1. Introduction. Stress is a very complex phenomenon. It is very much a personal condition and individuals vary in their ability to cope with different forms and levels of stress. In fact, we all need some level of stress, as a stimulus, to get going and live (Green 1993). However, higher levels of stress can greatly affect individual and organizational performance. It is not a stress-free environment that organizations and individuals need to aim for at work but a stress-controlled one, which is beneficial for everybody. It is important for organizations to recognize this and apply appropriate methods and processes to reduce stress. The creation of an inclusive, participative, inspirational, and respectful work environment would not only reduce stress at work but also improve individual and organizational performance.
2. How Does Stress Affect Performance? This section explains the linkage between stress and performance. A specific work-related definition by the US National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH 1999) defines work stress as the harmful physical and emotional responses that occur when the requirements of the job do not match the capabilities, resources, and the needs of the worker. Stress can lead to poor health and even injury. A certain degree of stress is necessary for good mental and physical health. This is termed ‘eustress’. Too much stress can lead to ‘distress’.
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Hawkins (1994, p.14) states that “…too much or too little stress can have deleterious effects on performance with resultant effects on the health of the individual and the organization.” (see Figure 2.1) Stress can arise in white as well as blue-collar occupations. Surveys have found little difference between white and blue-collar workers in terms of somatic complaints, health, life satisfaction, depression or other indicators of stress (Jones 1999). However, sources of stress are thought to differ between white and blue-collar workers. According to the Australian Chamber of Commerce and Industry (ACCI 1990), sources of work-related stress can be grouped into four general categories:
- Workload – too much work; too little work; work too difficult; work too easy.
- Work conditions – organizational structure; office politics; poor job design; organizational culture; low work control and autonomy.
- Work patterns – shift works; repetitive work; machine-paced work.
- Work roles – role ambiguity; conflicting job demands; the conflict between job and personal commitment.
American Psychological Association (APA 1996) reported that in recent insurance industry studies, nearly half of American workers say their job is “very or extremely stressful” and 27 percent said their job was the greatest source of stress in their life. The level of stress under which each individual operates is important, and if there are not enough stress individuals may find that their performance suffers because they are bored and unmotivated. If there is too much stress the individual will find that her/his work suffers as stress-related problems interfere with her/his performance. It should be noted that the graph and the zone of optimum performance are different shapes for different people. For example, some people may operate most effectively at a level of stress that would leave other people either bored or in pieces.
Signs of stress amongst employees are purported to manifest themselves in higher absenteeism; higher labor turnover; higher workers’ compensation claims; lower productivity and/or efficiency; and poor safety records. Miller and Smith (1997) reported that in terms of lost hours due to absenteeism, reduced productivity, and workers’ compensation benefits, stress costs the American industry more than $300 billion annually, or $7,500 per worker per year. Jones (1999, p.118) reported that National Rail Corporation, formed in 1995, had been operating at an annual loses of about $350 million. This was related to stress because tired drivers (too much work and shift work) would press brakes more often than necessary.
Drivers could not judge whether the danger was real or imagined, so they put on the brakes, costing $400 each time. This clearly indicates just how serious problem stress can be. In its magazine 31, SafetyLine reported about the increase in compensation claims in Western Australia. There were 380 cases of work-related stress in 1994/95, a substantial increase over 1993/94 where 205 claims were made. Male workers recorded a rate of 0.27 stress cases per million hours worked, while women recorded a rate of 0.49, almost twice as high as that of men. The average cost per work-related stress claim was $16,289 for men and $17,854 for women, which is well above the cost averages of other types of injury. This can be seen from the following table: WRS Cases Per Million Hours Worked
WRS Cases – FemaleWRS Cases – MaleWRS Cases – Total
Figure 2.2 Work-Related Stress (WRS) – Western Australia – 1988/89 – 1994/95. Source: SafetyLine, Magazine 31; FREQUENCY RATES. All this leads us to conclude that stress can have great effects on performance and impede efficient operation in the organization. So, stress prevention and the creation of a stress-controlled work environment (optimum level of stress) should be one of the primary issues for the organization. It should be focused on the identification of sources of stress, both work, and non-work environment, and the development of procedures to reduce the effects of these. As a general rule, the actions to reduce job stress should give top priority to organizational change to improve working conditions. NIOSH (1999) recommends a combination of organizational change and stress management as the most useful approach in preventing stress at work.
3. What Can Be Done About Stress? “Start every day with a smile and get it over with.” -W.C. Fields. Organizational strategies. Organizations play an important role in reducing the employees’ stress levels. The following section will deal with strategies that organizations can apply in order to reduce stress and its effects on performance. Some of the strategies recommended by Hawkins (1994) include the introduction of stress awareness and conflict resolution programs (stress management program – training). Stress management training could be used to teach employees about the nature and sources of stress, the effects of stress on health, and personal skills to reduce stress. Two outcomes of stress management training could be better time management or relaxation training.
