Stress pervades many areas of life. Whether it is stress resulting from relationships, work, school or the social environment, research has shown that it can have a profound impact on mental health, physical well-being, productivity, performance, and decision-making. Research on cognitive appraisals, coping, and social support has also provided insight into how people view and manage stress.

In today’s world, everyone works under pressure in his or her respective workplace. Moreover, we are living in the era of insecurity, with volatile markets and fiercely competitive business conditions. Organizations are determined to get extra and better working results out of a smaller number people, and most people from the staff are routinely told that they must work smarter, faster, better, longer and harder. As a result of this, studies have shown that managing stress is an increasing problem in various organizations.

Working in a stressful environment increases the likelihood of physical illnesses due to psychological stress (Cooper and Cartwright 1994; Cooper and Payne 1988) and can also cause accidents and injuries.

Stress is mainly associated with changes, the loss of control and high workload. The building and aftermath of recession, increasing cross-national merges, increasing international competition, and joint ventures among organizations across national boundaries will inevitably lead to a variety of corporates, and reorganizations, the relocation of personnel, the redesign of jobs, and the reallocation of roles and responsibilities.

Stress manifests itself differently to each person. What is accepted as a motivating factor for one person may manifest itself as stress to another, and what may appear to us to be stressful one day, may actually be seen as a positive pressure the next day.

Stress also affects our perceptions, thoughts, communication and behaviors, helping us respond to stressors more effectively by intensifying our mental focus. Although stress can boost performance, when it is not managed properly, physical and psychological responses can become extreme. These lead to the reduction in ones mental capacity and physical resources

As much as we take it as a negative thing, stress has some tangible benefits. It generates actions, creates a physiological boost that gives one increased energy and clarity, with which to perform well. If channeled correctly, stress can enhance the performance of a team; it can be overwhelming leading to a decline in performance. With proper training, all persons can be taught how to work well under pressure for best performance. The ability to perform well under pressure comprises:

i)  The ability to distinguish circumstances in the correct way;

ii)  The ability to use a physiological boost associated with stress to one’s advantage.

Research Scenario

Stress pervades many areas of life. Whether it is stress from relationships, work, school, or the social environment, research has shown that it can have a profound impact on mental health, physical well-being, productivity, performance, and decision-making. Research on cognitive appraisals, coping, and social support has also provided insight into how people view and manage stress.

Defining Stress

Everyone has ever dealt with stress or has seen and associated with ‘stressed-out’ people in working lives. Hinkle (1973) states that the word “stress” is derived from the Latin word “stringere”, meaning “to draw tight”, and was used in the 17th century to describe hardships or affliction. It can also denote ‘pressure, force, strong effort or strain that refer primarily to an individual, his mental powers or organs.

Stress is a fundamental human reaction, with mental, emotional, and physiological dimensions. Like other primary reactions, it is rooted in our instinct of self-preservation. Virtually all our bodily systems undergo modification in response to stress.

Hans Selye defined stress as “the lowest common denominator in organism’s reactions to almost every conceivable kind of exposure, challenge and demand”.

The Health & Safety Executive (2001) defined stress as ‘the adverse reaction people have to excessive pressure or other types of demand placed on them. It arises when they perceive that they cannot cope with those demands. It is not a disease, but if stress is intense and goes on for some time, it can lead to mental or physical illnesses, like depression, nervous breakdown or health disease’.

The National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health (1999) stated that “job-related stress may be defined as harmful emotional and physical responses which appear when the needs, capabilities and resources of the worker do not match the requirements of the job. This type of stress can result into poor health or even injury to the victim.

The European Commission in its “Guidance on work-related stress” (1999) defined stress as “an emotional, cognitive, behavioral and physiological reaction to aversive and noxious aspects of work content, work organization and work environments. It is a state characterized by high levels of arousal and distress and often by feelings of not coping”.

Stress Education and Raising Awareness

This is a basis for many stress management activities, which are designed to amplify knowledge about psychological stress factors, to explain the physiological origin of stress, and to increase consciousness of relations among stress-coping skills. The premise of an educational approach is that promoting self-awareness helps an individual take action to decrease his or her stress levels. According to Kagan et al (1995), stress reduction is caused by ‘increased self-understanding and consciousness of cognitive and effective reactions to interpersonal events’. Members of the staff should learn benefits of using adaptive coping strategies, rather than resorting to maladaptive and damaging ways of coping with stress.

