Workplace Stress Theories : Theories of Job Related Stress


Everyone knows that workplace stress affects their performance. The emotional difficulties that come with work should already be familiar with anyone who has worked before. However, anecdotal understanding of workplace stress provides only an incomplete picture of workplace stress. A deeper understanding of the theories behind stress can help companies better understand how to prevent their employees from succumbing to its effects.

So, what are workplace stress theories? Workplace stress theories attempt to understand the process by which stress takes root in individuals and organizations. These theories use different perspectives to capture an essential piece of stress formation. When understood, research studies can help companies draft better approaches to managing stress. 

This article delves into various approaches to stress. First, it tackles emotions as a function of how the person transacts and appraises their surroundings. Next, it discusses theories that involve employees interacting with their environment, causing stress. Finally, it looks into approaches that focus on the effects of stress on physical and mental well-being of a worker.

Transactional Theory of Work Stress

Imagine this scenario: it’s only a few days before you give a presentation in front of senior corporate executives. The company gave you the role of project manager for a significant and expensive expansion into a new market. You and your team did reasonably well, although you did encounter some avoidable setbacks that cost the company some money.

You practiced your pitch many times, and your slides are presentation-ready. However, you know that you tend to struggle when it comes to communicating with aggressive people. Additionally, you know that one of the audience members is a director known for suddenly lashing out on people who underperform.

The stakes are high, as you’re sure that an excellent performance here would lead to a promotion you’ve been aiming to get for two years already. You also know that if the executives do not believe in the success of your leadership, you might lose your job.

As you keep thinking about the presentation and the myriad of possible scenarios that you face, you start to feel stressed. Researchers can say that you’re making an appraisal of your environment. Furthermore, you’re using that information to implicitly determine the amount of stress that you feel as your presentation day approaches.

This line of thinking exemplifies the transactional theory of work stress. Under this model, the emphasis is on the ability of workers to predict what the future would look like based on current information. Here, people regularly analyze their environment and try to figure out if any threats or opportunities lurk in the future. You can say that you’re transacting with a future vision of the world based on your viewpoints and the current events happening to you.

When people detect threats that might appear, they appraise them to quantify the danger they present. If upcoming events have more impact and are more likely to cause harm, people tend to feel more stress. The increased pressure likely spurs the employee to find better ways to deal with the incoming danger, reducing its impact and maintaining the status quo.

The transactional theory of work stress recognizes two types of appraisals that people tend to make. The first type is the primary appraisal, which is where people evaluate a specific future event based on its potential impact on their lives.

Primary appraisals come in three flavors: threat, harm, and challenge. The first category includes dangers that employees predict may happen to them in the future, while the second refers to events that have already resulted in a loss from the employees’ perspective. Meanwhile, challenge refers to harms that might occur when the person tries to deal with another event. For example, whistleblowers perform a challenge appraisal when they try to decide whether to report an issue with the company or to stay silent.

Unlike primary appraisals, secondary appraisals focus more on the person rather than the circumstances surrounding them. These assessments are based on the options available for the person if they decide to respond to the threat. Hence, they vary on the availability of resources that employees can use to deal with the problem. If potential solutions are limited, people are more likely to experience high levels of stress.

Secondary appraisals only have two subcategories: those that are problem-focused and those that are emotion-focused. Assessments in the former category are made based on the number and quality of solutions that a person can implement to mitigate the threat. Meanwhile, the emotion-focused appraisals deal more with coping strategies that people can use to manage their states of mind and avoid stress. 

Despite their names, the research considers both appraisal types to be equally capable of manipulating stress levels. Hence, HR personnel and employees, in general, should know how to manage their appraisals to reduce the stress they feel.

The main takeaway of the transactional theoryOpens in a new tab. of workplace stress is that stress itself arises from internal negotiations that employees make with their circumstances. Despite the influence of external factors, stress levels ultimately depend on how employees come up with their appraisals. Hence, employees stand to gain better control over their moods only by changing how they think about the scenario. 

As a tip for businesses, they should encourage their employees to reframe potential stressors to minimize their impact. For example, leaders should help workers to focus on present problems instead of worrying about something in the future. They can also teach employees to reserve their mental energy by not worrying about things that they can’t control. These practices exploit the primary appraisal process to help reduce stress levels.

Corporations should also supply their employees with ample resourcesOpens in a new tab. fit for the challenges that they will face during work. They should have access to tools that increase their productivity, as well as a social network that gives them the moral support they need. It’s also a good idea to conduct classes on stress management so that employees develop skills necessary for managing their emotions. These solutions work through the secondary appraisal method, and the transactional theory proves that these actions are practical.

Interactional Theories of Stress

Like the transactional theory of work stress, interactional theories of stress still focus on how the employee relates to their immediate surroundings. This environment includes the people they interact with, the opportunities and threats that exist around them, and the general organizational culture of the company.