According to NIOSH (1999), such programs may rapidly reduce stress symptoms and they are inexpensive and easy to implement but they have two disadvantages: the beneficial effects on stress are often short-lived and they often ignore important root causes of stress because they focus on the work and not the environment. In addition to these programs, organizational change can be used as a strategy to alleviate stress at work. Hawkins (1994) recommends job design and assessment of corporate culture as strategies that could be used to reduce stress at work. This approach is a direct way to reduce stress at work. Use of these strategies could include identification of stressful aspects at work (e.g. work overload, complex or repetitive tasks, inappropriate policies, and procedures) and the design of methods to reduce or eliminate the identified stressors. This approach has advantages because it deals directly with the root causes of stress at work.
Individual strategies. Some of the individual strategies have been discussed in the previous section and they include information to improve stress recognition by employees (e.g. training including time management, general skills, assertiveness training, job-related skills, counseling, nutrition information and/or programs, relaxation techniques). Dr. Dawid Lewis, cited in Green (1996), suggests the following techniques that individuals can use to bring stress under control: change one’s viewpoint; laugh at life; put problems into perspective; stop worrying; be positive; slow down. He suggests individuals be assertive, optimistic, breaking problems into smaller ones, laugh, listen to music, say positive things to themselves, and give their mind and body a break.
People worry about everything, whether it might be unimportant or uncontrollable. Everyone has a tendency to imagine and think about the worst of situations. Employees should think positive thoughts and change their perception or interpretation of a stressful event to something that is positive and not stressful. Individuals should also set time aside for leisure and non-work-related activities. When dealing with stress, people have to learn to be kind to their bodies as the human body, like any machine, could always do with a break. It also helps to sometimes laugh as it relieves stress by allowing the person to just forget for a while what stress he/she has.
4. Conclusion. Stress causes medical problems and also affects job performance. This report described the relationship between stress and performance and explained common sources of work-related stress. Organizations can play their part in helping to reduce employees’ stress by implementing changes in the organizational structure, culture, nature of the job and by introducing stress management training. Individuals can reduce their stress levels by changing their lifestyle and behavior and using psychological and cognitive techniques.
5. Recommendations. Organization
- Ensure that the workload is in line with the employees’ capabilities and resources.
- Design jobs to provide meaning, stimulation (less monotony), and opportunities for employees to use their skills.
- Clearly define employees’ roles and responsibilities.
- Give employees opportunities to participate in decisions and actions affecting their jobs.
- Improve communications – reduce uncertainty about career development and future employment prospects.
- Provide opportunities for social interaction among employees.
- Establish work schedules that are compatible with demands and responsibilities outside the job.
- Understand nature and sources of stress.
- Manage time effectively and efficiently.
- Follow an appropriate lifestyle (nutrition, sleep, and regular exercise).
- Develop a personal strategic management process (have a mission, set achievable goals, allocate resources, and periodically assess the situation).
- Be systematic in decision-making and problem-solving.
- Hawkins, M. 1994, ‘Occupational stress: the management challenge’, Management,
- Australian Institute of Management, October, Sydney pp.14-16.
- Green, J. 1996, ‘Managing stress – how to reduce its impact’, Australian Company Secretary, November, pp.438-439.
- Green, H. M. 1993, ‘Management Magazine – no.7’, accessed 10 May 2001, http://www.worksafe.gov.au/publications/pamphlets/s/003155.htm, August 1993, pp.19-21.
- Jones, A. 1999, “Fatigue at the top is a threat to the bottom line’, Business Review Weekly, 24 September, pp.116-119.
- Mind Tools, ‘Effective Stress Management – Understanding Optimum Stress Level’, http://www.psychwww.com/mtsite/smoptstr.html, accessed 07 May 2001.
- safety line, ‘Increase in Stress’, Magazine 31 – Work-Related Stress in Wester
- Australia, http://www.safetyline.wa.gov.au/PageBin/wswaslmg0075.htm, accessed 16 May 2001.
- NOHSC, ‘Information paper on stress adopted at the meeting of the CAI General Council’, Australian Chamber of Commerce and Industry, http://www.worksafe.gov.au/publications/pamphlets/i/003432.htm, accessed 10 May 2001, 09 November 1990, 7p.
- APA 1996, ‘Get the Facts: Psychology at Work – Doing More and More With Less & Less’, http://www.apa.org/work/less&less.html, accessed 07 May 2001.
- Miller, L.H. & Smith, A.D. 1996, ‘Get the Facts: Psychology at Work – How Does Stress
- Affect Us’, American Psychological Association, http://www.apa.org/work/stress2.html, accessed 07 May 2001.
- NIOSH, ‘Stress at Work’, http://www.cdc.gov/niosh/jobstres.html, accessed 07 May 2001.