Health warning: don't work

Theories of Organisational Stress
March 24, 2000

A growing number of people are reporting themselves "frequently stressed" at work. Even academics claim to suffer considerable and increasing work stress. It is no wonder then that there has been a rapid increase in academic and popular books and papers on the topic. Without a doubt, Britain's foremost researcher on stress is Cary L. Cooper.

An experienced author and editor of over 20 years' standing, as well as being an American in Britain, Cooper has become exceptionally well connected, and he clearly knows all the world's leading researchers. Indeed this stress critique reads likes something of a Who's Who in the field, whose contributors are predominantly American. This makes a difference as it is all too easy to accuse edited books of being something of a curate's egg: patchy and uneven in style, content and the expertise of their writers.

It is probably true to say that the stress research area is rather long on data (often rather poor self-report data) and short on theory. This book tries to find the gap in the market. There are 12 chapters, half of which mention different theories in their headings. Thus we have person-environment fit theory, multi-dimensional theory, cybernetic theory, control theory, ethological theory and, finally, a theory of preventative stress management.

I, and no doubt many other readers, would have greatly appreciated a final "compare and contrast" chapter. Such books that look at personality theories attempt both categorisation and analysis in terms of various factors: verifiability, heuristic value, internal consistency, parsimony, comprehensiveness and functional significance. Inevitably, edited books can tend towards a sort of benevolent eclecticism that accepts all theories as equally deserving. Letting a thousand theoretical flowers bloom creates more, rather than less confusion. It is my view that there is considerable overlap in the different theories outlined in this volume, and I would have liked someone to have addressed this issue.

Despite their very different terminology and emphases, most researchers assert that stress is the function of the inter-relationship of three things: the environment (physical, objective and business), the person (ability, needs, personality), and the coping/adaptation styles of both.

Thus, the person-environment fit approach, like the burnout approach, sees stress as a consequence of misfit, mismatch or imbalance. Ideas of optimal challenges, demands, efforts and rewards seem to be part of most of the theories, with the concomitant idea that both too much and too little of some (ie stimulation at work) can be stressful.

Whereas earlier theories attempted to list and examine environmental stressors and stress-prone personality variables, examining the interactions which produce stress, the more recently developed approaches seem to focus rather more on how people cope with, or respond to, stress. It is as if researchers have accepted that work stress is inevitable, not preventable, and at best may be modifiable; therefore, it is most profitable to concentrate on the coping or response factor, where intervention is most successful.

Readers may have observed how some business consultants prefer to re-label stress as challenge; to put a positive spin on an essentially negative experience. Indeed chapter eight addresses this issue and is subtitled:

"Are stressors always detrimental?" They conclude that one may look at stressors at work as options for innovation and personal initiative. This is a sort of "sand in the oyster shell produces a pearl" argument, but it does go some way to seeing all aspects of stress exclusively.

The penultimate chapter is intriguingly entitled "About work stress and wisdom". It uses the term integrity as a central concept for personal work stress and views stress as under-development, infringement or loss of personal integrity. There is also an interesting, well-written section that concentrates on stress in people over 40, described as being "in the second half of a working life". Stressors here are all seen in terms of loss: loss of youth, identity, transferability, competence, communality, relationships, feedback, health, continuity, self-esteem and thinking under stress. This list alone, described in detail over eight pages, is enough to engender stress in one in this second phase of life! But what about the "wisdom" thing? Ideas for helping those stressed middle-aged workers include becoming more detached, developing greater self-reflection, reactualising personal themes, attempting to integrate more diverse information and writing a new life plan. I have to say, on balance, there seems to be more stress than wisdom in the second half of the working life if this writer is to be taken seriously.

The final chapter moves back from contemplative speculation to hard theory testing. It presents a model of "preventative stress management" and sets out various testable hypotheses, though these are hardly surprising or counter-intuitive. Take for instance the first: "Intense, frequent, prolonged, organisational demands increase the stress response in people at work."

Indeed it may be argued that so many of the popular theories in the area of work stress are little more than common sense dressed up in social-science jargon. Theories are tautological and offer little insight.

Overall, however, most chapters in this book attempt to explicate the processes that lead to work stress and help us to understand why one person reports no stress while the second, in an identical job, manifests considerable physiological, cognitive and behavioural signs of stress. It is only when we fully understand these processes that we can really begin to offer a sensible and effective strategy for stress prevention or management.

Most chapters are well referenced and of similar length. Theories of Organizational Stress is a heavyweight rather than a heavy book. But that should not put off pollsters and market researchers from reading it. Too many uninformed, theoretically barren and poorly designed surveys on stress appear to be being commissioned simply for their headline value. Good research needs to be theoretically driven as well as methodologically sophisticated, and this book can certainly help with the former requirement.

Adrian Furnham is professor of psychology, University College London.

Theories of Organisational Stress

Editor - Cary L. Cooper
ISBN - 0 19 8529 7
Publisher - Oxford University Press
Price - £40. 00
Pages - 5

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