Home troubles surface at work

Strategic Stress Management
November 16, 2001

To some extent, the caricature of conventional stress management is true - many organisations do simply react to stress after it has happened, and hence the widespread use of counselling services rather than preventative measures. Stress management is also often seen as something bolted on, with little attempt at integration, and there is a deeply ingrained culture of blame. The question is whether this book can offer a useful alternative approach: unfortunately in this reviewer's opinion it does not.

The writing of this review coincided with a broadcast of one instalment of the BBC2 series Middle Classes: Their Rise and Sprawl , which in just 50 minutes offered a far more satisfactory account of the nature of social change and its effects on working life.

The book starts by stating three ways in which it differs from what it refers to as traditional stress management: it is proactive rather than reactive in encouraging a preventative approach; it proposes that stress management should be integrated into the organisational process; and it focuses on organisations as a whole rather than singling out individuals as being the problem.

The first problem is one of definition. Stress has been notoriously difficult to define, which the authors acknowledge by outlining some of the many different models and definitions that have been proposed. However, they conclude by adopting Terry Beehr and John Newman's definition, which is so all-embracing as to be meaningless.

The definition they use suggests that stress is the product of both individual and job-related factors, but the book is primarily about "organisational" stress. The role of personality is consequently given short shrift. But there are many who would respond with an equally emphatic "No!" to the claim that individual approaches are of less value. And they could provide research evidence to support their view.

The authors acknowledge that individual differences play a role in stress, but do so with reference to little more than so-called Type-A behaviour. Type-A was developed ostensibly as an index of coronary proneness, but is neither valid nor reliable and has little use in stress-management programmes.

The authors point out that anything and everything is potentially a source of stress, so the important question is why people may respond differently to similar circumstances. The research evidence on individual differences in stress has moved a long way from Type-A behaviour or locus of control. An alternative way of defining stress is to consider what it is that sustains distracted attention and physiological arousal. These are the key individual symptoms of the stress response, and ought to form a substantive component of strategic stress management, but they are not represented here at all.

What the book does offer is a general overview of organisational issues in stress. There are numerous lists of shoulds and oughts that could be culled to provide practicable guidelines for improving some aspects of organisational structure and climate.

Derek Roger is reader in psychology, University of York.

Strategic Stress Management: An Organisational Approach

Author - Valerie J. Sutherland and Cary L. Cooper
ISBN - 0 333 77487 6
Publisher - Palgrave
Price - £9.99
Pages - 263

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