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3.4: What Is Stress?

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  • Learning Objectives

    1. Learn about the General Adaptation Syndrome.
    2. Learn what stressors are.
    3. Understand the outcomes of stress.
    4. Understand individual differences in experienced stress.

    Gravity. Mass. Magnetism. These words come from the physical sciences. And so does the term stress. In its original form, the word stress relates to the amount of force applied to a given area. A steel bar stacked with bricks is being stressed in ways that can be measured using mathematical formulas. In human terms, psychiatrist Peter Panzarino notes, “Stress is simply a fact of nature—forces from the outside world affecting the individual” (Panzarino, 2008). The professional, personal, and environmental pressures of modern life exert their forces on us every day. Some of these pressures are good. Others can wear us down over time.

    Stress is defined by psychologists as the body’s reaction to a change that requires a physical, mental, or emotional adjustment or response (Dyer, 2006). Stress is an inevitable feature of life. It is the force that gets us out of bed in the morning, motivates us at the gym, and inspires us to work.

    As you will see in the sections below, stress is a given factor in our lives. We may not be able to avoid stress completely, but we can change how we respond to stress, which is a major benefit. Our ability to recognize, manage, and maximize our response to stress can turn an emotional or physical problem into a resource.

    Researchers use polling to measure the effects of stress at work. The results have been eye-opening. According to a 2001 Gallup poll, 80% of American workers report that they feel workplace stress at least some of the time (Kersten, 2002). Another survey found that 65% of workers reported job stress as an issue for them, and almost as many employees ended the day exhibiting physical effects of stress, including neck pain, aching muscles, and insomnia. It is clear that many individuals are stressed at work.

    The Stress Process

    Our basic human functions, breathing, blinking, heartbeat, digestion, and other unconscious actions, are controlled by our lower brains. Just outside this portion of the brain is the semiconscious limbic system, which plays a large part in human emotions. Within this system is an area known as the amygdala. The amygdala is responsible for, among other things, stimulating fear responses. Unfortunately, the amygdala cannot distinguish between meeting a 10:00 a.m. marketing deadline and escaping a burning building.

    Human brains respond to outside threats to our safety with a message to our bodies to engage in a “fight-or-flight” response (Cannon, 1915). Our bodies prepare for these scenarios with an increased heart rate, shallow breathing, and wide-eyed focus. Even digestion and other functions are stopped in preparation for the fight-or-flight response. While these traits allowed our ancestors to flee the scene of their impending doom or engage in a physical battle for survival, most crises at work are not as dramatic as this.

    Hans Selye, one of the founders of the American Institute of Stress, spent his life examining the human body’s response to stress. As an endocrinologist who studied the effects of adrenaline and other hormones on the body, Selye believed that unmanaged stress could create physical diseases such as ulcers and high blood pressure, and psychological illnesses such as depression. He hypothesized that stress played a general role in disease by exhausting the body’s immune system and termed this the General Adaptation Syndrome (GAS) (Selye, 1956; Selye, 1976).

    Resistance to stress has three stages: alarm, resistance, and exhaustion
    Figure 7.2. In Selye’s GAS model, stress affects an individual in three steps: alarm, resistance, and exhaustion.

    In the alarm phase of stress, an outside stressor jolts the individual, insisting that something must be done. It may help to think of this as the fight-or-flight moment in the individual’s experience. If the response is sufficient, the body will return to its resting state after having successfully dealt with the source of stress.

    In the resistance phase, the body begins to release cortisol and draws on reserves of fats and sugars to find a way to adjust to the demands of stress. This reaction works well for short periods of time, but it is only a temporary fix. Individuals forced to endure the stress of cold and hunger may find a way to adjust to lower temperatures and less food. While it is possible for the body to “adapt” to such stresses, the situation cannot continue. The body is drawing on its reserves, like a hospital using backup generators after a power failure. It can continue to function by shutting down unnecessary items like large overhead lights, elevators, televisions, and most computers, but it cannot proceed in that state forever.

    In the exhaustion phase, the body has depleted its stores of sugars and fats, and the prolonged release of cortisol has caused the stressor to significantly weaken the individual. Disease results from the body’s weakened state, leading to death in the most extreme cases. This eventual depletion is why we’re more likely to reach for foods rich in fat or sugar, caffeine, or other quick fixes that give us energy when we are stressed. Selye referred to stress that led to disease as distress and stress that was enjoyable or healing as eustress.

