Based on a critical review of theory and research, what advice would you give managers regarding how to reduce employee stress?
Employee stress must be defined first, in order to assess how this can be reduced. The term stress is regarded as the process that links the stressor (cause) to the strain (outcome) and coping (response to the stressor) (Khrone, 2002). On a personal level, stress can cause physical problems such as sleep deprivation, psychological problems and social problems. For organisations stress causes absenteeism, labour turnover and job performance. These can be caused by a number of factors including; working conditions, long hours, role ambiguity, role conflict as well as the relationship with managers and personality (Murphy, 1995). The fact it impinges upon the quality of personal health, as well as business productivity means that both these have reasons to lessen this stress and improve employee well being. Strategies undertaken in the UK during the 1980's tended to focus on individual coping strategies that dealt with the consequences of chronic stress. However now researchers seem to be noting the importance of organisational level intervention (Bond and Bunce, 2001). Organisational level interventions can include job redesign, participative management, communication and organisational policies. Individual level interventions include cognitive behavioural skills training, relaxation techniques and time management (Cartwright et al., 2001). This essay will discuss theoretical concepts and empirical studies which deal with both individual and organisational intervention.
To begin with we will look at how the theoretical approaches to reducing employee stress have developed over time. Even though there were models such as Lazarus in 1966 with the transactional model of stress and coping, the main theories are the demand control model by Karasek (1979), the Person-environment fit model by French et al., (1982) and also Warr's Vitamin theories and the affective well being model (1987,1990).
The demand-control model by Karasek (1979) said that work characteristics may not be linearly associated with worker health but that they might in fact combine to relate to health. Jobs which placed low demands upon employees, where employees also had low levels of control were found to lead to lower health. Studies by Karasek et al., (1981) appeared to confirm this, who said that the lowest probabilities for illness and death were found among work groups with moderate work demands combined with high control over work conditions. However, War (1990) has only shown weak evidence, as he suggests that demand and control have an additive rather than synergistic effect on health. Whether combining additively or interactively however, it is clear these are important factors in determining employee’s health. This basic model has also been added to over time with the Job demand-control and support model by Johnson and Hall (1988) who added a social element to the previous model by Karasek. Karasek and Theorell (1990) also developed a dynamic demand control model, whereby the effects of time are taken into account. The fact that so many people have developed this further shows its importance.
French et al., (1982) developed the person-environment fit theory. This theory explains the degree to which an employee’s attitude and ability to meet the demands of the job has an impact on levels of stress. As well as the fact that how the job role meets the worker’s needs can impact upon stress too. Therefore saying that poor job fit can impact upon stress levels, managers would therefore need to consider job fit when hiring an employee. However the model has been criticised for not delineating the specific work characteristics that are expected to be important, but instead specifying the process where experiences become stressful. Testing this theory has also had methodological problems. Due to the almost total reliance upon the subjective report basis for measuring fit components. Warr (1987) developed the vitamin model and also the affective well being model (1990), which measured pleasure, enthusiasm and anxiety. The vitamin model states that job characteristics have an impact on mental health. The analogy is that vitamins are required for physical health, and environmental features impact upon the mental wellbeing of individuals. The model asserts that the availability of these environmental features are important, but not beyond a certain level. These are features such as opportunity for control, and variety within job tasks (Warr, 1987).In addition some environmental features such as variety and opportunity for control can become harmful in very large quantities. Support for the model is mixed. Jeurissen and Nyklicek (2001) state their study proves that Warr's vitamin model can be supported only up to a certain extent, and the study does not provide unequivocal support for it. The strongest effects found were the linear negative effects of job demands on wellbeing and health, but it did not find that the relationship fitted the inverted U shaped curve that was predicted. This shows that managers need to take into account the environmental factors which can improve mental health, however it is not necessary to take this to the extreme, due to the negative returns shown by Warr (1987).
