Sources of Psychological Stress in the Modern Workplace

This study discusses some of the stressors that can be found in any typical modern workplace where the use of computer systems is widespread.


Written by Guy Fernando.

Introduction

Sources of stress can be found in almost all sections of life. A bit of stress is not necessarily always bad. Too much stress is bad, but so is too little. More people today work in computerised offices, than in farms, factories, shops and services combined. With the modern office come sources of stress, some new, and some identical to stresses found in the traditional workplace. The issue of stress in the workplace is important since much of an individual's lifetime is spent there, and much of the individuals status and identity is formed in the workplace. This study discusses some of the stressors that can be found in any typical modern workplace where the use of computer systems is widespread.

Stressed Employee 1



Stressed Employee 2

What is stress?

A clear definition of the term stress is difficult if not impossible to define, due to its multivariate nature. However there have been attempts to express this psychophysiological phenomenon “Stress is a source of intolerable pressure perceived by individuals”, or “Stress is experienced when there are demands on a person which tax or exceed his or her adjustive resources”.

However the physical symptoms of stress are measurable. The short term effects of exposure to stress are irritability, anger or irrational behaviour. The more serious and possibly fatal long term effects are depression, ulcers, high blood pressure (hypertension) and heart disease. According to 2015 statistics, the death toll from circulatory disease in the UK is 28% and the US is 44%. These mortality figures are not only a result of stress, but there is obviously some contributory element that this is the case.



Stress affects individuals differently

Researchers' Rosenman and Friedman in the early 1960’s found a connection between stress and two personality groups, namely the type A and type B behaviour groups. An individual bearing the characteristics of type A behaviour is ambitious, assertive, aggressive, impatient, time-conscious and restless, and is significantly prone to stress. In contrast, individuals with type B behaviour is characterised by the absence of type A behaviour patterns, and are in generally relaxed, good listeners, and inclined not to hurry. Rosenman and Friedman also showed that the kind of life style associated with type A behaviour is a major contributory factor in causing coronary heart disease. Importantly, there are no distinctive polarised divisions between groups, rather people in general fall somewhere between the two extremes.

Stressed Employee 3

Sources of stress

IT based projects have to be highly functional, reliable and be completed in relatively short timescales, and so pressure and responsibility imposed on the individuals working on these kinds of projects can be demanding. Too much workload or quantitative overload will cause the individual to spend extra time at work, and to rush his or her work. Individuals faced with too much work tend to jump erratically between separate tasks, thus making the situation worse. The symptoms of quantitative overload are lowered self-esteem, low work motivation, escapist drinking (Margolis, 1974) and the introduction of cigarette smoking (French and Caplan, 1972).

Qualitative overload, or work that is too difficult, has also been identified as another key stressor (French and Caplan, 1972). Advances are being introduced so rapidly in IT that often at the end of the training period it is time to re-train. According to the Manpower Services Commission, “most systems are not being fully utilised because operators lacked effective training”. This is due to commercial pressures faced by many organisations that reduce training to only a few days of on-site tuition. Consequently operator skills are either ineffective or become quickly out of date. These factors lead to qualitative overload, which can give the individual a sense of inadequacy and intimidation, especially using computer systems, that are difficult to learn, use or understand. This perceived inability to deal confidently with new technology is a possible source of stress. Apart from radical changes in the organisation’s running to overcome this problem, adaptive user interfaces can help by adjusting the system to match the operator’s current skill level. As new technology is still in its infancy and the computer industry is searching for correct methods to complete tasks efficiently, the emphasis on retraining and skill experience might eventually disappear, so reduce the qualitative overload individuals have to currently face.



Stressed Employee 4

Work underload, although less as common as work overload in the modern office, is when an individual is under-used or has a lack of stimulating, challenging work. Highly repetitive work, especially where the individual does not have to move about, and where the pace of work is controlled by the computer, is again particularly stressful. According to Smith (1984) a lack of organisational participation is a possible source of stress. Individuals using computer systems that perform repetitive actions quickly become bored and suffer from a lack of job satisfaction. Data entry personnel are examples of this, and generally these individuals do not get involved in real organisational participation or decisions.

IT businesses tend to recruit managers and supervisors with type A behavioural characteristics since they possess leadership and motivation qualities. As management has much influence over the running of an organisation, they encourage type A behaviour patterns in individuals that originally had type B behaviour (Frankenhauser, 1976), and so possibly elevating the overall stress levels in the office.

Due to the intrinsic design of the computer terminal (man-machine interface), direct social interaction between individuals in the modern workplace is generally reduced. According to Gore (1978) social support from colleagues buffers the major causes of stress. It would appear then that systems should be designed to make work activity more efficient, so releasing the individual to engage in more social contact. Systems designed to provide social contact indirectly by encouraging the use of electronic mail, video conferencing or direct real-time feedback from other users logged on, may also help to reduce stress.

Introverted and extroverted individuals react differently to office layouts. Extroverted individuals perform better in noisy open-planned offices, while the opposite is true for introverts. Interestingly, according to Shneiderman (1987) ‘Computer users as a group are more introverted than average’ implying that more than average IT staff may suffer more adversely in open-plan offices. It would also follow that noise created by printers, equipment cooling fans and people, in the office may affect many introverted inclined IT staff.

Stressed Employee 5



Stressed Employee 6

Conclusion

Future systems that consider human factors are likely to be more user-friendly and may help to reduce qualitative overload. New technology can be applied to produce either the ‘stress friendly’ or the ‘stress unfriendly’ office. The ‘stress friendly’ office gives the individual greater participation by decentralising work, more discretion, thought and responsibility. Conversely the ‘stress unfriendly’ office will de-skill and fragment work and lead to the increased monitoring and control of employees. Generally the type of stress experienced by individuals in IT is shifting from quantitative to qualitative overload since mundane work is gradually being replaced by skilled work. Offices should neither be open or close planned, but a mixture of both where certain areas can be found to suit an individual’s personality.

Article references


Publication title Author Publisher Year
An Introduction to Human-Computer Interaction Paul Booth Lawrence Erlbaum Associates Ltd 1990
Designing the User Interface Ben Shneiderman Addison Wesley 1987
High-Tech Society Tom Forester Basil Blackwell Ltd 1987
Psychophysiology and the Electronic Workplace Edited Anthony Gale and Bruce Christie John Wiley 1987
Relax: Dealing with Stress Murray Watts and Cary L. Cooper BBC Books 1992
The Electronic Office Malcolm Peltu BBC Books 1984
Understanding Stress Edited by Edith Rudinger Consumers’ Association 1988


Photos courtesy of the film Office Space produced by Twentieth Century Fox (1999).