However, interactional theories attribute less agency towards people. Unlike in the transactional method, where personal viewpoints shape stress levels, interactional approaches rely more on rigid factors that cannot change without significant effort.

1. Person–Environment Fit Model

One prevalent interactional theory is the person-environment fit modelOpens in a new tab.. As the name implies, it measures how employees fit within the broader environment that surrounds them. The higher the misfit, the higher the stress that people feel.

Based on this model, practical interventions can only work to reduce pressure by increasing the level of fit between employees and the environment. Some aspect of either the people or the situation needs to change to improve the emotional stability of everyone involved.

How do researchers assess fit? They first consider a characteristic, such as social connection or work variety. For each component, they assess the employee’s desire to obtain it or their ability to provide it for the company. Likewise, researchers measure the extent to which the company can offer or accommodate that characteristic. By comparing the two, they can get the degree of fitness for that particular characteristic.

A good match occurs when both the employee and the environment score similarly on that concept. If a worker desires social interaction and if their job requires them to maintain relationships with people, then there is a good person–environment fit for that characteristic. If someone is sloppy and careless but has a job that requires minimal meticulousness, a good fit also occurs.

Mismatches are harmful because they are potential sources of stress, especially if the environment requires something that the employee cannot fully satisfy. For example, a person with poor organizational skills who works as a project manager will feel stress because their job doesn’t match them.

While less likely, the reverse can also occur. Someone exceptionally analytical who works as a fast-food cashier might become frustrated since their job does not fully utilize their skills.

Based on the person–environment fit model, the best way to reduce stress is to increase the degree to which people fit their environments. Hence, the impetus is on the human resources department to ensure that the company hiresOpens in a new tab. the right people, taking into account their personalities versus corporate culture. Personnel should also assign people in roles appropriate for their abilities and working styles.

2. Job Demands–Control–Support Model

Suppose that you work in a company that supports flexible options. You get to arrive at your office without adhering to a strict schedule, as long as you meet the number of hours that the company requires. You also have the option to work outside of the office. Your boss is flexible when it comes to giving deadlines, and nearly everything is negotiable. Because of this freedom, you have control over when and where you will work.

Compare this scenario with a worker who has none of these options. Their bosses force them to come to work at 9 a.m. and leave by 5 p.m., regardless of weather or traffic conditions. The worker might have no available options for availing of virtual offices. They might also have bosses who never negotiate and never take no for an answer.

Which of these scenes are more likely to lead to elevated stress levels? Most people would choose the latter. In this scenario, the employee has minimal control over their circumstances. According to the job demands–control–support modelOpens in a new tab., the lack of control leads to higher levels of stress.

Researchers working under this model define control as the ability to make changes to one’s circumstances. If you can exert a more significant influence over what happens to you, then you have greater control. However, you have low control if the environment mostly dictates what will happen to you.

Unlike the previously discussed models, this theory puts control into the spotlight. Why is it important to consider the level of power as the most critical factor affecting stress? If you think about it, control is a powerful tool for mitigating stress. Even if you encounter stressors such as low pay and toxic work environments, you can prevent much of the pressure if you can control your circumstances. Control gives employees the ability to manipulate their surroundings to avoid or reduce the stress they feel. 

Since this model is an interactional theory, researchers match the level of control exerted by an employee with the strain imposed by the job. If there is a match, high-stress levels are less likely to occur.

What’s noteworthy about the model is that people can remain calm even when they encounter high demands from their work. The key ingredient to managing stress is to give employees control over their situations. If they can easily make changes to their circumstances, they will be better equipped to handle the pressures of their job. 

Further modifications to the job demands–control–support model considered the influence of social support. Researchers found that the quality of social support determines the final effect of control on stress and anxiety. However, there is no agreement if social support effects are additive or multiplicative.

If the effect of support is additive, it means that it can act as a substitute for control. If the result is multiplicative, it means that social support only helps if there is a decent level of power in the first place.

The job demands–control–support model teaches us that stress management should take the agency of employees into account. Classes on emotional control and relaxation will never be enough if the company gives employees too little freedom to act as they wish.

Some organizations tend to impose strict and restrictive rules, especially with new hires. This power dynamic reduces the level of freedom that employees can exert. Hence, companies should strive to end this power dynamic and encourage a more open workplace where everyone has influence and control.

Conservation of Resources

What are the things that matter to a typical employee? People may answer that it is their salaries or job titles that they treasure. Some employees like the power and influence that their position gives them, while others crave the challenges they encounter in their jobs. All of these things are resources that each employee possesses, and the conversation of resources theoryOpens in a new tab. says that we will try our best to protect our resources.

What happens when we lose our resources? When that occurs, people experience psychological tension as they attempt to regain what they have lost. As far as this model is concerned, stress occurs as a protective measure that prompts people to maximize the resources they control.

