more important and psychological studies of work stress should be dismissed. Work stress is psychological for the sufferer to note a problem, but the interpreted meanings by individuals and wider structural influences should be seriously considered in stress management and research.

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