The Causes of Work-Related Stress: Theories and Models

Stress at work is commonplace. Whether it be a toxic work culture, a bad boss, or over-delegation, many people seem to be stressed out in a post-covid work.

You’d have thought the pandemic would have changed us, but it looks kike organisations still have a lot to learn….

Here’s a look at some well-known Organisational Stress Models:

The Cooper-Marshall Model

A number of stress models that focus on the individual, the organisational structure or on both have been posited. The Cooper-Marshall Model (1976) considers a range of organisational stressors and their potential impact on the individual (both physically and psychologically), as well as covering what they call ‘extra-organisational sources of stress’ that can also impact on the employee. These include family and financial problems that occur outside of work. Karasek (1979) offers an alternative account of occupational stress that is called the Job Strain Model. Job strain, or psychological strain, is the result of workload (or work demands) and not enough autonomy (which is defined as decision latitude). Strain occurs when the employee’s work demands are too high and the level of decision autonomy they have is low.

The Job Strain Model

According to The Job Strain Model, low decision latitude and high job demands result in psychological strain, which can be counteracted by increasing the employee’s level of autonomy (or decision-making abilities). However, although increasing the employee’s decision latitude has been shown to reduce strain, beyond a certain level this may have adverse impacts on the employee’s wellbeing. Managerial staff, and what he defines as ‘low status workers,’ have shown strikingly different results when it comes to the impacts of decision latitude on wellbeing. Hence, it is important to account for an individual’s role within the organisation when determining what level of decision autonomy would be effective. Similarly, Warr’s (1987) Vitamin Model complements the Job Strain Model in the sense that personal control beyond a certain level has negative consequences on wellbeing.

The Vitamin Model

The Vitamin Model utilises the analogy of vitamins A and D and C and E to gain an understanding on how job characteristics impact on employee wellbeing in a non-linear fashion. The Vitamin Model accounts for 12 job characteristics that can be compared to these vitamins. Six of the job characteristics are analogous to vitamins A and D and the other six are comparable to vitamins C and E. Just like our bodies require vitamins for survival, certain aspects of the job are required for wellbeing. However, just like vitamins A and D, which beyond a certain dose are harmful, certain job characteristics that are needed for wellbeing can also be harmful to employees beyond a certain threshold. These job characteristics include opportunity for control, opportunity for gaining new skills and use of skills, externally generated goals, variety, environmental clarity and contact with others.

The Vitamin Model states that some job features are similar to vitamins C and E in that, even in excess, although they may not be harmful, they have no additional benefit. These include availability of money, physical security, valued social position, supportive supervision, career outlook and equity. The Vitamin Model is useful in that it allows organisations to acknowledge the characteristics that need to be in place for employee wellbeing, while emphasising that there can be ‘too much of a good thing’, which consequently impact on the wellness of employees.

Personality Factors: The Role of Individual Differences in Stress Appraisal

The previous paragraphs have discussed a number of models that look at key organisational factors that can contribute to the wellbeing of employees and the organisation. Despite this, a number of researchers have accounted for the role of the employee’s personality in their response to stress. This is known as individual differences, which essentially accounts for the unique characteristics an individual has, with potential consequences to how they interact with their environment.

While occupational stressors and job characteristics may have an impact on employee wellbeing, not all employees will react to these stressors in the same way, if at all. The Person-Environment Fit (French and Caplan, 1972) encompasses individual differences and asserts that it is the individual’s interaction with their environment that causes stress in the way that Parkes (1994) argues that the relationship between the individual and the organisation as factors that contribute to stress is non-invariant. Thus, the definition of stress here is subjective and it is the individual’s perception of the stress as a threat that causes psychological strain.

According to the Person-Environment Fit, stress, as a result of work overload, is because the employee does not have the capabilities to manage their workload, while acknowledging that others may be able to manage that level of work with ease. While capabilities are factors that should be accounted for, employee stress is more complex than merely the level of work an individual can manage. Stress arises because the individual perceives it to exceed the amount of coping resources they have. Subjective feelings of overload can give rise to stress, especially if the stress surpasses what the individual believes they can cope with. Individual differences account for the subjective nature of occupational stress and explain the unique ways employees, as individuals, perceive stressful situations, and appraise it as a threat.

The appraisal of the stressor is what triggers an emotional response and these emotional responses differ between individuals. The appraisal gives the context ‘relational meaning’ in that the individual attaches a meaning to the stressor through their unique interaction with it. The relationship the employee has with their working environment is therefore a transactional one in that it is a unique interaction with their environment.

There are two types of appraisals- primary and secondary. A primary appraisal is the initial assessment of the situation and the evaluation of potential harm to the individual. A secondary appraisal is where the individual assesses whether they have the resources to cope with the stressor. Weiss and Cropanzano (1996) also account for this in their Affective Events Theory, positing a two-way process between the appraisal of the stressor and the subsequent response. Although the affective response, or the feeling that the employee has because of the workplace stressor, may be the result of the employee’s appraisal of the stressor rather than the stressor itself, the stressor may actually contribute to the appraisal process in the first place.

Some workplace events can cause negative emotions that subsequently result in negative attitudes and behaviours, rather than them actually being the result of the employee’s appraisal of the event. In this sense, the event actually played a role in causing the stress and feeding into future appraisals of the situation and can actually change the individual’s affective disposition. The Affective Events Theory accounts for this in a two-way process: an employee can perceive an event within their organisation (and out) and depending on how they appraise the event will determine the affective response. Paradoxically, the affective response will influence the attitudes and behaviours employees have within the organisation.

Workplace events that lead to negative affective responses may also lead to negative organisational outcomes such as absenteeism, reduced productivity and turnover and potentially influencing job satisfaction, work attitudes and wellbeing in the same way that positive affect is linked to better job satisfaction, productivity and commitment. Both positive and negative affect can influence organisational outcomes in the sense that they may impact on mood and behaviour.

While many of these focus on organisational problems that can lead to burnout, there is less focus on bullying, harassment and toxic bosses that may possess dark triad personality traits. Such organisational characteristics can lead to lifelong mental health problems that far outweigh any temporary feelings of stress.

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