By Henry Kyambalesa
In this article, I wish to contribute to the existing literature relating to the process by which individuals in organizational settings can overcome work-related “stress,” the term defined in the article to refer to the mental, emotional, and/or physical strain or discomfort which an organizational member may experience due to such factors or causes as the following:
(a) Unfavorable life experiences, such as death in one’s family or a breakdown in one’s valued familial, social or professional relationships, which may affect one’s ability to cope with normal work demands;
(b) Individual-based factors, such as irregular intimate relationships with other organizational members or with clients, abrasive interactions with other organizational members, personal incompetence or inability to perform the duties of one’s job or position, brushes with the police and/or infractions of local laws, inability to interact amicably and professionally with clients, and/or an adverse financial situation;
(c) Work-related factors, such as work overload, excessive hours of work, monotonous work, unclear job descriptions, and/or inadequate training and/or orientation; and/or
(d) Organization-based factors, including abysmal and/or inconsiderate supervisors, rigid organizational policies and/or inflexible work procedures.
K. Danna and W. R. Griffin (1999) have cited other potential sources or causes of work-related stress, including the following: (a) role ambiguity resulting from an unclear or vague job description provided by one’s employer; (b) conflicting demands of one’s job; and (c) the degree of one’s formal responsibility for other organizational members.
The changes that occur in organizational settings, too, can become a potent source of stress, because they can create a need for organizational members to adapt to new work demands or situations engendered by the changes.
As Valerie Cooper and Cary L. Sutherland (2000) have maintained, when a person’s perceived ability to adapt to new work demands exceeds his or her actual ability to cope with the demands, the resulting imbalance can culminate into a state of stress—that is, he or she can experience unexpected pressure, lack of control, and/or an inability to cope with the new work demands.
The remainder of this article is devoted to a survey of the following themes: (a) the cosmopolitan nature of stress; (b) the dour effects of stress; and (c) suggested ways and means by which organizational members can overcome work-related stress.
2. Stress—A Common Problem
“Stress” is generally an inescapable companion and conundrum in everyone’s work life; there is perhaps not a single person who is immune from it. Between hectic work schedules and life’s ordinary hassles, no individual, as the Center for Behavioral Medicine in Denver observed in 1996, can honestly claim not to have ever felt stressed out or anxious at times.
According to the International Labor Organization (ILO), cited by B. Dart (1993), “stress has become one of the most serious health issues of the 20th century.”
David Fontana (1989) has summed up the prevalence and inescapability of work-related stress in the following words:
“For many professionals, [stress] … is intrinsic to the job itself, where competing demands and pressures cannot be escaped. The sheer volume of work can also be overwhelming at times, whether one is a social worker, a teacher, [a medical] doctor, or a manager.”
3. The Adverse Effects of Stress
As Ashley Abramson (2022) has maintained, “chronic stress can lead to digestive issues and headaches, and is linked to a higher risk of anxiety, depression, and heart disease.” In shorthand, “stress” can be a very unpleasant and debilitating phenomenon if it reaches excessive levels. According to Douglas J. Bremner (2002), it can result in lasting neurological consequences, as well as affect an individual’s physical and mental processes.
If individuals in organizational settings cannot learn to effectively cope with it, therefore, high levels of stress can lead to psychogenic illnesses, poor job performance, and chronic employee attrition and absenteeism, among a host of other adverse effects.
With respect to “bodily reactions,” stress, as noted in a 2003 brochure prepared by The Home Depot in the United States, can cause one’s heart to pound and beat faster, it can cause one’s blood pressure to rise, it can cause one’s blood sugar to go up, it can cause one’s skin to feel hot and sweaty, it can cause one’s breathing rate to increase, and it can cause one’s muscles to become tense—reactions which can be extremely harmful to an individual if they become intense and last a long time.
In the industrialized world particularly, stress-related ailments like ulcers, high blood pressure and heart attacks are so prevalent that they have become a source of great concern. In Japan, for example, local people have even coined the term “karoshi” to represent stress-related deaths, which have become very common in their society.
In the United States, as K. Danna and W. R. Griffin (1999) have noted, the total cost to business and non-business organizations resulting from employee absenteeism, reduced productivity, compensation claims, health insurance, and direct medical expenses associated with stress is estimated at over US$150 billion per year. This, of course, is not to overlook the therapeutic effects that are often associated with work.
Cary L. Cooper and Valerie Sutherland (2000) have also identified several dour effects associated with work-related stress, including the following: (a) migraines; (b) insomnia; (c) irritability and/or grumpiness; (d) poor job-related performance; (e) low productivity; (f) accident vulnerability (at work and/or while driving); and (g) contentious squabbles with spouse, workmates, friends, and/or kindred.
In the 21st century, stress-causing factors are not going to be any less impinging on the individual; one’s ability to cope with stress is, therefore, going to be one of the benchmarks to an enjoyable and a successful work life in the 21st century.
4. Tackling Work-Related Stress
There is a lot an individual can do in order to cope with or reduce work-related stress. One of the initial steps in this endeavor is to identify one’s major sources of stress, as J. D. Adams (1980) has suggested, and then seek to make changes in one’s attitudes, behavior and aspirations that may be contributing to experiences of stress or anxiety.
