It can be good, it can be bad, but stress can never be indifferent. By Peter Kelleher
Amid the material, moral and spiritual ruin of a defeated Germany, among the smoking ruins of Dresden and Berlin, waking to the stark realisation that an entire nation had effectively waged war on humanity itself, the temptation to lie down and die must have weighed heavy on the German people.
Instead, with the generous help of the victorious Allies, at least in the western parts, the German people set out to rebuild their material capital and rescue their spiritual heritage. Besides the financial assistance that the United States and other nations could give them, the Germans simply had to work in a manner we now associate with stress: hard, and long and diligently.
It was into this stressful environment of sheer necessary effort – and addressed to those who had to carry it out – that the philosopher Josef Pieper inserted his little essay, translated as Leisure as the Basis of Culture, in 1952.
The thesis Pieper defended was that we work in order to have leisure for the higher things; whereas, in the modern world, we operate in accordance with Max Weber’s dictum: “One does not work to live; one lives to work.”
Pieper was fully aware that to speak of leisure at such a time would scarcely seem timely. However, he has often referred to the timeliness of the eternal, of what does not change beneath the clamor of the ages, and has charged his audience to remember that it is precisely when an awareness of some truth has been pushed into abeyance that it becomes of the greatest urgency to insist on that truth.
To Pieper, leisure is a positive and essential characteristic of being fully human; while the concept of “total work”, by which a person is defined entirely by what they do to earn their living, is in direct opposition to leisure. He says: “The point and the justification of leisure are not that the functionary should function faultlessly, and without a breakdown, but that the functionary should continue to be a man – and that means that he should not be wholly absorbed in the clear-cut milieu of his strictly limited function; the point is also that he should retain the faculty of grasping the world as a whole and realising his full potentialities as an entity meant to reach Wholeness.”
It is useful to keep in mind this greater world of the wholeness of the person to give a context in which to talk of occupational stress.
Money or people?
One reason for contextualising the question of occupational stress within the greater needs of the person is that virtually every analysis of the problem is carried out in terms of money costs, whether they be to society, the organisation, or even (at times) to the workers themselves.
Naturally, no one would reasonably deny that the question of money costs is important and needs to be examined. Where income is being affected – be it profit lost to the company, dividends lost to the shareholder, wages lost to the employee, or taxes lost to the government – it affects planning, budgeting, project management, further investment, the new pergola.
In 1946, the Canadian academic Hans Selye played a seminal role in defining, diagnosing, assessing and treating stress. Selye defined three stages in the development of stress-related illness. The alarm stage is the initial phase in which people have intimations that they are stressed but shrug them off and go on with their duties as if nothing were wrong.
This leads into the resistance stage in which people try to hide, and compensate for, the patent symptoms of stress. At this stage, much energy is burned up just coping with the attempt to function normally. Managers will usually become aware of lower productivity and a listlessness in the afflicted person at this stage.
Then comes the exhaustion stage, in which people finally give in to stress. Often, it is only when a stressed person goes off on extended leave of some sort, having perhaps left a trail of unfinished business and irritated colleagues, that anyone notices.
Unfortunately, if the warning signals in the resistance stage have gone unnoticed, managers are confronted with a two-fold difficulty: a worker unable to perform and in need of assistance, and the problem of getting the job done as always.
Leaving aside factors in the private life of the person suffering stress, as we are primarily concerned here with occupational stress, much of the research into workplace stress (see Cotton and Adams, for example) points to the organisation itself rather than the person as being the cause.
This conclusion can, however, be clarified further by considering the several sources whence come stressors. The contributing causes in occupational stress include work pressures, lack of flexibility in the workplace, the menial nature of many jobs, lack of support from management, bullying from peers, loss of control over aspects of the job, organisational change and a climate of uncertainty over the continuance of employment.
If it is indicated that someone is suffering stress on account of work pressures, lack of support from management, or perhaps from having to work in an environment of bullying, clearly these are, as it were, process failures, wholly dependent on management, hence capable of being rectified by management.
If a person is unable to cope with the normal exigencies of a job, it is incumbent on management to remedy this by finding out whether the person is the right one for the job. It may be that counselling would be helpful in such a case and, if it is indicated by the counsellor, removal to a different task.
In the event that people feel a lack of feedback from management, that they are taken for granted or that management’s inattention to them is an indication of the relative non-importance of their job, it may be a case of the removal of managers to tasks within the range of their abilities.
Both the above causes of stress are internal and yet extrinsic: they are entirely within the organisation and as such are amenable to rectification within the organisation; and they are not elements that are of necessity attached to the job.
Others stressors such as the menial nature of a task and the lack of flexibility within an organisation may be characterised as internal and intrinsic. They are the sorts of elements of a job with which management and staff have to live, given the nature of the organisation they find themselves in.
A third category, which may be characterised as external and extrinsic, and which do not concern us here, would include such factors as takeover threats to the organisation, war, the Last Trump and similar events that lie outside the ability of management and the organisation to foresee, remedy or avert.