    Workplace Stressors

    Stressors are events or contexts that cause a stress reaction by elevating levels of adrenaline and forcing a physical or mental response. The key to remember about stressors is that they aren’t necessarily a bad thing. The saying “the straw that broke the camel’s back” applies to stressors. Having a few stressors in our lives may not be a problem, but because stress is cumulative, having many stressors day after day can cause a buildup that becomes a problem. The American Psychological Association surveys American adults about their stresses annually. Topping the list of stressful issues are money, work, and housing (American Psychological Association, 2007). But in essence, we could say that all three issues come back to the workplace. How much we earn determines the kind of housing we can afford, and when job security is questionable, home life is generally affected as well.

    Understanding what can potentially cause stress can help avoid negative consequences. Now we will examine the major stressors in the workplace.

    A major category of workplace stressors are role demands. In other words, some jobs and some work contexts are more potentially stressful than others.

    Role Demands

    George Lucas
    Figure 7.3. George Lucas, one of the most successful filmmakers of all time, found making The Empire Strikes Back stressful both personally and financially. Those who worked with him on those early Star Wars films describe him as fully engrossed in the process, which led to role overload and work–family conflict. Following the making of that film, Lucas said he was “burnt out” and didn’t want to make any more Star Wars films.. Wikimedia Commons – CC BY-SA 2.0.

    Role ambiguity refers to vagueness in relation to what our responsibilities are. If you have started a new job and felt unclear about what you were expected to do, you have experienced role ambiguity. Having high role ambiguity is related to higher emotional exhaustion, more thoughts of leaving an organization, and lowered job attitudes and performance (Fisher & Gittelson, 1983; Jackson & Shuler, 1985; Örtqvist & Wincent, 2006). Role conflict refers to facing contradictory demands at work. For example, your manager may want you to increase customer satisfaction and cut costs, while you feel that satisfying customers inevitably increases costs. In this case, you are experiencing role conflict because satisfying one demand makes it unlikely to satisfy the other. Role overload is defined as having insufficient time and resources to complete a job. When an organization downsizes, the remaining employees will have to complete the tasks that were previously performed by the laid-off workers, which often leads to role overload. Like role ambiguity, both role conflict and role overload have been shown to hurt performance and lower job attitudes; however, research shows that role ambiguity is the strongest predictor of poor performance (Gilboa et al., 2008; Tubre & Collins, 2000). Research on new employees also shows that role ambiguity is a key aspect of their adjustment, and that when role ambiguity is high, new employees struggle to fit into the new organization (Bauer et al., 2007).

    Information Overload

    Messages reach us in countless ways every day. Some are societal—advertisements that we may hear or see in the course of our day. Others are professional—e-mails, memos, voice mails, and conversations from our colleagues. Others are personal—messages and conversations from our loved ones and friends. Add these together and it’s easy to see how we may be receiving more information than we can take in. This state of imbalance is known as information overload, which can be defined as “occurring when the information processing demands on an individual’s time to perform interactions and internal calculations exceed the supply or capacity of time available for such processing” (Schick, Gordon, & Haka, 1990). Role overload has been made much more salient because of the ease at which we can get abundant information from Web search engines and the numerous e-mail and text messages we receive each day (Dawley & Anthony, 2003).[1] Other research shows that working in such a fragmented fashion significantly impacts efficiency, creativity, and mental acuity (Overholt, 2001).

    Top 10 Stressful Jobs

    As you can see, some of these jobs are stressful due to high emotional labor (customer service), physical demands (miner), time pressures (journalist), or all three (police officer).

    1. Inner city high school teacher
    2. Police officer
    3. Miner
    4. Air traffic controller
    5. Medical intern
    6. Stockbroker
    7. Journalist
    8. Customer service or complaint worker
    9. Secretary
    10. Waiter

    Source: Tolison, B. (2008, April 7). Top ten most stressful jobs. Health. Retrieved January 28, 2009, from the WCTV News Web site:

    Work–Family Conflict

    Work–family conflict occurs when the demands from work and family are negatively affecting one another (Netemeyer, Boles, & McMurrian, 1996). Specifically, work and family demands on a person may be incompatible with each other such that work interferes with family life and family demands interfere with work life. This stressor has steadily increased in prevalence, as work has become more demanding and technology has allowed employees to work from home and be connected to the job around the clock. In fact, a recent census showed that 28% of the American workforce works more than 40 hours per week, creating an unavoidable spillover from work to family life (U.S. Census Bureau, 2004). Moreover, the fact that more households have dual-earning families in which both adults work means household and childcare duties are no longer the sole responsibility of a stay-at-home parent. This trend only compounds stress from the workplace by leading to the spillover of family responsibilities (such as a sick child or elderly parent) to work life. Research shows that individuals who have stress in one area of their life tend to have greater stress in other parts of their lives, which can create a situation of escalating stressors (Allen et al., 2000; Ford, Heinen, & Langkamer, 2007; Frone, Russell, & Cooper, 1992; Hammer, Bauer, & Grandey, 2003).

