Introduction to Stress Management

In today’s changing and competitive work environment, stress level is increasing both in the workers as well as the managers. As a result of this work stress, more and more managers are showing signs of chronic fatigue and burnout. Research has concluded that stressed out managers are not good for their companies or shareholders. In most cases, stress leads to reduced efficiency in even the best of individuals, which in turn leads to reduced productivity. Stress is a problem in almost all the countries of the world, irrespective of whether the economy is strong or weak. Therefore, it become very essential to include “work stress” as one of the chapters in studying human behavior, because we must know what is actually stress, what are the causes of stress, what are its consequences and then, what should be done to reduce it.

Stress Management - Stress Sources

Considered from an individual’s point of view, stress is our body’s physical, mental and chemical reactions to circumstances that frighten, confuse, endanger or irritate you. If controlled, stress is a friend that strengthens us for the next encounter. If handled poorly, it becomes an enemy which can cause diseases like high blood pressure, ulcer, asthma and overactive thyroid. As per the medical explanation of the term “stress is the body’s general response to environmental situations.” It can lead to :

  1. Physiological discomfort.
  2. Some kind of emotional unhappiness.
  3. Strained relationships with other people.

In very simple words, stress refers to an individual’s reaction to a disturbing factor in the environment.

  • “Stress is defined as an adaptive response to an external situation that results in physical, psychological and/or behavioral deviations, for organizational participants.”
  • “Stress is a dynamic condition in which an individual is confronted with an opportunity, constraint or demand related to what he or she desires and for which the outcome is perceived to be both uncertain and important.”
  • According to Ivancevich and Matterson, “Stress is the interaction of the individual with the environment. It is an adaptive response, mediated by individual differences and/or psychological process; that is a consequence of any external (environmental) action, situation or event, that places excessive psychological and/or physical demands upon a person”
  • According to Beehr and Newman, “Job stress is a condition arising from the interaction of the people and their jobs, and characterized by changes within people that force them to deviate from their normal functioning.”

Some important point relating to the nature of stress are :

1. Stress is a neutral word. It is not bad in and of itself. But when stress is created by undesirable outcomes, it becomes Distress. On the other hand, if it is created by desirable and successful effects it is called Eustress. Eustress is a healthy, positive and developmental stress response. It is primarily the Distress form of stress which requires examination and steps to cope with it; because distress is generally associated with heart disease, alchoholism, drug abuse, marital problems, absenteeism etc.

2. Stress is associated with Constraints and Demand. Constraints prevent an individual from doing what he or she desires. If a person wants to buy something, but he does not have the necessary cash, it is a constraint. Demands refer to the loss of something desired. If a person wants to go and watch a movie, but he is unable to do so because of pressing official work, it amounts to a demand. Both Constraints and Demands can lead to potential stress.

3. Two conditions are necessary for potential stress to become actual stress. There must be :

  • uncertainty over the outcome, and
  • outcome must be important.

Stress is usually very high when there is uncertainty over the outcome and the outcome is very significant. Both these conditions are necessary. If there is no uncertainty but the outcome is significant, there will not be any stress. On the other hand, if there is uncertainty, but the outcome is not significant, there will again be no stress.

4.  Stress is not simply anxiety. Stress may be accompanied by anxiety, but the two are not synonymous. Anxiety is psychological and emotional whereas stress operates in the physiological sphere also along with psychological sphere.

5. Stress should also be differentiated from nervous tension.Nervous tension may be a result of stress. Stress is a subconscious action. Even unconscious people have exhibited stress, whereas nervous tension is a conscious action. People may “bottle up” their emotions and not reveal them through nervous tension.

6. The term “burnout” is also closely associated with stress.Some researchers contend that burnout is a type of stress, but others treat it differently. Burnout is closely associated with helping professions like nursing, education and social work, it is characterized by emotional exhaustion, depersonalisation and diminished personal accomplishments. Even though, technically, burnout is different from stress, these are generally used interchangeably.

Stress is highly individualistic in nature. Some people have high tolerance for stress and thrive well in face of several stressors in the environment. In fact, some individuals will not perform well unless they experience a level of stress which activates and energizes them to put forth their best efforts. On the other hand, some people have very low level of tolerance for stress and they become paralyzed when they have to interface with routine everyday factors that appear undesirable to them.

For every individual, there is an optimum level of stress under which he or she will perform to full capacity. If the stress experienced is below this level, then the individual gets bored, the motivational level to work reaches a low point and apathy sets in. If one operates in very low stress environment and constantly experiences boredom, the person is likely to he psychologically or physically withdrawn from work. Psychological withdrawl will result in careless mistakes being frequently made, forgetfulness and absentmindedness. Physical withdrawl will manifest itself in increased rate of tardiness and absenteeism which will ultimately lead to turnover.

If, on the other hand, the stressors in an individual’s environment are too many or too intense, there effects on performance will again be adverse. Errors will increase, bad decision will be made and the individual will experience insomnia, stomach problems and psychosomatic illnesses. Organisational performance and individual health are at their peak at optimum levels of experienced stress. It is explained with the help of the following figure :

Stress Management

ReactionsBoredom/ApathyHigh EnergyExhaustion
BehavioursLow motivation carelessness Psychological withdrawl Physical withdrawl InactivityHigh MotivationHeightened perception High involvementAnxiety Nervousness Indecisiveness Bad Judgement
PerformanceLow performanceHigh performancePoor performance
Health effectsDull healthGood healthInsomnia psychomatic illnesses

Though, the optimum stress level may be different for different individuals, each individual can sense and determine how much stress is functional for him or her to operate in a productive manner.

Personality of a person is the most dominating factor which influences the way he or she responds to all events and situations. In personality, we include values, attitudes and behaviour patterns that make up the uniqueness of an individual and ultimately make him more or less vulnerable to stress.

The origin of much personal stress lies within our perception or our concept of self. Low self esteem can lead to a number of stress inducting problems, inability to adapt, willingness to place excessively high demands on ourself and lack of assertiveness. It can also lead to poor self expression, so that we harbour negative emotions such as anger, fear, aggression and anxiety rather than giving vent to them,

Those with high self esteem handle stress with ease since a high self concept and confidence in their abilities allows them to develop positive attitudes towards the management of stress and enables them to deal with stressful situation with calmness and clear thinking.

Psychologists have identified two broad personalities and one is more prone to stress than the other. The ‘Type A’ is the notorious stress prone personality whose typical behavior and life style constantly elicit physical arousal. Type A people are impatient, ambitious, competitive, aggressive and hard working, they set high goals and demands for themseleves and others, and they are particularly prone to stress inducing anticipatory emotions such as anxiety.

‘Type B’ which has a reverse profile. They are equable, calm, relaxed, not overly ambitious and less at risk from stress. In general, our personality is made up of one or other patterns of behavior or, in rare case, a perfect balance of both. Whether you allow a situation to affect you adversely depends largely on your appraisal and ability to control it. Unavoidable major life crisis face us some time or another e.g. divorce, death, financial struggles and family conflict. Stress is more likely to occur if we find ourselves caught in a particular situation against our will, and we cannot shape and amend ourselves or our life styles to suit that situation.