Stress: Causes and Consequences

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Stress: Causes and Consequences

An ever-increasing proportion of the human population dies from the so-called wear-and-tear diseases or degenerative diseases, which are primarily due to stress. (Hans Seyle, The Stress of Life, 1956)

Despair is the price one pays for setting oneself an impossible aim. (Graham Greene, The Heart of the Matter, 1948)

We read a great deal about stress in society and stress at work. But is it true that there is nothing new about the idea of stress, except perhaps its acuity and chronicity? Are some people or jobs in certain sectors/industries more vulnerable to stress than others? Is work stress as inevitable as death and taxes? Is there the possibility that moderate stress is good? Is there a stress industry committed to finding stress where it really does not exist?

Is stress just a current form of psychological hypochondriasis?

Many definitions of stress exist: some believe stress can and should be subjectively defined (i.e. what I say about how I feel), others feel one needs an objective definition (perhaps physical measures of saliva, blood or heart beat). Some researchers believe a global definition is appropriate (there is one general thing called stress), others emphasize that stress is multidimensional (it is made up of very different features). Should you define it by the outside stimulus factors that cause it or rather how people respond to it? That is, if somebody does not experience something as stressful can we really call it a stressor?


In most management jobs, leaders are both supported and challenged. They are supported by peers, subordinates and superiors, who also challenge them to work harder and ’smarter’. Thus it is possible to think of the average manager in terms of support and challenge:

Much support, little challenge: Managers in this role are in the fortunate position of good technical and social support, but the fact they are under-challenged probably means that they under-perform. They may actually be stressed by boredom and monotony.

Much support, much challenge: This combination tends to get the most out of managers as they are challenged by superiors, subordinates, shareholders and customers to ’work smarter’ but are given the appropriate support to succeed.

Little support, much challenge: This unfortunate, but very common, situation is a major cause of stress for any manager because he or she is challenged to work consistently hard but only offered minimal emotional, informational (feedback) and physical (equipment) support.

Little support, little challenge: Managers in some bureaucracies lead a quiet and unstressed life because they are neither challenged nor supported, which usually means neither they, nor their organization, benefits. They belong to the ’psychologically quit but physically stay’ employee.


There are essential things about the make-up of the individual, firstly their personality, ability and biography. Second, there are features about the environment (job, family, organization), usually but not exclusively considered in terms of the work environment. Third, there is how the individual and the environment perceive, define but more importantly try to cope with stress, strains and pressures.

1 The Individual

Some people are more stress-prone than others. By definition there are the anxious worriers (sometimes called neurotics). People with ’negative affectivity’, namely those with a mix of anxiety, irritability, neuroticism and self-deprecation, tend to be less productive, less job satisfied and more prone to absenteeism.

Another possible cause are fatalists who believe events in their lives to be a function of luck, chance, fate, God(s), powerful others or powers beyond their control, comprehension or manipulation and are said to have an expectancy of external control.

Third, there is the competitive, frantic person. They bring about their own stress.

2 The Job (organization) or social environment

Some jobs are more stressful than others. But why? What makes one job induce high levels of stress in all employees while another does not?

Occupational demands intrinsic to the job. Some jobs are quite simply more stressful than others. The greater the extent to which the job requires a) making decisions, b) constant monitoring of machines or materials, c) repeated exchange of information with others, d) unpleasant physical conditions, and e) performing unstructured rather than structured tasks, the more stressful the job tends to be.

Role conflict: stress results from conflicting demands. For many people at work, it is important that they engage in role juggling — rapidly switching from one role and one type of activity to another (from boss to friend, teacher to partner, law enforcer to father confessor).

Role ambiguity: stress resulting from uncertainty. This can occur when people are uncertain about several matters relating to their jobs, such as the scope of their responsibilities, what is expected of them, and how to divide their time between various duties.

Over- and underload stress from having too little or too much to do. Work overload can be both quantitative and qualitative. Quantitative overload stress occurs when people are asked to do more work, in a limited period, than they are able to do, whereas Qualitative overload occurs when the work is too difficult to be done in the set conditions. Quantitative underload leads to boredom that occurs when employees have too little work to do, and qualitative underload occurs when boring, routine, repetitive jobs are associated with chronic lack of mental stimulation.

Responsibility for others: stress resulting from a heavy burden. Many people are (or should be) responsible for their subordinates: they have to motivate them, reward and punish them, communicate and listen to them, and so on. Considerable stress is often experienced by people when confronting the human costs of organizational policies and decisions: listening to endless complaints, mediating disputes, promoting co-operation and exercising leadership.

Lack of social support: stress from being socially isolated or ignored. Having friends and supporters in times of difficulty helps managers see stressful events as less threatening and more controllable than if they had little or no support. They can provide emotional, financial and information support at different times. Friends and supporters can also often suggest useful strategies for dealing with the sources of stress.

Lack of participation in decisions: stress from helplessness and alienation. Many middle managers are, or feel they are, the victims of decisions made at a higher level, over which they have no control. The major cause is that managers are neither allowed to witness, nor to contribute to, important business decisions that affect their jobs.

3 Coping

How does a person with stress attempt to cope? One distinction which has been made is between problem-focused coping (aimed at problem-solving or doing something to alter the source of stress) and emotion-focused coping (aimed at reducing or managing the emotional distress that is associated with, or cued by, a particular set of circumstances). Emotion-focused responses can involve denial, the positive reinterpretation of events, and the seeking out of social support. Similarly, problem-focused coping can potentially involve several distinct activities, such as planning, taking direct action, seeking assistance, screening out particular activities, and sometimes stopping acting for an extended period.

One personal factor that seems to play an important role in determining resistance to stress is the familiar dimension of optimism/pessimism. Optimists are hopeful in their outlook on life, interpret a wide range of situations in a positive light and tend to expect favourable outcomes and results. Pessimists, by contrast, interpret many situations negatively, and expect unfavourable outcomes and results. Optimists are much more stress-resistant than pessimists.


Cooper, C., Cooper, R., Eaker, L. (1988). Living with Stress. Harmondsworth: Penguin.

Siegrist, J. (2001). A theory of occupational stress. In J. Durham. (Ed.). Stress in the Workplace. London: Whurr, pp.52—66.

Sonnentag, S. & Frese, M. (2003). Stress in Organizations. In W. Borman, D. Ilgen & R. Klimosk. (Eds). Handbook of Psychology. Vol. 12, pp. 454—91.