When the requirements of the job do not match the capabilities, resources or needs of the worker, it can lead to poor health or injury. Stress education and raising awareness refer to activities that are put in place in order to sensitize individuals about psychological factors that cause stress, to explain the origin of stress and also to increase awareness of links between stress-coping skills. The educational approach is based on the assumption that promoting self-awareness among people helps them take action to reduce their stress levels. According to Kagan et al (1995), stress reduction is caused by ‘increased self-understanding and self-awareness of cognitive and effective reactions to interpersonal events’. Members of the staff should know benefits of using adaptive coping strategies, rather than resorting to maladaptive and damaging ways of coping with stress.

It is desirable for organizations to use proactive, preventive and curative approaches to the management of stress, while simultaneously operating at more than one level of focus. Elkin and Rosch (1990) suggest that a multilevel approach to the management of stress may be introduced in three stages, such as:

1) Level One: awareness:

This level comprises introductory workshops, health fairs, lunch-time speakers, questionnaires or stress scales

2) Level Two: strategies and programmes directed by employees:

This level comprises of following:

  • Employee’s needs assessment;
  • Relaxation skills;
  • Behavioral and cognitive coping skills;
  • Program maintenance skills;
  • Assessment of program effectiveness;
  • Introduction of programmes, which act as reinforcement.

3) Level Three: strategies and programmes directed by an organization:

 This level comprises:

  • Organization’s needs assessment;
  • Identifying consequences of stress;
  • Identifying stressors in an organization;
  • Introduction of organizational change strategies;
  • Assessment of program effectiveness.

As indicated by Elkin and Rosch (1990), the best approach is one that recognizes changing lifelong patterns of an individual worker or those of an organization, but it takes time and commitment. Job stress is not the same as a challenge. Challenges energize and motivate us to learn new skills and master our job. When a challenge is met, we are relaxed and satisfied. Therefore, a challenge is a core part of doing both healthy and more productive work.

Causes of work-related stress

There are two causes of work-related stress: work conditions and worker characteristics. Stressful working conditions can directly influence safety and health. Individual and situational factors, such as a family or lifestyle, may intensify or weaken the effects.

Warning signs of job stress

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They include headache, short temper, sleep disturbance,  upset stomach, job dissatisfaction, concentration difficulty, as well as low morale.

Low morale, health and job complaints, and employee turnover often provide the first sign of job stress (Greenfield, 2008). However, sometimes, there are no clues, especially if employees fear of losing their jobs. The lack of obvious or widespread signs is not a good reason to dismiss concerns about job stress or minimize the importance of a prevention program. If not handled properly and effectively, job stress can have a negative impact on the health and productivity of a worker contributing to:

  • Heart complications: various medical reports have shown that jobs, which do not allow enough control and independence, raise the risk of heart complications.
  • Musculoskeletal disorders: various researchers hold an argument that stress caused in the workplace highly increases the chances of developing back disorders or musculoskeletal disorders.
  • Psychological disorders: various reports have also shown that disparity in the mental problems rates for individuals in different fields of work are partly caused by differences in the level of stress caused at work, e.g. a lifestyle and economic differences.
  • Other studies have also successfully shown a relationship between stressful working conditions and medical complications, such as suicide, different kinds of cancer, ulcer and a compromised immune system.
  • Workplace injuries/accidents: although not conclusive, there is some evidence, which suggests that stressful working conditions may be a cause of rising cases of physical injuries at work.
  • Low productivity: it is shown in some studies that a number of employers view stressful working conditions as an evil in order to push their employees into being more productive and to stay afloat in today’s difficult economic times.
  • Some reports also suggest that people with signs of stress in the workplace exhibit an increased number of cases of absenteeism, tardiness and thoughts of leaving their jobs, and all these have a negative impact on their work output.
  • Job stress management focuses on individual problems and stressful job conditions. The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH 1999) concludes that partial approaches are not enough. For example, often businesses use ‘stress workshop’ seminars that offer information about stress. Various approaches to relaxation, especially yoga and time management are also popular. However, such strategies only work up at a certain level. Other approaches should be considered, such as individual/situational stress management practices together with modifying stressful job conditions by changing how an organization operates.

