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Job stress and performance

Faculty Contributor: Amit Gupta, Associate Professor
Student Contributors: Rajesh Chandwani

Job stress is a common problem across occupations and it impacts job performance. Although most contemporary studies highlight the negative effect of stress on job performance (distress), mild stress is known to enhance an employee's performance (eustress). It is necessary to take a holistic picture of antecedents to job stress by including the effects of personality, organisational factors and the work- family interaction in the perception of job stress. This article defines stress, examines whether it has a positive or a debilitating effect on performance before providing managers with techniques to manage their occupational stress as well as to deal with the stress levels of their subordinates

Occupational stress has become a common problem throughout the industrial world. Over the years its prevalence has increased, thus affecting the individual's mental health and well being. In order to understand its effect on health, it becomes important to define 'health' itself. The World Health Organisation (WHO) terms health1 as a 'state of complete physical, mental and social well-being and not merely the absence of disease or infirmity'. In more recent years, this statement has been modified to include the ability to lead a 'socially and economically productive life'.

The Effects of Stress in a Job

Research2 in organizational behavior has shown that an individual could suffer from significant health complications - backaches, headaches, gastrointestinal disturbances, anxiety and depression amongst others - if subjected to stress over a long time. Behavioural changes in the form of excessive tobacco smoking and alcohol consumption, nervous disorders, heart diseases, diabetes, obesity etc are also related to stress. Job dissatisfaction is known to lead to job stress, which in turn reduces the productivity (Madeline, 1983).

Over the years, a lot of research has been carried out in the realm of work place stress and it has been emphatically proven that intense or prolonged stress leads to a negative impact on one's mental and physical well being. (Health & Safety Executive, 2001; Cooper et al, 2001). Even though a fair degree of stress may be felt in all occupations, some work places have been known to experience more stress compared to others.

Varying Degrees of Stress

People in some work places experience more stress vis-a-vis others, particularly those in occupations where workers are required to display emotions like nursing, social work and teaching (Travers and Cooper, 1993, Cooper et al., 1999, Kahn, 1993, Young and Cooper, 1999). An extreme form of this stress has been categorized as 'burnout', a stage when a person starts treating his clients as objects (depersonalization), evaluates himself negatively and feels emotionally exhausted (Sheena et al, 2005). In such extreme cases, performance has been known to dip considerably and this drop in productivity can be attributed to the stress. Hence, its imperative to define stress, understand its implications and counter the risk of productivity loss by effectively managing stress in oneself and in others.

Is Stress Always Negative?

Its not stress that kills us, it is our reaction to it.
Dr. Hans Selye, leading stress expert

Biologically, stress is the reaction of the body to environmental changes. It can cause the body to produce 'fight or flight' reactions which equip a person to deal with the stressful situation. Various studies have defined stress as that state of health resulting from 'any condition that causes an individual to have a generalized psycho-physiological response which deviates from a state of equilibrium' (Madeline, 1983). Strain is described in her study as a 'psycho-physiological response to stress, a response that deviates from a person's norm and may lead to illness'.

Eustress is a positive psychological response to a stressor resulting in the presence of positive psychological states. Neustress refers to a neutral reaction and the individual is said to be in homeostasis. Distress is the negative counterpart of eustress (Pestonjee D.M., Pareeek U., Agrawal R., Tripti Desai, 1999).

Differences Between Distress and Eustress

Most of the studies pay a lot of importance to the negative side of stress, i.e. distress which is just one aspect of stress. However, some studies have shown that if one can manage stress effectively, it can lead to a positive outcome and response. Jennifer (1996) and Selve (1976) proposed the positive affective response to the stress process and coined the term 'eustress'. Other influential writers have also suggested that stress is not inherently maladaptive (Hart, 2003; Hart & Cotton, 2002; Karasek, 1979; Lazarus, 1999; Lazarus & Folkman, 1984; Tedeschi & Calhoun, 2004). In the context of the work place, stressful events can lead to perceptions of positive benefit (Campbell-Quick, Cooper, Nelson, Quick, & Gavin, 2003; Nelson & Simmons, 2003). Although many researchers have investigated distress, eustress had been neglected until recently.

Stress is a part and parcel of life and cannot be avoided. However, if used in a gainful way, stress can lead to beneficial outcomes too (Selve, 1973). Research and studies should be directed towards understanding the impact of stress on positive health, growth and well being as proposed by the positive psychology movement (Seligman & Csikszentmihaiyi, 2000). If aptly managed, stress can energize, stimulate and induce growth and productivity in one's profession. One can accomplish new objectives and there can be positive personal changes (Quick, Nelson, & Quick, 1990; Folkman & Moskowitz, 2004; Somerfield & McCrae, 2000). Further studies and research are required to identify the processes involved in the development of positive and negative emotions (Folkman & Moskowitz, 2004).

The Impact of Stress on Performance

Various studies have been conducted to examine the relationship between job stress and job performance. Job performance can be viewed as an activity in which an individual is able to accomplish the task assigned to him/her successfully, subject to the normal constraints of reasonable utilization of the available resources. At a conceptual level, four types of relationships were proposed to exist between the measures of job stress and job performance (Jamal M, 2007). One is a negative linear relationship, when productivity decreases with stress (distress). Productivity can also increase as a consequence of stress, thereby implying a positive linear relationship between the two. Thirdly, there could be a U-shaped or a curvilinear relationship wherein, mild stress could increase the productivity initially up to a peak and then it declines as the person descends into a state of distress. Alternately, there need not be any quantifiable relationship between the two.