Empirical evidence - Individual level
This essay will now investigate empirical studies and how these contribute to a manager’s ability to reduce employee stress. These are important for managers to consider as evidence of what may work. First of all, empirical studies which focus at the individual level will be examined. These changes give employees more scope in decision making and communication. Bond and Bunce (2000) examined the effects of Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT) which is a form of cognitive behavioural therapy. They said that ACT is particularly suited to work settings, as it emphasizes commitment to goals and acceptance of undesired psychological events that stem from unalterable work circumstances such as unavoidable deadlines. Results included significantly improved health, depression and attitude scores. In terms of Employee Assistance Programmes, Reynolds et al. (1997) compared a counselling intervention to an organizational-level one. This research has shown managers that individual counselling intervention can improve the physical and psychological wellbeing of employees to a certain extent. However, no changes were reported by the participation and autonomy group. Showing that in this study, individual studies were more effective than organisational, therefore showing how managers need to take into account the effectiveness of individual level schemes.
Cooper and Sadri (1991) also focused on employee assistance programmes, and found that there was a significant improvement in absence rates, as well as a decline in anxiety levels and depression. There were increases in self-esteem but no marked changes to satisfaction and commitment levels. However, the evaluation period here was only 3 to 4 months post intervention, and one wouldn’t be surprised if this was consistent with many individual intervention programmes, whereby the improvements were short lived. Other limitations to individual studies include the fact that the evaluation of interventions often involves small sample sizes, as well as the evaluation of interventions are of a short duration.
Empirical evidence- Organisational level
More recently empirical studies have started focusing or changes at an organisational, rather than at an individual level. Organisational studies are said to be the most effective but least likely to be used, due to cost. Reynolds (1997) suggests organizational intervention designed to improve employee levels of participation and control over their work did not have any impact on their psychological well being or mental health improvement, and that individual counselling intervention was more effective. However, Reynolds also says that at the time of writing there was not yet have a sufficiently well-developed system for intervening in organizations to bring about planned change. Any intervention within an organization needs to take account of the complex nature of the organizational system, and our understanding of organizations is still rudimentary.
Bond and Bunce (2001) did an experiment regarding a control enhancing work reorganisation initiative, in an attempt to alleviate strain outcomes. Participation and autonomy intervention was seen to significantly improve participant’s mental health, as well as absence and performance rates. These results are indicative of the advantages of increasing employee job control. Some of the changes made were; employee control over task assignment and how tasks are carried out and email feedback forms which were sent to supervisors to seek guidance on task execution. Cartwright et al., (2000) focused on improving Communication as well as other organisational improvements. Managers should therefore note that improvements in communication positively impacted job satisfaction and perceptions of control and influence. Stress resulting from organisational structure and climate was also significantly reduced.
However, limitations of organisational-level interventions are the fact there are relatively few empirical studies and the ones which have been tested often with mixed results. Some studies report positive effects, others not. The outcomes are often satisfaction and perceptions of the work environment rather than health specific and thus subjective. Finally, it is unclear whether lack of effects is due to poor interventions or short duration of studies.
Managers need to consider that stress research is nowhere near being conclusive on how best to reduce stress in the workplace. Giga et al., (2003) present their findings saying that, organisational and organisational-individual level interventions were more likely to lead to improvements in employee health and organisational performance, e.g. (Bond and Bunce 2001), whereas individual led programmes were associated with improvements in mental and emotional well being. However these individual level programmes tended to result in shorter term psychological benefits but could be useful for particularly stressful periods. Organisational methods are often ignored due to being more expensive, even though they are proven to be effective. As well as this Lepine et al., (2005) says a distinction must be made between challenge-orientated stressors and Hindrance stressors. He mentions that challenge orientated stressors are actually a good thing and therefore should not be removed. Therefore managers need to take into account the source of the strain before making decisions. However, organisational changes are more likely to prevent rather than cure the causes of stress. They are also proven to be more effective in comparison to Individual level interventions.
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