    Work–family conflict has been shown to be related to lower job and life satisfaction. Interestingly, it seems that work–family conflict is slightly more problematic for women than men (Kossek & Ozeki, 1998). Organizations that are able to help their employees achieve greater work–life balance are seen as more attractive than those that do not (Barnett & Hall, 2001; Greenhaus & Powell, 2006). Organizations can help employees maintain work–life balance by using organizational practices such as flexibility in scheduling as well as individual practices such as having supervisors who are supportive and considerate of employees’ family life (Thomas & Ganster, 1995).

    Life Changes

    Stress can result from positive and negative life changes. The Holmes-Rahe scale ascribes different stress values to life events ranging from the death of one’s spouse to receiving a ticket for a minor traffic violation. The values are based on incidences of illness and death in the 12 months after each event. On the Holmes-Rahe scale, the death of a spouse receives a stress rating of 100, getting married is seen as a midway stressful event, with a rating of 50, and losing one’s job is rated as 47. These numbers are relative values that allow us to understand the impact of different life events on our stress levels and their ability to impact our health and well-being (Fontana, 1989). Again, because stressors are cumulative, higher scores on the stress inventory mean you are more prone to suffering negative consequences of stress than someone with a lower score.

    OB Toolbox: How Stressed Are You?

    Read each of the events listed below. Give yourself the number of points next to any event that has occurred in your life in the last 2 years. There are no right or wrong answers. The aim is just to identify which of these events you have experienced.

    Table 7.1: Life Events Stress Inventory
    Life event Stress points Life event Stress points
    Death of spouse 100 Foreclosure of mortgage or loan 30
    Divorce 73 Change in responsibilities at work 29
    Marital separation 65 Son or daughter leaving home 29
    Jail term 63 Trouble with in-laws 29
    Death of close family member 63 Outstanding personal achievement 28
    Personal injury or illness 53 Begin or end school 26
    Marriage 50 Change in living location/condition 25
    Fired or laid off at work 47 Trouble with supervisor 23
    Marital reconciliation 45 Change in work hours or conditions 20
    Retirement 45 Change in schools 20
    Pregnancy 40 Change in social activities 18
    Change in financial state 38 Change in eating habits 15
    Death of close friend 37 Vacation 13
    Change to different line of work 36 Minor violations of the law 11


    • If you scored fewer than 150 stress points, you have a 30% chance of developing a stress-related illness in the near future.
    • If you scored between 150 and 299 stress points, you have a 50% chance of developing a stress-related illness in the near future.
    • If you scored over 300 stress points, you have an 80% chance of developing a stress-related illness in the near future.

    The happy events in this list such as getting married or an outstanding personal achievement illustrate how eustress, or “good stress,” can also tax a body as much as the stressors that constitute the traditionally negative category of distress. (The prefix eu- in the word eustress means “good” or “well,” much like the eu- in euphoria.) Stressors can also occur in trends. For example, during 2007, nearly 1.3 million U.S. housing properties were subject to foreclosure activity, up 79% from 2006.

    Source: Adapted from Holmes, T. H., & Rahe, R. H. (1967). The social readjustment rating scale. Journal of Psychosomatic Research, 11, 213–218.


    A study commissioned by the U.S. Department of Labor to examine over 3,600 companies from 1980 to 1994 found that manufacturing firms accounted for the greatest incidence of major downsizings. The average percentage of firms by industry that downsized more than 5% of their workforces across the 15-year period of the study was manufacturing (25%), retail (17%), and service (15%). A total of 59% of the companies studied fired at least 5% of their employees at least once during the 15-year period, and 33% of the companies downsized more than 15% of their workforce at least once during the period. Furthermore, during the recessions in 1985 to 1986 and 1990 to 1991, more than 25% of all firms, regardless of size, cut their workforce by more than 5% (Slocum et al., 1999). In the United States, major layoffs in many sectors in 2008 and 2009 were stressful even for those who retained their jobs.

    The loss of a job can be a particularly stressful event, as you can see by its high score on the life stressors scale. It can also lead to other stressful events, such as financial problems, which can add to a person’s stress score. Research shows that downsizing and job insecurity (worrying about downsizing) is related to greater stress, alcohol use, and lower performance and creativity (Moore, Grunberg, & Greenberg, 2004; Probst et al., 2007; Sikora et al., 2008). For example, a study of over 1,200 Finnish workers found that past downsizing or expectations of future downsizing was related to greater psychological strain and absence (Kalimo, Taris, & Schaufeli, 2003). In another study of creativity and downsizing, researchers found that creativity and most creativity-supporting aspects of the perceived work environment declined significantly during the downsizing (Amabile & Conti, 1999). Those who experience layoffs but have their self-integrity affirmed through other means are less susceptible to negative outcomes (Wisenfeld et al., 2001).