Finally, beyond these three is a fourth that is external and yet intrinsic to the organisation and, as such, is more difficult to ecognise and of remove. These include loss of control over aspects of a task, organisational change and concerns related to employment.
Loss of control has come with increased mechanisation of functions and specialisation. For example, if the computer goes down, nine times out of 10 the employee cannot do a thing about it and just has to wait for the expert to come in and rectify the problem. Although many people might be glad of a break while they are waiting, many more can become prey to the stress associated with the powerlessness of enforced idleness.
Whose stress is it?
Michael Marmot, in the British medical journal The Lancet, reported on findings that he and his colleagues have made, providing evidence that the level of influence in the workplace can affect the risk of coronary heart disease (CHD). This finding is in direct contradiction with the common assumption that those with most control – the archetypal “stressed out executives” – are more likely to suffer CHD.
Marmot and his colleagues used data gathered on more than 7000 men and women in the British civil service to test the hypothesis that low control at work is a contributing factor to a higher incidence of CHD. The study found that those in lower clerical and office-support grades were more likely to develop CHD than those in higher administrative grades and in management. The greatest contributor to CHD frequency was low control at work.
Although the change from bureaucracy to the “learning organisation” is supposed to bring benefits for the employee as much as for the organisation, going through the process of change itself causes stress. The organisational restructuring that many companies have been going through is a big destabilising factor and inevitably a source of uncertainty in the lives of people. The same might be said of the employee working in an atmosphere of downsizing: whether your job is actually under threat or not, the climate of uncertainty that downsizing can create is a source of work-related stress.
Fear and stress
A recent study carried out in Switzerland bears out this view. The study discovered a close relationship between fear of unemployment and a lower general enjoyment of health. Gianfranco Domenghetti of the faculty of Economics and Political Science at the University of Lausanne and Geneva carried out his study on a population of 2024 people, all in either full or part-time employment. Of this number, 69.5% had a low fear of unemployment, 20% had a moderate fear and 10.5% had a high fear .
Domenghetti writes in his report, Health Effects of Fear of Unemployment among Employees in the General Population, that: “Employed persons exhibiting a high level of fear of unemployment have in general worse health indicators compared with those experiencing a low degree of fear.”
Domenghetti also reported that for some indicators (low self-esteem, consumption of tranquillisers, low-back pain), standardised prevalence rates were two or three fold higher among those with a high fear of unemployment.
Two results were of particular interest. Domenghetti found that the more highly educated the person the greater the difficulty in coping with fear of unemployment. He says: “Without insecurity, higher-educated people exhibit in general better health indicators; this is not true any more when they are exposed to the stress of job insecurity.” He believes one possible explanation is that the investment in career and personal expectations is generally higher among more highly educated people, something that could lead more easily to feeling like a “loser” in case of job loss. A further troubling result was that people under high job insecurity tend to avoid visiting physicians and taking time off to take care of themselves for fear of missing work.
Workplace stress management
The question of whether it is the concern of the company that its workers may be suffering stress from the workplace may usefully be answered from the perspective of the manager observing the workers on the job.
A manager might find that a worker is taking longer than usual over tasks, having to repeat those tasks, needing to be reminded of deadlines, may be growing irritable and short tempered with other workers or may be absent on account of “illness” too often to be a wise malingerer or to be coming down with the flu with unlikely regularity.
For a manager who is not in sufficient contact with the workers or who is little observant of individual performance, it may not be until the malaise of a single person’s stress has spread to others in the workplace and is affecting productivity that its baleful presence comes to their attention.
Therefore, it is essential that management be active in spotting, and in dealing with, occupational stress. A manager must play a direct and active role in the lives of employees in an attempt to avoid and alleviate the stress. This is not a superadded burden to the already overworked manager but is an intrinsic element of the management task.
The means to which the manager has recourse are stress-management programs, preventive care measures and the advice available from organisational and careers psychologists.
Of course, managers have always to keep in sight the fact that they are there to facilitate the smooth functioning and continued existence of the organisation. Research has been carried out that casts something of a cloud on these efforts to attack workplace stress. R. Donatelle and M. Hawkins, in the American Journal of Health Promotion, note that organisations with stress-management programs can suffer a more deleterious financial effect than those without the programs.
Should further research corroborate these preliminary findings, a big rethink will be needed on the whole question of pre-emptive measures and the value of stress-management programs, and just what the alternatives are, given that workplace stress will not go away simply because it turns out not to be cost-effective.
The costs of stress
In the meantime, it seems well established that an organisation faced with high levels of occupational stress will itself suffer in terms of profitability.
Gary Cox is an organisational psychologist specialising in career development, and is a privately contracted consultant to AIM. He believes it is difficult to put a true dollar value on the cost of stress. “Once you take into account those on stress leave, the loss of productivity and the damage a misfit can do in the wrong position, the costs to an organisation add up to a lot of money. It’s almost impossible to evaluate.”
Then, on top of these difficulties are the costs associated with workers compensation claims and those associated with the introduction of stress-management programs and preventive care.
