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Workplace Stress

Relaunched: 13 April 2020

The workplace is commonly acknowledged as one of the most stressful environments most of us have to deal with. Yet, ironically, stress is one of the most common causes of absenteeism from the workplace. According to a 2019 Business in the Community report, 61% of employees have experienced a mental health problem due to work and one in 3 have been formally diagnosed with a mental health issue.

So what actors affect occupational stress  and how?

Noise in the Environment
Many workplaces, particularly in construction and manufacturing, are noisy – often to an unsafe level, requiring ear defenders. But even an open plan office can be noisy.

David Glass, Jerome Singer & Lucy Friedman (1969) carried out an investigation in which participants had to carry out tasks under 5 conditions:-

  • loud noises at random
  • soft noises at random
  • loud noises at fixed intervals
  • soft noises at fixed intervals
  • no noise

What the researchers found was that the participants performed best under the no noise condition and worst for random loud noises – showing how disruptive unpredictable noise can be.

Paul Bell et al (1990) have linked higher noise levels in factories to hypertension, headaches, stomach and intestinal disorders.

However, Philip Banyard (1996) cautions that it is difficult to separate noise out from other stress factors. For example: how much someone is able to tolerate noise will be influenced by where they tend to locate on the temperamental dimension of Extraversion. Those who are more introverted tend to want to reduce external sensory input such as noise because they have more than enough stimulation from the ascending recticular activating system. Extraverts tend to receive not enough stimulation and, therefore, they seek external sensory input to fill what can seem like a void in their internal activity. A personal anecdote…a few years back a young woman on one of my training courses told me that she had taken a ‘personality test’ which found her to be an ‘extreme  extrovert’; she said she found silence physically painful and had to create noise – eg: turning on the radio – to relieve the aversive state. So introverts tend to find ambient noise unpleasant whereas extraverts enjoy it and may actively seek it.

Job Strain Model
Robert Karasek’s Job Demand Control Model (1979) – also known as the Job Demand Control Model – posits that the most stressful work situations are those where the worker is under pressure (high demand) but has little control over the work in order to manage how and when it is done. Karasek holds that workers, who have demanding jobs, experience a lot of stress if they cannot decide when and how they do the work. As soon as  control becomes less, the workload will feel higher, leading to stress. In jobs where work is controlled by schedules and deadlines, workers experience a lot more stress than when they can decide their own time schedule. Having autonomy in decision-making is, therefore, much more important in minimising the development of stress than the complexity and high demands of the tasks. Karasek’s model is outlined in graphic form below:-

  • Low-strain jobs
    These combine  low demand tasks and control latitude for the employee and the freedom to decide their own schedule. This section includes the most routine jobs.
    The intrinsic motivation of employees in these type of jobs is very low and they do not see it as a good thing to embrace new challenges. Employees with those kinds of jobs quickly get bored.
  • High-strain jobs
    These are very demanding and/or complex jobs with very little control. The employee has no control and they have to do as they are told. The lack of decision latitude can also be the result of deadlines. The risk of stress is very high for these types of jobs.
    Workers with more of an internal locus of control are likely to find this kind of work far more frustrating than those with an external locus.
  • Passive jobs
    These jobs are simple jobs with little to no decision latitude. This includes a lot of repetitive and production jobs. The risk of stress for these types of jobs is lowest. Employees in these types of jobs show very little initiative and tend to be wait-and-see and passive.
    Workers with more of an external locus of control are more likely to cope better with this kind of work than those with more an internal locus.
  • Active jobs
    These jobs are highly demanding jobs that allow the employee to decide when they do their work. As a result of the high level of decision latitude, workers do not experience the job as stressful, despite it being very psychologically demanding.

The key factor in  minimising occupational stress, according to Karasek is decision latitude – how much control the individual worker has.

Michael Marmot et al’s classic 1997 study of 10,308 London-based civil servants aged 35-55 (6895 men – 67%; 3413 women – 33%) support the Job Strain Model. This investigation was part of the Whitehall studies in which a number of different psychosocial characteristics of work were investigated to test their association with illness. A longitudinal study over 3 years, it focused on the negative correlation between job control and stress-related illness. Marmot et al found civil servants with low job control were 4 times more likely to die of a heart attack than those with high job control. They were also more likely to suffer from other stress-related disorders such as cancers, strokes and gastrointestinal disorders.

