Below is one of the graduate level papers I wrote in 2000 to address the pervasive topic of job stress – something most of us cannot escape. It’s rather long and academic in tone, but the information still applies today and is worth a read. I will note that the references will not address changes in law or recommendations made post-2000.

Please leave a comment if you can add to what I’ve recommended or have a personal story to share. Should you be interested in the associated bibliography or have any questions regarding the items I cover, you may contact me at

----------Job Stress: An Unnecessary Evil----------

The prevalence of job stress as a workplace issue has increased significantly over the past decade. Job stress has been defined as “a condition arising from the interaction of people and their jobs and is characterized by changes within people that force them to deviate from their normal functioning.” (Brief, Shuler & Van Sell, 1981, 2) The response of employees to their work environment not only affects their capacity to perform as workers, but also can impair their ability to function in every aspect of their lives.

All employees participate as active members within various systems. Stress can impair the ability of workers considerably to perform in all of these environments. The occurrence of stress in any one of these systems can create psychological and behavioral responses that negatively influence their expression of necessary behaviors and attitudes to successfully fulfill each role.

Employment stressors include: role ambiguity, role conflict, workload concerns, interpersonal conflicts, situational constraints, level of perceived control and occupational traumas. (Jex, 1998, 10-24) If there is perceived job stress, the responses of employees may be psychological, physiological or behavioral in nature. These responses not only affect the ability of employees to work, but can affect their capacity to participate fully in other systems. Work is a vital component to all families and can therefore cause serious work/family conflicts.

There are several psychological outcomes as job stress increases and job satisfaction decreases. Consequences such as anxiety, low self-esteem, loss of concentration, depression, boredom, anger, and alienation can occur and lead to neuroses, psychoses and reduced or damaged familial relations. (Brief et. al., 22-5) This type of response occurs within all of the different categories of employment (i.e., white-collar nonprofessionals, white-collar professionals, blue-collar unskilled and blue-collar skilled).

Physiological responses – ranging from headaches, gastrointestinal disorders, cardiovascular disease and cancer to bodily injuries, physical strain, fatigue and sometimes death – can occur when stressful working conditions are present. These physical responses can result in frequent sick leave, reduced participation in other systems and extensive medical expenses. Certain types of work, particularly blue-collar, can increase exposure to accident risks, heavy physical work and a high work pace. (Levi, 1981, 5)

The final type of response is behavioral. Individuals may begin to participate in potentially lethal behavior such as the abuse of alcohol, drugs or tobacco. Again, behavioral responses can occur due to psychological reactions based on a decreased level of job satisfaction and can provoke aggression, frustration and even suicidal or homicidal behavior. (Ibid, 5) (Brief et. al., 25-7)

The Americans with Disabilities Act can provide some relief to individuals suffering from job stress. Although there are some excluded conditions, such as substance abuse disorders that occur from current illegal drug use, there are many protected mental and physical impairments that qualify employees to benefits under this Act if the impairment “substantially limits one or more life activities.” (Sonnenberg, 200o, 142) Additionally, the Federal Employees’ Compensation Act and state worker’s compensation acts cover emotional stress as an occupational disease that occurs due to environmental conditions in the workplace.

The definition of an occupational disease is “a condition produced in the work environment over a period longer than one work day or shift. It may result from system infection; repeated stress or strain; exposure to toxins, poisons or fumes; or other continuing conditions of the work environment.” (Office of Worker’s Compensation Programs, 1994, feca810m.htm) Although legal battles have not always been successful, court decisions generally have supported job stress claims. The best way to handle job-related stress, however, is through prevention because employer-based systems are in a great position to help identify stressors early and can provide supportive employee programs to deal with issues such as anxiety management. (Stein & Hollander, 1993, 248)

***** Ross and Altmaier’s framework to reduce job stress

Many organizations implement various programmatic methods in an attempt to reduce employee job stress levels. These intervention methods can be classified in several different ways, but the suggestion by Ross and Altmaier (1994) is that interventions should be categorized “according to the framework of workplace stress factors…[which includes]: role characteristics; job characteristics; interpersonal relationships; organizational structure and climate; and human resource management systems.” (Ibid, 90) I consider this classification method useful because the problems related to job stress occur within these areas of organizational functioning and it places the focus “on reducing or eliminating the sources of the problems in the workplace.” (Murphy, Hurrell, Jr., & Quick, 1992, 338) Organizations that implement this structure to categorize job stress issues can find multiple measurement tools to allow for an accurate evaluation of the success (or lack thereof) of their efforts.