A further cost to organisations is the growing number of lawsuits arising out of occupational stress. Many illnesses and on-the-job injuries are being attributed to stress, resulting in the filing of numerous workers compensation claims.
Rebecca Clay reports in an article in the American Psychological Association Monitor (July 1998), on the growth in stress-related workers compensation lawsuits. She warns that US courts are becoming more and more crowded and that, because these types of case are relatively new, no precedent exists on which to rely for judgments. Given the way Australia tends to import fashions from the US, it may not be much longer before a similar clogging up of the courts happens here.
A matter of definition
It is neither possible nor desirable to attempt to create a workplace completely free of stress. A modicum of stress is a sign of life and can be helpful, even essential, in getting a task done. Only when the balance between the stress associated with the “task to be done” and the capabilities of the people doing the task is violated, when their total identity is wrapped up in the completion of the task, with the organisation for whom they toil, that it becomes harmful.
Which thought returns us to Josef Pieper. The issue becomes, as it were, a matter of definition, of clarity of understanding and purpose; less of defining the distinction between good and bad stress than of ceasing to define people only in terms of the function they fulfil as workers.
Adams, John D. “Creating and Maintaining Comprehensive Stress-Management Training.” Stress Management in Workplace Settings. Praeger Publishers. New York. 1989. Pp 89-91.
Berger, Y. “Occupational Stressors: Some Myths and Legends.” Journal of Occupational Health and Safety: Australia and New Zealand. 7, No. 4, pp 319-323.
Clay, Rebecca A. “Job-stress Claims Spin out of Control.” American Psychological Association Monitor. July 1998, pp 52-55.
Domenighetti, G. “Health Effects of Fear of Unemployment among Employees in the General Population.” Internet Journal of Health Promotion: Verona Initiative. 1998.
Donatelle, R. J. and Hawkins, M. J. “Employee Stress Claims: Increasing Implications for Health Promotion Programs.” American Journal of Health Promotion. Vol. 3, 1989, pp 19-25.
Johns, Gary. “Occupational Stress and Well-Being at Work. In Cotton, Peter, ed. Psychological Health in the Workplace: Understanding and Managing Occupational Stress. Australian Psychological Society Ltd. Carlton South. 1996.
Johnson, Pamela R. and Indvik, Julie. “The Boomer Blues: Depression in the Workplace.” Public Personnel Management. Vol. 26, No. 3, Fall 1997, pp 359-365.
Marmot, Michael, et. al. “Can Teams Save Lives?” The Lancet. July 26, 1997.
Selye, Hans. Stress in Health and Disease. Butterworths. Boston. 1976.
There is stress, and then there is stress
Stress is a common part of everyday life and is often beneficial. It is the overload of stress in the workplace, especially when the individual’s total identity is linked with the organisation, that is counterproductive.
Thus it is useful to distinguish between good stress and bad stress, between stress in the workplace and stress caused by the workplace.
Bad stress arises from working under too much pressure, at a monotonous, thankless task, in a situation over which you have little or no control. Good stress is that associated with the effort required to do a task.
Gary Cox defines (bad) stress as “a mismatch between a person’s self-image, their attributes and talents, and the organisational environment they work in”.
Bad stress may occur if a person is not a good fit for a task, or the work environment changes, or relationships on the job change.
Of good stress, Cox says: “Every job carries with it a tension that leads to a heightened engagement of the person, a sharpened awareness, to get them going. This could be construed as good stress.” The tension, the anxiety that is often a concomitant of a task-to-be-done, the dissatisfaction that attends incompleteness, is a variety of stress that pushes us to greater effort, closer and more intimate engagement with the task and, ultimately, higher productivity.
A familiar example of this is the anxiety-ridden personality that puts off a task until the last possible moment and seems to require the rush of adrenalin to get the task done.
When there is the mismatch of person and work environment, the result is the bad stress caused by the workplace.
In a government agency in Melbourne’s CBD works a middle manager and publications officer. She is responsible for the regular publication of two monthly journals, ongoing research for a yearly statistical report and the management of a shrinking number of uncertain, slightly anxious, short-term contract staff. The result has been measurable forgetfulness, irritability, lower productivity, postponed deadlines, last-minute resolution of renewal of contracts and a spreading malaise throughout the entire workplace. As Cox says: “One dysfunctional person will almost inevitably spread that dysfunctionality to others.”
The phenomenon of workplace bullying is both a consequence of stress and a stressor. Cox says: “Although there might be various reasons for the bullying behaviors, people exhibit their most fundamental behaviors when under stress. Some will explode (perhaps becoming a bully in the process), others will implode and take it out on themselves.”
He says there is a point along the stress continuum at which a person will work at optimal performance, after which, if stress increases, performance declines.
Cox gives an example of this reciprocal interaction between the person and the workplace. “Take an introvert who has to operate in an environment where it is necessary to exhibit many extrovert behaviors, for example, in a position that requires high-volume contact with people. The person will cope with it in the short term, but it quickly becomes wearing on them. Good stressors can become bad stressors when the person gets overloaded. A balance is needed.”