Personality Factors: The Role of Individual Differences in Stress Appraisal

A number of researchers have accounted for the role of an 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.

Consequences of Personality Differences on Wellbeing

Researchers into personality theory have drawn a link between Type A behaviour and coronary heart disease, as well as other physical health disorders. Type A behaviour is a spectrum of behavioural traits that encompass highly competitive behaviour, impatience, hostility, time consciousness, feelings of pressure and restlessness, that is often compared to the more relaxed and easy-going nature of their Type B counterparts.

Other research into personality theory have noted another factor- external locus of control (attributing control of situations to external sources)- and subsequently found that there was a link between higher perceived levels of stress in individuals who have Type A personality and an external locus of control. These greater levels of perceived stress have also been linked to lower levels of job satisfaction and health and wellbeing with other studies showing that Type A and B personality types influencing the way an individual appraises situational problems.

Although Type A personality and external locus of control have been shown to have the most harmful impact on job stress, having an external locus of control has shown the greater impact on perceived levels of stress. Type A behaviour also influences perceived quantitative overload with further studies including neuroticism traits surpassing Type A behaviour and locus of control factors when it comes to self-reports of stress.

Personality differences may play a role in the perception of stress, but they may also account for why certain individuals choose an occupation in the first place. Those with Type A personalities may actually choose a role that matches their behavioural traits, yet this may be precisely what impacts on their perception of stress in the first place. Despite those with Type A personalities reporting lower levels of job satisfaction and higher levels of stress, they may be better placed in some roles than their type B counterparts. For instance, if an individual has type A behavioural traits that are not too excessive this may actually contribute to increased job performance. While personality differences may impact on working relations, working conditions have also been attributed to causing personality changes that impact on wellbeing levels too.

Written by Farhan Shahzad and Sarah Davies-Robertson

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