You are here


19 January, 2016 - 15:28

In its annual survey on stress in America,  1 the American Psychological Association found that money (76 percent), work (70 percent), and the economy (65 percent) remain the most oft-cited sources of stress for Americans. Job instability is on the rise as a source of stress: nearly half (49 percent) of adults reported that job instability was a source of stress in 2010 (compared to 44 percent in 2009). At the same time, fewer Americans are satisfied with the ways their employers help them balance work and nonwork demands (36 percent in 2010 compared to 42 percent in 2009). The implications of these findings are obviously important for HRM professionals.

Before we discuss what HR professionals can do, let’s discuss some basic information about stress. As it is currently used, the term stress was coined by Hans Selye in 1936, who defined it as “the nonspecific response of the body to any demand for change.”  2In other words, we can say that stress is the reaction we have to a stressor. Astressor is some activity, event, or other stimulus that causes either a positive or negative reaction in the body. Despite what people may think, some stress is actually good. For example, receiving a promotion at work may cause stress, but this kind of stress is considered to be positive. Stress is very much a personal thing, and depending on individual personalities, people may have different opinions about what is a stressor and what is not. For example, a professor does not normally find public speaking to be a stressor, while someone who does not do it on a daily basis may be very stressed about having to speak in public.

Stress Management

Selye recognized that not all stress is negative. Positive stress is called eustress. This type of stress is healthy and gives a feeling of fulfillment and other positive feelings. Eustress can cause us to push ourselves harder to meet an end goal. On the other hand,distress is the term used for negative stress. While eustress can push us, distress does not produce positive feelings and can go on for a long time without relief. We can further classify distress by chronic stress, which is prolonged exposure to stress, and acute stress, which is short-term high stress. For example, someone who receives little or no positive result from stress and is continuously stressed may experience chronic stress. Acute stress occurs in shorter bursts and may be experienced while someone is on a tight deadline for a project.

Two other terms related to stress are hyperstress and hypostress. Hyperstress is a type of stress in which there are extremes with little or no relief for a long period of time. This type of stress often results in burnout. Hypostress is the lack of eustress or distress in someone’s life. Remember, some stress can be good and pushes us to work harder. We see this type of stress with people who may work in a factory or other type of repetitive job. The effect of this type of stress is usually feelings of restlessness.

Figure 13.3 The Stress Curve 

One last important thing to note is how a person goes through the cycle of stress. Figure 13.3 shows an example of how stress is good up to a point, but beyond that point, the person is fatigued and negatively affected by the stress. Bear in mind, this varies from person to person based on personality type and stress-coping mechanisms.

As you have already guessed, stress on the job creates productivity issues, which is why it concerns HR professionals. We know that stress can cause headaches, stomach issues, and other negative effects that can result in lost productivity but also result in less creative work. Stress can raise health insurance costs and cause employee turnover. Because of this, according to HR Magazine, 3 many employers are taking the time to identify the chief workplace stressors in employees’ lives. With this information, steps can be taken to reduce or eliminate such stress.

PricewaterhouseCoopers, for example, implemented several strategies to reduce stress in its workplace. The firm restructured its work teams so that rather than having one employee work with one client, teams of employees work with groups of clients. Rather than having an employee say, “I can’t go to my son’s baseball game because I need to wait for this client call,” this arrangement allows employees to cover for each other.

The organization also requires employees to take vacation time and even promotes it with posters throughout the office. In fact, even weekends are precious at PricewaterhouseCoopers. If an employee sends an e-mail on the weekend, a popup screen reminds her or him it is the weekend and it is time to disconnect.

Being a Student Can Be Stressful

  • Here are the most common stressors for college students:
  • Death of a loved one
  • Relocating to a new city or state
  • Divorce of parents
  • Encounter with the legal system
  • Transfer to a new school
  • Marriage
  • Lost job
  • Elected to leadership position
  • New romantic relationship
  • Serious argument with close friend
  • Increase in course load or difficulty of courses
  • Change in health of family member
  • First semester in college
  • Failed important course
  • Major personal injury or illness
  • Change in living conditions
  • Argument with instructor
  • Outstanding achievement
  • Change in social life
  • Change in sleeping habits
  • Lower grades than expected
  • Breakup of relationship
  • New job
  • Financial problems
  • Change in eating habits
  • Chronic car trouble
  • Pregnancy
  • Too many missed classes
  • Long commute to work/school
  • Working more than one job
  • Impending graduation
  • Argument with family member
  • Sexual concerns
  • Changes in alcohol and/or drug use
  • Roommate problems
  • Raising children

Offering flextime is also a way to reduce employee stress. It allows employees to arrange their work and family schedule to one that reduces stress for them. This type of creative scheduling, according to Von Madsen, HR manager at ARUP Laboratories,  4 allows employees to work around a schedule that suits them best. Other creative ways to reduce stress might be to offer concierge services, on-site child care, wellness initiatives, and massage therapy. All these options can garner loyalty and higher productivity from employees.   

Human Resource Recall

What does your organization do to reduce stress? What should it do that it is not doing?