The loss does not have to be real. Even if the possibility of failure is only a perception, it can already elicit feelings of stress and anxiety. Hence, personal viewpoints about a given scenario matter a lot in this theory. This fact makes the conservation of resource theory similar to the transactional model of work stress.

The conservation of resource theory introduces two new mechanisms by which people manipulate the stress they feel. The first concerns spirals, where the real or perceived loss of resources makes it more likely for future resources to be lost.

For example, suppose that an employee gets a downgrade from their position. The demotion may come with a salary reduction and reduced benefits. The previous job title might have also come with social benefits, such as greater respect and influence within the organization. As the employee loses all these resources, it becomes harder for them to perform at their best, considering the loss of motivation from demotion. As a result, performance drops, and their chances of being demoted further increase.

These spirals are dangerous precisely because they are not self-limiting. Even a single incident can lead to a downward spiral that results in ever dropping productivity and satisfaction. Of course, all of these events come with higher levels of stress.

The reverse of this scenario can also happen. The gain of resources makes it more likely for someone to obtain future resources. This phenomenon is called a caravan, and it can propel someone far up into their desired career trajectory.

For instance, an employee who gets promoted will earn more money. If they invest the money in self-development, they can acquire skills that increase their performance at their current job. The higher level of difficulty can also spur them to hone their skills further. As a result, their chances of getting another promotion increases.

Caravans show us that it’s possible to break away from the negative cycle of stress brought about by downward spirals. However, both spirals and caravans contribute to increased inequality in the workplace. Minute differences in circumstances can lead to someone ending up way higher on the corporate ladder than others.

Under this model, what is the best way to help employees avoid stress? Make sure that everyone is well-equipped with the resources they need to do their job correctly. Workers should never feel threatened that they will lose the most valuable things in the role that matter to them. Leaders should make workers think that they will always have the tools and the support they need.

Besides, the conservation of resources theory predicts that work environments that operate on a zero-sum basis will inevitably lead to more stress. This scenario happens when the business encourages excessive competition over a limited set of resources.

Physiological Theories of Stress

So far, the discussion here has led to conversations that only focus on how different mechanisms lead to stress. However, focusing only on the formation of stress paints an incomplete picture of how stress impacts organizational performance.

In reality, stress management doesn’t stop once the pressure is already there. Organizations also benefit from being able to address the effects of stressOpens in a new tab., especially if the nature of their work prevents the complete removal of stress.

1. Allostatic Load Model of Stress

One of the most fundamental theories of stress involves allostasis, which refers to the adaptation of people to disturbances.

Every stressor imposes a specific amount of strain on a person’s physical and psychological systems. The allostatic theory of stressOpens in a new tab. investigates the process by which people try to adapt to stress. These adaptations, while useful temporarily, eventually lead to long-term problems, and the allostatic theory teaches employees how to intervene before temporary issues become permanent. 

The process of allostasis has three phases. In primary allostasis, immediate changes occur in response to a stressor. We have an article entitled “According To Studies, What are the Top 11 Work Stress-Inducing Factors? And What Are The Highest Stressed JobsOpens in a new tab.?” that discusses everyday stressors at work.

The fight-or-flight response is responsible for most of the adaptations occurring in this first stage. Evolved to protect us from threats, the fight-or-flight response gives people the energy to take immediate action to evade danger. While this mechanism worked well before when humans were trying to avoid predators, it is responsible for most of the stress that people feel in modern society.

Primary allostasis includes many of the symptoms of acute stress, such as elevated heart rates, profuse sweating, and difficulty to focus. Many of these signs can interfere with the ability to work. If you’ve ever had to make a presentation while panicking internally, you know how hard it is to work under stress. Hence, effective interventions at this stage try to manage the symptoms while the employee attempts to deal with the stressor. 

When the stressor persists, the employee moves on to secondary allostasis, where the effects of stress start to cause changes to major systems of the body. For example, consistent stress can raise high blood pressure.

Secondary allostasis also includes some of the actions undertaken by people in response to stress. Unfortunately, many of these actions can cause more harm than good. For example, people might shift to unhealthy eating habits or settle for a sedentary lifestyle, which further compound the health effects of stress. 

When interventions are not enough, tertiary allostasis occurs. At this stage, lifestyle diseases such as heart disease and diabetes afflict employees. Psychological disorders, such as clinical depression, also happen. At this stage, interventions have limited ability to reverse any damage. Instead, the approach is to manage the illnesses to arrest further development and prevent complications.

What the allostatic model teaches companies is that stress can lead to severe consequences when the source of stress is left to grow rampant. However, the effects of stress also take a long time to manifest, since allostasis is a long process. Hence, there are many opportunities to intervene before stress imposes permanent effects on one’s health.

