What Is Occupational Stress?

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A question that I am frequently asked is “what is occupational stress?” A new book by Peter Chen, simply titled “Occupational Stress” explores this important workplace topic. No matter your job, there will be challenges and demands that can be stressful. That stress needs to be properly managed to minimize the detrimental effects it can have on employees. This book provides important guidance about doing just that.

What Is Occupational Stress?

The term “occupational stress” refers to the interaction between employees and their work environments that can be difficult and emotionally draining. Work stressors are work challenges and demands that people have difficulty coping with. They are often negative experiences that can be disturbing in some way. Strains are people’s negative reactions to stressors such as becoming angry or anxious. It is often assumed that work stressors lead to strains, but as Chen explains, the connection is more complex. This is why it is better to think about occupational stress as the interaction between employees and their environments.

What Makes a Job Stressful?

There are many forms of workplace stressors that have been identified. Some arise from the nature of the work itself.

  • Organizational constraints: Most people just want to do their jobs, but there are conditions at work that can make it difficult. This might be defective machinery, inadequate supplies or not enough people to get everything done.
  • Role ambiguity: People work best when they understand what they are expected to accomplish. Role ambiguity occurs when employees are uncertain about what they should be doing.
  • Role conflict: Sometimes employees receive incompatible demands, for example, two superiors ask the employee to do something, and both cannot be done at once. Other times there can be a conflict between the demands of work and the demands of home (work-family conflict). Both are forms of role conflict.
  • Workload: This refers to the amount and difficulty of work a person is required to do. Jobs vary in how much they demand of people in terms of time and effort. When workloads are excessive, people are overloaded, and that overload is a stressor. It is also possible for someone to be underloaded by having too little to do at work, leading them to experience boredom.

Other stressors are interpersonal and occur when employees interact with others.

  • Bullying: Bullies can be found at work as well as at school. They engage in a pattern of abusive behavior directed toward someone over time. Bullies might be peers but they can also be the boss.
  • Interpersonal conflict: People sometimes get into arguments or disputes with coworkers, customers, patients or others. Such conflicts can become quite heated and persist over time.
  • Physical violence: Some jobs expose workers to physical violence of others. Nursing is a profession where nurses are at risk for being assaulted by patients.
  • Verbal mistreatment: We all experience periodic nastiness from others that might be a rude comment or a direct insult. If the pattern is repeated frequently over time, it can rise to the level of bullying.

How Do People Respond to Stressors?

Regardless of the stressor, it can lead to one of three types of strains. Behavioral strains are how someone behaves in response to a stressor. If your boss is a bully, you likely will avoid them as much as possible, which might mean calling in sick when you are not. A psychological strain involves attitudes and emotions. People exposed to strains might experience anger, anxiety or sadness. Repeated exposure can lead to burnout. Physical strains are immediate symptoms such as dizziness, headache, or stomach upset. There are also long-term impacts of chronic stress that can impact cardiovascular disease.

Occupational stress is something that cannot be eliminated because some of the things people must do at work are stressful. For example, first responders have to put their own lives at risk to save others. Rather than eliminating stress, organizations should manage it by minimizing unnecessary stressors and providing support to employees. Individual workers should take steps to self-manage their own stress, for example, by taking breaks and disengaging from work so that strains can be reduced. The proper management of stress by organizations and employees themselves is important to maintain a healthy workforce.

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