Factors that Result in Job Stress

Job stress could be as a result of a number of factors, which can be broadly classified into (1) external factors relating to organisation and work-family conflicts, and (2) internal factors. External factors are well described by Cooper and Marshall's five sources of stress.


Exhibit 1 The factors inducing job stress

Organisational factors: According to Cooper & Marshall, stress could be due to factors intrinsic to the job, such as poor physical working conditions, work overload or time pressures. Often, one's role in the organization and the ambiguity associated with the job resulting from inadequate information concerning expectations, authority and responsibilities to perform one's role as well as the conflict that arises from the demands placed on the individual by superiors, peers and subordinates could also result in stress. A third factor is the impact of status incongruence, lack of job security and thwarted ambition on one's career progression. Rayner and Hoel (1997) theorized that relationships at work with bosses and colleagues, including bullying in the workplace could result in a lot of stress. At an organizational level, the structure and climate, including the degree of involvement in decision making and participation in office politics could result in a stressful climate.

Stress could be due to factors intrinsic to the job, such as poor physical working conditions, work overload or time pressures.
Cary Cooper and Judi Marshall

Additional sources of stress documented in the ASSET model include the impact a person's working life has on their life outside of work (work-life balance), the amount of satisfaction people derive from their work, the degree of control and autonomy people have in the work place, and the levels of commitment in the work place both from the employee to the organisation and from the organisation to the employee (Sheena 2005).

Work family interaction: The rise of families in which both partners are earning and increasing female participation in the sphere of employment has transformed the ways in which couples manage work and family responsibilities. Work and family integration can result in both negative (i.e., work-family conflict) and positive interactions (i.e., work-family enrichment). Work-family conflict and work-family enrichment can occur in either direction - "work-to-family or family-to-work". Work demands, family demands and work flexibility are recognized to be important determinants of the work- family interaction (Luo Lu et al, 2008).

Personality: Besides external factors, there are internal factors too that can cause stress, like the age of the individual, sex, education and a personality that is deemed Type A or inherently stressful.

Stress Management in the Work Place

Stress resulting from work is a major problem and it takes a toll on one's physical and mental well being. Moreover, the management of stress is not easy, as can be ascertained by the documented ineffectiveness of stress management interventions (Beehr & O'Driscoll, 2002; Sulsky & Smith, 2005). However, a few pointers could be had for managers to counter and mitigate stress effectively.

First and foremost, one should be able to identify the stressors at work, assess them and manage them too. One should be careful not to remove the rewarding aspects of the job. Occupational stress does not always lead to distress and if challenges are dealt with effectively, then growth and positive changes can result in an individual. The challenge lies in providing the tools required to handle the effective management of workplace demands. The implications of cognitive appraisal models which suggest that stress is an 'individual problem', best addressed by positive appraisal techniques, are flawed. should be able to identify the stressors at work, assess them and manage them too. One should be careful not to remove the rewarding aspects of the job.

Primary assessment includes a subjective assessment of the balance between demands and resources. Rather than increasing resources or reducing demands straightaway, one must train the individual to assess these demands positively. Training in 'coping strategies' has had limited impact so far (Folkman & Lazaraus, 1988). Since a combination of strategies is almost always more effective than a single strategy, these techniques should be used flexibly and individuals must be encouraged to use coping strategies in new situations.

Stress management includes taking care of organisational issues like leadership, peer support, organisational culture and policies, work design and reporting arrangements as well as job analysis, staff selection and training to enhance role clarity such that there is a balance between the individual and his work environment. Effective systems for motivation and performance management are essential (Jennifer et al, 2006).

While meditation, yoga, pranayam, self hypnosis, biofeedback etc are techniques which can be practiced at an individual level to deal with stress, Pestonjee (1987) had proposed proactive intervention at an organizational level to manage employee stress. Some of these techniques have been listed in Exhibit 2. An organisation relies on its employees for success and thereby, it must spare no efforts in improving employee welfare.

Stress management techniques
Undertake a stress audit
Organisation decides to take a peep into mental cum physical health status of its employees. Questionnaires and interviews are used to collect data on various stressors, coping techniques and outcomes.
Use scientific inputs
Spread awareness and information about effective dealing with stress, both inside and outside the organisation.
Check with the company doctor
The medical officer can conduct stress management programmes.
Spread the message
The importance of regular work habits, leisure, diet, exercise and practicing personal relaxation should be emphasized.
Exhibit 2: Organisational stress management programs


To summarize, the various factors responsible for job stress can be broadly classified into external factors relating to organisation and work-family conflicts, and internal factors. Certain occupations are more stressful, especially those in which there is high emotional involvement. The holistic view of antecedents to job stress should take into account the interaction between the three categories of factors and the impact of socialization which has proved to be a significant moderator in stress perception and in coping with it. Further, qualitative and empirical studies are required to prove the importance of the factors in an Indian context to study the culture specific dimensions of the "person-stress" interaction.


Prof. Amit Gupta is a faculty in the Organisational Behaviour & Human Resource Management area at IIM Bangalore. He holds a Ph.D. in Organisational Behaviour from the University of Maryland and a Post Graduate Diploma in Management from IIM Ahmedabad. He can be reached at

Rajesh Chandwani is a doctoral student in the area of Organisational Behaviour & Human Resource Management at IIM Bangalore. He holds an M.D in Pediatrics from Baroda Medical College. He can be reached at


human resources, job stress, eustress, neustress, distress, job performance, work-family interaction


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