In terms of role characteristics, employers should redirect their focus from job descriptions to job functions. This helps relieve role ambiguities and role conflicts when paired with role analysis and clarification. Role analysis and clarification allows employees to express their expectations of the work environment and of their supervisors, which can later be confirmed and discussed before problems in performance arise. (Ross & Altmaier, 1994, 91-3)

Stress related to job characteristics can be addressed through job design, job enrichment and job enlargement. All of these intervention strategies require the redefinition and restructuring of the employee responsibilities to ensure that workers observe an improvement in the quality and quantity of their work, along with gaining a more complete understanding of their duties. An additional strategy to attack job stress in this area can be to find creative flexible work schedule at the discretion of the employees. When workers maintain a level of control over their personal work schedules, better work performance, greater organizational commitment, a decrease in absenteeism and fewer psychological stress symptoms have been shown. (Ibid, 98-100) (Murphy et. al., 1992, 338-9) Staffing social workers to analyze, plan, negotiate, implement and follow-up on these improvements would serve to enhance the collaborative work environment between employees and management.

In order to address interpersonal relationships, employers must seek to build positive exchanges within employee work groups. Holding regular staff meetings, providing frequent recreational activities and requiring managers to help employees build new skills strengthens social supports within the work environment. (Ross & Altmaier, 1994, 100-2) An increased worker-management collaboration to address work-related issues along with offering multiple group-building activities provides an excellent opportunity to reduce job stress within this category. (Murphy et. al., 1992, 339-42)

Employees will often have minimal awareness of company structure. In tall structured organizations, job functions are more centralized and workers tend to experience more stress. Organizations should make significant efforts to decentralize by changing communication patterns and networks. A useful management style for this type of change is Total Quality Management, developed by William Edwards Deming. (Ross & Altmaier, 1994, 104-5)

Finally, the issue of human resource management systems is of great importance to, and directly deals with, the subject of worker development, both as current organizational employees and for their future career aspirations. Human resource departments must include components of training, performance feedback, reward structures and transitional frameworks for the multiple professional issues that face workers. (Ibid, 50-6, & 107-15) These mechanisms can help an employer to alleviate employee job-related stress and offers workers a more clear vision of how to pursue advancement within their chosen career.

One of the most well known methods of dealing with stress in the workplace is the use of Employee Assistance Programs (EAP), also addressed by Ross and Altmaier. It is important to note, however, that EAP programs must not only provide reactive services; the creation of proactive prevention programs offers employers the opportunity to address worker distress before the occurrence of job jeopardy or other stressful conditions associated with pre-existing job stress. (Ibid, 115-6) Additionally, a proactive approach can serve to increase productivity and help support employee awareness of different health-related issues. Although many organizations now outsource for EAP, there is strong support for these work-related services. Confidentiality is a component that EAP’s cannot exist without; ethical standards must be maintained in order for employees to benefit from these programs. (Murphy et. al., 1992, 339-40)

***** Recommendations

Based on all of the varied strategies presented by Ross and Altmaier, I support the use of every strategy recommended to successfully combat job stress. Work is a part of life that cannot be denied; we spend most of our lifetime earning a living. In countries like the United States of America, stress pervades the daily lives of all workers. Concerns and problems arise within all of the systems that employees participate in and the workplace is a prime location to offer assistance with these issues. Organizations can only benefit by the implementation of these types of strategies, because resolving worker issues has been proven to increase employee productivity. If organizations ignore job stress, it will only serve to their detriment.

Author's Bio: 

Learn to Shine Your Light is led by Eve Rojas, MSSW, who shares her personal experiences and know-how to provide an enlightening perspective on how to approach life successfully.

Eve went through a deeply disturbing period in her life that caused a major depression. Strengthened by her experience, she believes completely that we each have power within us that exists beyond life’s trauma and stress. Eve shares the knowledge and skills she continues to develop each day to provide tools to help you learn to shine your light and claim your inner strength so you can better manage life’s ups and downs.

Eve relies on discernment and faith to follow the path in front of her and touch the souls of others. She possesses a Master of Science in Social Work with expertise in Social Enterprise Management from Columbia University. Eve also graduated with honors from Yale University.