Whatever life-style changes one may make in this regard should be complemented by a regimen of personal activities and practices, such as the following, each of which is discussed in a nutshell in ensuing paragraphs: (a) generation of achievable goals; (b) affording oneself adequate sleep; (c) affording oneself adequate relaxation; (d) regulated consumption of food; (e) watching out for the possibility of being dehydrated; (f) regular physical exercise; (g) adoption of an optimistic lifestyle; and (h) performance of gardening routines.
Also discussed in this section is the role each and every individual organizational member’s superior can play in mitigating his or her work-related stress.
As we proceed to skim through the next subject, let us be mindful of the following warning rendered by Bruce S. McEwen and Elizabeth N. Lasley (2003):
“[Many] … people who feel trapped in difficult situations turn for consolation to the very things that are bad for them—French fries and doughnuts, alcohol and cigarettes … [and the like]—piling on yet another layer of [undesirable factors] … to whatever is causing the stress in the first place.”
4.1 Achievable Goals: It is important to set achievable personal goals, work-related goals and time limits for oneself. The basic idea to remember in this regard is the need to avoid biting off more than you can chew, so to speak. If one sets achievable goals and time limits and performs stipulated tasks without over-stretching one’s mental and/or physical capabilities, the risk of experiencing stress can be reduced significantly.
4.2 Adequate Sleep: When there are a few leisure moments, it is wise to use them to afford oneself adequate sleep. It is essential for each and every organizational member to afford oneself adequate sleep. An individual who spends much of his or her nights drinking, rambling, or engaging in some other unconstructive activities cannot wake up in the morning with an alert mind and stance to undertake managerial, administrative, entrepreneurial, and/or personal pursuits and endeavors.
The following conclusion of a Stanford University study—cited by J. McConnaughey (1999)—of people who have a “sleep deficit” should compel organizational members to afford themselves adequate sleep: “Too little sleep can slow you down as much as too many [alcoholic] drinks.”
It is perhaps appropriate to conclude this sub-section with the following observation by Marta L. Tellado (2023) of Consumer Reports:
“We often think we can sacrifice sleep despite overwhelming evidence of its powerful impact on our health. Life can get in the way—through anxiety about family issues or inflation tightening its grip. But sleep should be a priority…. Exercise has also been shown to help you meet your sleep and overall health goals, whether you do strength training, cardio, or a mix.”
4.3 Adequate Relaxation: Spare time should be used to pursue a leisure activity that can fulfill one’s potential, such as discussing business with friends over a light drink, watching a football or soccer match, taking an evening stroll, and the like.
Olivia Goldhill (2020) has described what “relaxation” entails in the following words: “At the end of the day, all of us have the urge to [spend] … time flicking through a magazine, walking around the block, or simply doing nothing. We should embrace these moments, and see them for what they are: time well spent.”
G. Butler and T. Hope (1995) have perhaps provided a more comprehensive description of what constitutes “relaxation.” They have defined it in terms of the following elements:
(a) Attitude: Taking things calmly and in one’s stride;
(b) Physical skill: Learning how to recognize and release both physical and mental tension;
(c) Habit: Developing routines that have maximum potential to enhance rather than diminish one’s wellbeing; and
(d) Restoration: Giving oneself adequate rest and/or recreation, and replenishing depleted bodily systems.
4.4 Regulated Consumption of Food: A regulated and balanced course of food and drink, especially one prescribed by a dietician, can greatly contribute to an executive’s health and vigor. There is no doubt that careless consumption of food and drink can, among a host of other ailments, cause diarrhea, constipation, and/or obesity.
The following piece of advice by Hippocrates is perhaps in order in this regard: “Let your food be your medicine and your medicine be your food.”
As much as possible, organizational members need to take the following measures suggested by Lisa Wimmer (2022), which are key to good nutrition: (a) increase their consumption of water, as explained in a sub-section later in this article; (b) limit their overall consumption of fats, especially saturated facts; (c) increase their consumption of fruits and vegetables; and (d) use less salt and sugar.
According to the editors of the Prevention health books, including John Feltman (1993), “[Good] … nutrition is important for good health. [There is] … so much compelling evidence that what we eat has a direct relation to the occurrence of serious diseases ranging from cataracts to cardiovascular disease to cancer.”
The Home Depot in the United States has pinpointed the importance of “good nutrition”—or regulated consumption of food—that it can improve one’s chances of maintaining healthy weight, decreasing the risk of developing cancer, inhibiting diabetes, preventing a stroke or heart disease, and maintaining normal blood pressure.
4.5 Beware of Dehydration! Like other members of society, organizational members need to drink a few glasses of water—or other non-caffeinated beverage and/or eat fruits that have a high content of water—every day. As Diane Welland (2022) and The Week (2023) have explained, water is essential for life, and it is needed by the body every day.
4.6 Regular Physical Exercise: Regulated consumption of food can result in even greater health and vigor if it is accompanied by regular physical exercise. As physicians would generally emphasize, as well as advise members of society, regular physical exercise is very important to good health for a number of reasons. Firstly, it can reduce the risk of contracting heart disease.