Another classic study which supports the Job Strain Model is that of Gunn Johansson, Gunnar Aronson & Bjorn Lindström (1978). They found that finishers on a production line in a Swedish saw mill were stressed by having the pace of their complex and skilled work set by machine and having no control over that. Although the sample was decidedly small – just 14 finishers – 2 factors make this a particularly-interesting study. Firstly, there was a distinct psychological pressure the finishers were under: their managing to meet the machine-determined work schedule determined the overall pay of everyone on their production line. If they failed to meet their targets, everyone on the production line suffered. Secondly, biological measures were used to determine how the pressure they were under related to the production of stress hormones. Each finisher was asked to give a urine sample on getting up in the morning (the baseline), on arrival at work  and at 4 other times each day.  The researchers tested the urine for adrenaline and noradrealine as measures of sympathetic arousal. In the first urine samples of the day – see chart left -the finishers had adrenaline twice as high as their baselines and these continued to rise overall after  some drop. In comparison, a control group of 10 maintenance workers had a peak level of 1.5 x their baselines in the morning and this declined during the rest of their shift.

The finishers showed higher levels on work days than rest days. In the self-report element of the study, the finishers felt more rushed and irritated than the control group. They also rated their well-being as lower than that of the control group. The finishers had higher rates of absenteeism than the control group and more psychosomatic illness such as hypertension. The researchers also noted the repetitive nature of the finishers’ work and their sense of isolation (working alone) as contributory factors to the finisher’s stress levels.

Mika Kivimäki et al (2002), in a study of 800 Finnish workers from a range of occupations, confirmed the negative correlation between high demand and low control, finding those workers with ‘job strain’ 2.2 times more likely to die from CHD than those with low workload and high control. However, they also found that high workload and low control taken as separate issues had no effect on stress levels, It was indeed the combination of high workload and low control that was so damaging.

Not all research supports control being more important than demand. Lester Breslow & Philip Buell (1960) studied over-45s in light industry working over 48 hours per week and found they were twice as likely to develop chronic heart disease (CHD) as those working 40 hours or less. A meta-analysis of 14 studies by Mika Kivimäki et al (2006), involving more than 80,000 workers from Europe, Japan and the US found workers with high workload were significantly more at risk of developing CHD.

Paradoxically perhaps, Cary Cooper & Michael Smith (1985) found that too little work could have a negative effect, with workers feeling understretched and undervalued. Even more paradixically, Laurenz Meier et al (2008) found too much control could be stressful if the individual was low in self-efficacy – ie: they didn’t believe they had what it took to do the job. This shows the power of schemas – what people believe about themselves in relation to the demands of their situation and ties in with Richard Lazarus’ (1976) model of stress as a transaction.

Christina Györkös et al (2012) carried out a cross-cultural literature review and found that lack of job control was more of a problem for workers in individualistic cultures than collectivist cultures. Control was seen as far less desirable by workers in China and other Asian cultures than in the USA and the UK, for example. Interestingly,  Cong Liu, Paul Spector & Lin Shi (2007) found no significant cultural difference with regard to perception of workload. Their study found workload was rated the third most stressful workplace stressor in both individualist and collectivist cultures.

Work relationships
Relationships at work are the most common source of work-related stress, according to Michael Matteson & John Ivanoevich (1982).

Robert Karasek et al (1982) report job satisfaction is related to support from colleagues while those who work in social isolation are likely to have higher levels of adrenaline and noradrenaline (Cary Cooper & Judi Marshall, 1976) – though this factor is likely to be mediated by how introverted or extraverted the individual is.

In findings that are clearly linked to the Job Strain Model, Bruce Margolis & William Kroes (1974) found middle managers, foremen and supervisors were 7 times more likely to develop gastric ulcers as shop floor workers. These workers, caught between senior management and the general workforce  have high job demand but limited authority and decision-making. A Shiron (1989) reported a significant correlation between such perceived role conflicts and CHD.

Workplace bullying is, of course, a major problem, both in terms of managers foremen and supervisors bullying workers but also workers bulling other workers. M Angervold & E G Mikkelsen (2006) undertook an important study of 186 blue collar employees from a Danish manufacturing company. Bullied workers reported significantly more symptoms of psychological stress and mental fatigue than non-bullied workers. The results showed significant differences in the bullied and non-bullied ratings of psychosocial factors such as job control, management style, role clarity, social climate, social contact and work centrality. Angervold & Mikkelson were able to correlate the responses to departments with high, medium or low levels of bullying. However, when  the researchers removed  the bullied from the statistical analyses with regard to the perceived psychosocial environments, the same departments could be differentiated only on the basis of rated job demands and management style.

Management style, however, can be a real issue. Individuals driven by the RED vMEME often gravitate to power but – especially if they are high in Psychoticism – are likely to display aggressive behaviour – the type of hostile behaviour often typical of Type A ‘personalities’ – see Vulnerability to Stress. For subordinates – especially if they are high in Neuroticism – this can cause real anxiety, producing high levels of stress and eventually Depression.

In the end occupational stress can result in ‘burnout’. This is characterised by Christina Maslach & Susan Jackson (1982; 1984) as including

  • emotional exhaustion
  • depersonalisation (deindividuation)
  • perceived inadequacy


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