What interventions are effective in managing stress? First, employees should have access to quality healthcare that allows them to seek treatment for stress-related conditions. Some illnesses, such as hypertension, are detectable years before they pose problems. Treatments at these early years are the most likely to work.

Aside from physical health services, companies should also offer mental health services for all of its employees. Due to the less visible nature of mental health, many companies have ignored it or given it less critical that it deserves. However, mental healthcare, such as regular consultations and check-ups, can go a long way towards reducing the physical effects of stress. Companies need to give equal priority to mental health and physical health since these two aspects of health are partners in preventing the worst effects of stress.

2. Cooper and Palmer’s Model of Work Stress

It’s not only the individual employees who suffer from the effects of stress, but the entire organization can also express symptoms of anxiety. When many employees experience similar stressors brought about by their work, then the company as a whole can start to suffer from stress-related dysfunction. A model of work stress from researchers Cary Cooper and Stephen Palmer includes organizational effects when they try to decipher how anxiety works. 

In their model, stress occurs when employees encounter potential stressors, which can include factors that involve both the job itself or the people that surround the employee. Examples of everyday stressors include job demands, poor relationships with peers, or a sudden corporate change. These sources of stress arise from the prevailing organizational culture. Hence, the model proposes that all significant stressors ultimately originate from cultural problems.

Our website has an article called “What is Stress Overload? (Causes, Effects and What Employers Can do to Address Stress)Opens in a new tab.” which talks about how stress overloads employees. When employee stress levels rise, they exhibit sure signs and symptoms, many of which are present in the allostatic theory of stress. People with high levels of stress can have physiological symptoms such as raised blood pressure or poor sleep. Behavioral changes can also occur, such as increased irritability and elevated consumption of alcohol or caffeine.

What makes this approach special is that it acknowledges the specific organizational signs of excessive stress. Companies that push their employees may start to see an increased number of absences due to sickness. Staff performance and morale also typically decline.

Also, the increased stress levels tend to create a toxic work environment that only perpetuates the stressors more. Left unattended, organizational stress can lead to higher turnover rates and lower overall productivity.

Another unique factor that differentiates this model from other theories of stress is that it also investigates the further effects of these symptoms. Outcomes of these manifestations of stress vary, but they all affect wellbeing and work performance.

At the individual level, stress outcomes are similar to those found in tertiary allostasis, such as cardiovascular disorders and mental health problems. Meanwhile, stress outcomes at the organization level include increased overhead costs, such as recruitment and training expenses. Other effects include lower profits, increased rate of occupational accidents, and a higher risk of litigation.

Finally, Cooper and Palmer focused on the financial risks of improper stress management. Their studies found that companies stand to lose billions due to the lost productivity that accompanies stress. Millions of working hours are lost annually due to employees getting sick or underperforming due to stress. By putting a financial cost on stress, these two researchers were better able to convince companies that prompt action is necessary to strengthen stress management programs.

Different Theories, Same Goal

You might be wondering at this point as to why different theories of stress exist. Wouldn’t it be better to discuss the most current ones, since these are the ones most likely to be accurate?

A common misunderstanding with psychological models occurs when people assume that one model must be correct over the other. The validity of models does not exist on a linear scale alone. Multiple models can remain valid even if they take vastly different methods in tackling the subject matter.

What’s essential for theories is that they should be able to lead to useful conclusionsOpens in a new tab.. Every method mentioned in this article led to recommendations that any company would find helpful. For example, we have written a detailed report on conventional techniques to manage stress, entitled “15 Strategies To Manage Workplace StressOpens in a new tab..” As long as theories work in the real world, there’s no need to construct an argument that perfectly captures all aspects of stress. 

Another thing to note is that concepts like stress are multifaceted and can involve a lot of nuances that are hard to capture. Attempting to create a comprehensive theory that covers all aspects of anxiety is difficult and impractical. While it’s possible to develop a holistic approach to stress, the current repertoire of stress theories is enough to give executives the guidance they need to manage stress.

Check out other subject areas – StressOpens in a new tab.WellnessOpens in a new tab.SustainabilityOpens in a new tab.Workplace ProductivityOpens in a new tab.Employee ExperienceOpens in a new tab.

Related Questions

Do I have to study these theories to use them correctly? Not necessarily. While delving deeper into these theories will help, you can already apply them even with just a cursory knowledge of what they entail. By only using the recommendations that they suggest, you can already do a lot towards ensuring that employees can manage stress properly.  

Where can I learn more about workplace stress theories? Most textbooks on organizational behavior cover theories on stress, as well as how employees can manage stress in the workplace. Employees who took up psychology, especially those focusing on organizational behavior, should also have many things to say about workplace stress theories. Additionally, many consulting companies specialize in the psychological aspects of stress management, so it’s a good idea to seek out their services.

 

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