Secondly, it can greatly help prevent such rheumatic ailments as lumbago, sciatica and fibrosis. Thirdly, management specialists usually consider regular physical exercise as a potent remedy for tension and an antidote for stress. Further, regular exercise, as most seasoned athletes would probably attest, provides increased stamina, mental alertness, and an enhanced feeling of well-being.
The following is The Home Depot’s viewpoint regarding regular physical exercise expressed in the company’s 2003 brochure:
“Activity burns calories and at the same time helps improve your energy level, making you feel better! [Therefore, walk] … whenever you can. Take the stairs instead of the elevator, park on the far side of the parking lot, [and/or] take your dog for a walk. Participate in sports or other recreational activities.”
Even a brief exercise can do more to boost cognitive processes through increases in feelings of energy, which leads to improved mood and better brain function, than relaxing for the same amount of time. In this regard, Ephrat Livni (2021) has paraphrased the conclusions of psychologists at the University of Reims Champagne-Ardenne in France in the following words:
“If you have 15 minutes to spare, do not sit and chill. Instead … you should go out for a quick, light jog. It will leave you feeling more energetic than resting, which will lift your spirits and in turn make your thinking more effective.”
In fact, even a short stroll can enhance an individual’s health. As Linda Carroll (2023) has noted, employees who get up and walk for five minutes every half hour have lower blood sugar and blood pressure than those who sit continuously.
In shorthand, being physically active, as Margaret Talbot (2022) has explained, can: (a) decrease the risks of developing cardiovascular disease, diabetes and some cancers; (b) reduce anxiety and depression; (c) strengthen an individual’s bones and muscles; (d) enhance an individual’s cognitive aptitudes; (e) improve an individual’s sleep; and (f) extend an individual’s longevity.
4.7 A Sense of Optimism: Developing a sense of optimism can partly reduce the effects of stressful work-related life conditions and experiences. As the findings of a recent study conducted in Finland—cited by B. Bower (1996)—have revealed, optimism can greatly contribute to a reduction in the risk of falling prey to such stress-related conditions and ailments as cancer, gastric ulcers, heart attack, high blood pressure, and mental illness.
Besides, there is a need for organizational members to view life’s stress-causing factors, challenges and/or anxieties in a positive light as opportunities rather than insurmountable circumstances.
4.8 The Role of Superiors: An individual employee’s superiors can also contribute to the mitigation of stress in a number of ways, such as by designing jobs that provide for greater employee autonomy in planning and executing work, and by involving employees in decision making concerning important departmental and/or organizational matters.
And, as Awake (1993) has advised, managerial and supervisory personnel can greatly contribute to the creation of a less-stressful work environment by being accessible, being good listeners, avoiding the temptation of playing favorites, and by not being skeptical about learning from any of their subordinates who may have constructive ideas which can enhance performance.
In all, an individual employee’s ability to cope with stress is one of the benchmarks by which he or she can have an enjoyable and a successful work life in the 21st century.
4.9 Performance of Gardening Chores: As Lisa Wimmer (2022) of Minnesota in the United States has noted, gardening can have a positive impact on an individual’s quest for a less-stressful life.
Firstly, a busy day in the garden can be a good form of exercise. While tending a garden, a gardener performs functional movements that mimic whole body exercise. For example, a gardener performs squats and lunges while weeding. Carrying bags of mulch and other garden supplies works large muscle groups.
And digging, raking and using a push grass mower can be physically intense activities, while a gardener may burn as many calories performing gardening routines as having a workout in the gymnasium.
Secondly, nearly all forms of physical exercise can reduce stress, including gardening. It lightens the gardener’s mood and lowers his or her levels of stress and anxiety. It is very gratifying to grow, harvest and share one’s own food. And gardening routines, such as watering and weeding, can create a soothing rhythm that can ease stress and anxiety.
Besides, gardening brings neighbors together and strengthens social connections. The gardening community has a lot of people who are willing to share their gardening expertise, time, seeds, and seedlings. Also, a strong sense of belonging resulting from one’s association with a gardening community can lower gardeners’ risk of depression, anxiety and suicide.
5. A Summing Up
We have examined the following themes in this article: (a) the cosmopolitan nature of stress; (b) the dour effects of stress; and (c) the different ways and means by which organizational members can overcome work-related stress.
To reiterate, “stress” is generally an inescapable companion and conundrum in everyone’s work life; there is perhaps not a single person who is immune from it. If it reaches excessive levels, it can be a very unpleasant and debilitating phenomenon. Unless individuals learn to effectively cope with it, therefore, it can lead to psychogenic illnesses, poor job performance, and chronic employee attrition and absenteeism.
According to Douglas J. Bremner (2002), it can also result in lasting neurological consequences, as well as affect an organizational member’s physical and mental processes, among a host of other adverse effects.
Disclaimer: This article is extracted and adapted from Kyambalesa, Henry, “Eleven Tips for Managers, Administrators and Entrepreneurs,” Manuscript (2024), Chapter 9 / pp. 349 – 369.