It is the recommendation of a number of researches that there should be a combination of organizational changes plus an individual management or situational stress management approach to the prevention of stress in the workplace.

Stress management targets:

  1. Awarding employees for their good performance at work;
  2. Increasing opportunities for career development;
  3. Building an organizational culture, which greatly values an individual worker;
  4. Ensuring that the workers’ capabilities and resources are in line with the workload.
  5. Designing jobs in such a manner that they offer a meaning, simulation, along with possibilities for workers to utilize their skills;
  6. Clearly defining the roles of workers and their respective responsibilities;
  7. Providing workers with opportunities to take part in decision-making and actions pertaining to their jobs;
  8. VIII.  Improving communications and reducing uncertainty about future employment  and career development prospects;
  9. Providing chances for social interaction among workers;
  10. Establishing working schedules compatible with responsibilities and demands outside the job.

In line with the above stated, it can be particularly useful to have workers and managers working together in task-oriented, problem solving and brainstorming sessions. Such participation is effective and works by making use of direct experience and differences in the perspective of workers and managers.

When creating such work groups, employers must make sure that they comply with current labor laws. Every employers is supposed to seek  for legal assistance if he/she is unsure of his/her obligations  and responsibilities (Greenfield, 2009).

Stress Prevention

The best method to explore the source and the scope of a believed stress problem in any organization relies upon the available resources and the size of the organization. Group discussions among labor representatives managers and employees is able to provide rich sources of information. Discussions may be that what is necessary to find and fix problems in a tiny company. Larger organization use such discussions to help design formal surveys to gather input about wearing job conditions from a large number of employees.

Regardless of the method used to collect data, information should be received about employees’ perceptions of their job conditions and perceived levels of health, satisfaction and stress (Diamond, 2005). The outline of job conditions which may cause stress, effects of stress and warning signs provide starting points for deciding what information to collect.

Objective measures that can also be examined to gauge the very presence and length of job stress include absenteeism, turnover rates, illness incidents and performance problems. Nonetheless, these measures only represent rough indicators of job stress.

Questions relating to the location of stress in question along with job situations they are responsible for can be gotten from summarized and analyzed data obtained from discussions, surveys and other sources.

In summary:

  • It is advisable to organize group discussions with employees;
  • To design an employee survey;
  • To measure employees’ perceptions of job conditions, stress, health and satisfaction;
  • To collect objective data;
  • To analyze data to identify problem locations and stressful job conditions.

In conclusion, once the sources of stress at work have been identified and the scope of the problem has been understood, the stage is set for the design and implementation of an intervention strategy.

In smaller organizations, helpful ideas for prevention can be achieved through the same informal discussions, which aide in the identification of stress problems. On the other hand, a process that is more formal may be required in large organizations. On a more frequent basis, a team is asked to come up with recommendations relating on the analysis of data and a consultation with external experts.

Other problems, such as a hostile working environment, can prove pervasive in the company, and thus require some company-wide interventions. Furthermore, some problems, including excessive workload, can prevail only in departments calling for more narrow solutions. Such solutions may include redesigning of the way, in which a given task is handled. However, other problems can prove specific for particular employees and highly resistant to all sorts of organizational changes (Davis, 2010). This in effect demands for stress management or employee assistance interventions. There are interventions that can be implemented quickly (for instance, improved communication and individual stress management training), while others may need much time to be implemented. The latter one may include redesigning of a manufacturing process.

It is important to have employees informed of planned actions as well as their planned time. For this, you hold a kick-off event, which may include an all-hands meeting. In summary:

  • It is necessary to target the source of stress for changes;
  • To indicate and prioritize desired intervention strategies;
  • To communicate targeted interventions to employees;
  • To implement interventions.

Furthermore, evaluation is a central step in the whole intervention process, because it helps in the determination of whether the adopted intervention results in the desired effects and in the needed direction. There is a need to establish time frames for the evaluation of interventions.

Therefore, it goes that certain issues are significant in fruitful stress management in the workplace, making it necessary for employees to bear a clear idea, pertaining your involvement in a stress management program. To do this, a stress audit will come in handy in highlighting the problematic areas along with the likely ways to overcome these problems. Nonetheless, it is can help to identify clear goals and objectives. Thus, there is a need to ensure that you have identified the real goal and work smartly towards it as opposed to living in hope that a program will work through hitting something.

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