Sources of Stress

Learning Outcomes

  • Discuss potential sources of stress

If you poll a group of individuals about what their biggest stressors are, they’re likely to give you these four answers:

  • Money
  • Work
  • Family responsibilities
  • Health concerns

In most surveys on stress and its causes, these four responses have been at the top of the list for quite a long time, and I’m sure you weren’t surprised to read them. But managers should take pause when they realize that all four of these are either directly or indirectly impacted by the workplace.

Still, there are so many differences among individuals and their stressors. Why is one person’s mind-crippling stress another person’s biggest motivation and challenge? We’re going to attempt to answer this by looking at the three sources of stress—individual, organizational, and environmental—and then add in the concept of human perception in an attempt to understand this conundrum.

Chart mapping out the various factors of stress, individual differences, and how people experience stress. There are three types of factors of stress: Individual, Organizational, and Environmental. The individual factors of stress listed are family issues, financial issues, and individual personality. The organizational factors of stress listed are task and role demands, interpersonal demands, organizational structure, leadership, and organizational life stage. The environmental factors of stress listed are economic environment, political environment, and technology. The chart then lists individual differences, which impact how people experience stress. These differences are perception, job experience, social support, belief in locus of control, self-efficacy, and hostility. The chart then maps out different symptoms of stress, which are separated into three categories: physiological symptoms, psychological symptoms, and behavioral symptoms. The physiological symptoms of stress listed are headaches, high blood pressure, and heart disease. The psychological symptoms of stress listed are anxiety, depression, and less job satisfaction. The behavioral symptoms of stress listed are loss of productivity, absenteeism, and turnover.

Individual Factors

Let’s start at the top. The first of three sources of stress is individual. Individuals might experience stressful commutes to work, or a stressful couple of weeks helping at a work event, but those kinds of temporary, individual stresses are not what we’re looking at here. We’re looking for a deeper, longer-term stress. Family stress—marriages that are ending, issues with children, an ailing parent—these are stressful situations that an employee really can’t leave at home when he or she comes to work. Financial stress, like the inability to pay bills or an unexpected new demand on a person’s cash flow might also be an issue that disturbs an employee’s time at work. Finally, an individual’s own personality might actually contribute to his or her stress. People’s dispositions—how they perceive things as negative or positive—can be a factor in each person’s stress as well.

Organizational Factors

There’s a plethora of organizational sources of stress.

  • Task or role demands: these are factors related to a person’s role at work, including the design of a person’s job or working conditions. A stressful task demand might be a detailed, weekly presentation to the company’s senior team. A stressful role demand might be where a person is expected to achieve more in a set amount of time than is possible.
  • Interpersonal demands: these are stressors created by co-workers. Perhaps an employee is experiencing ongoing conflict with a co-worker he or she is expected to collaborate closely with. Or maybe employees are experiencing a lack of social support in their roles.
  • Organizational structure: this refers to the level of differentiation within an organization, the degree of rules and regulations, and where decisions are made. If employees are unable to participate in decisions that affect them, they may experience stress.
  • Organizational leadership: this refers to the organization’s style of leadership, particularly the managerial style of its senior executives. Leaders can create an environment of tension, fear and anxiety and can exert unrealistic pressure and control. If employees are afraid they’ll be fired for not living up to leadership’s standards, this can definitely be a source of stress.
  • Organizational life stage: an organization goes through a cycle of stages (birth, growth, maturity, decline). For employees, the birth and decline of an organization can be particularly stressful, as those stages tend to be filled with heavy workloads and a level of uncertainty about the future.

Environmental Factors

Finally, there are environmental sources of stress. The economy may be in a downturn, creating uncertainty for job futures and bank accounts. There may be political unrest or change creating stress. Finally, technology can cause stress, as new developments are constantly making employee skills obsolete, and workers fear they’ll be replaced by a machine that can do the same. Employee are also often expected to stay connected to the workplace 24/7 because technology allows it.

Practice Question

As a side note, it’s important to understand that these stressors are additive. In other words, stress builds up, and new elements add to a person’s stress level. So a single element of stress might not seem important in itself, but when added to other stresses the worker is experiencing, it can, as the old adage says, be the straw that broke the camel’s back.

Individual Differences

decorative imageThose are the sources of stress, but differences within an individual determine whether that stress will be positive or negative. Those individual differences include

  • Perception. This is what moderates the individual’s relationship to the stressor. For instance, one person might see a potential layoff as a stressful situation, while another person might see that same layoff as an opportunity for a nice severance package and the opportunity to start a new business.
  • Job Experience. Because stress is associated with turnover, it would stand to reason that those employees with a long tenure are the most stress-resistant of the bunch.
  • Social Support. Co-workers, especially those who are caring or considered to be friends, can help protect a fellow employee against the effects of stress.
  • Belief in locus of control. Those who have a high internal locus of control (those that believe they are in control of their own fate) are, unsurprisingly, not as affected by stress as those who feel they are not in control.
  • Self-efficacy. Self-efficacy is an individual’s belief that he or she can complete a task. Research shows that employees who have strong levels of self-efficacy are more resistant to the effects of stress.
  • Hostility. Some employees carry around a high level of hostility as a part of their personalities, and they’re often suspicious and distrustful of their co-workers. These personality traits make a person more susceptible to stress.

If those potential sources of stress sneak through the individual difference filters and manifest themselves as stress, they will appear in a variety of physiological, psychological and behavioral symptoms. We reviewed the physiological symptoms when we talked about the definition of stress. Add to that psychological symptoms, like tension and anxiety, but also job dissatisfaction and boredom, and behavioral symptoms, like turnover and absenteeism, and you can see how stress can become an organizational problem.

How much of an organizational problem is stress? Well, stress can cost an organization a lot more than money. We’ll take a look at that next.