Human Resources Management
Employee Stress

Employee stress has been an increasing concern to both employers and governments for over twenty years. In the last ten years, work stress has assumed greater importance for employers as their risk for additional staff costs in terms of medical, absenteeism, turnover, low productivity and legally held liable for damages has increased (Midgley, 1997; Rees, 1997).

The costs of employee stress have been variously estimated. The International Labour Organisation (ILO) reported that inefficiencies arising from employee stress may amount up to 10% of a country’s GNP (Midgley, 1997). Cartwright and Boyes (2000) estimated that over 60% of all workplace absences are due to stress, and although it is difficult to measure the total cost of employee stress, estimates in the USA alone range from US$200 to US$300 billion per year (Atkinson, 2000).

On a personal level for employees, the cost of unmanaged stress causes increased risk of morbidity and mortality (Siegrist, 1998). In response to this, employees have shown greater uptake of stress management training and disengagement from the occupation perceived to be causing stress (Salazar and Beaton, 2000).

Studies on stress are extensively covered in the area of Human Resource Management. The construct of stress is quite complex. So much so, researchers cannot agree on a single definition and measure for stress because stress causes a variety of reactions and feelings, and may vary from person to person (Kahn et al, 1964).  As a result of this, there are several different definitions (models) for stress (Ivancevich & Matteson, 1980).

The renowned researcher in stress, Hans Selye (1974), defined stress as a physiological reaction to certain threatening environment events. From Selye’s perspective, employee stress refers to stress caused by events in the work environment. Selye (1974, p.14), asserted that stress is “the non-specific response of the body to any demand”. As these responses include endocrinal as well as psychological and physical reactivity to demands, they can, if intense enough or repeated frequently enough, upset the homeostasis of the body. Thus, the employee is said to have become “hyper-reactive to stress”, a condition which has been associated with decreased job performance on a range of physical and psychological tasks.

Psychologist John French and his colleagues (French, Rogers, & Cobb, 1974; French, Caplan and Harrison, 1982) stated their view point that employee stress results from a lack of “fit” between a person’s skills and abilities and the demands of the job and the work place. What is meant here is that, an employee who is totally unqualified for a particular job would feel a tremendous amount of stress. Lazarus (1993), on the other hand espoused on the “transactional” approach of employee stress, viewed stress as resulting from the worker’s perception that a certain environmental event is a threat or a challenge.

All the above three definitions view employee stress as an interaction between the person and some environmental event. Moreover, all of the definitions emphasise that there are some important reactions to stress that could either be physiological, psychological or behavioural in nature.

Many of us are familiar with the physiological reactions to stress, which include signs of arousal such as increased heart and respiratory rates, elevated blood pressure, diabetes, cirrhosis, headache, and profuse sweating (Brief, 1981; Quick & Quick, 1984). The psychological reactions include feeling anxiety, sexual dysfunction, fear, frustration, and despair, as well as appraising or evaluating the stressful event and its impact, thinking about the stressful experience, and mentally preparing to take steps to try to deal with the stress (Beehr & Newman, 1978; Brief et al., 1981; Riggio, 2005). Behavioural effects include drug abuse, over/under eating, poor interpersonal proneness, abusive behaviour and violence (McDonald and Korabik, 1991).

Companies and management have become more and more concerned with stress and its effects on employees and on important “bottom-line” variables, such as productivity, quality of service, absenteeism, and turnover. This is because too much stress in an organisation can be damaging to customer service and company reputation.

The Person-Environment Fit Theory found that when an employee’s job differed too much in complexity or overload, the employee reported more stress than others (Blix et al., 1993; Chemers, Hays, Rhodewalt, & Wysocki, 1985). Work overload has been reported as a common source of stress mainly in jobs such as soldiers, air traffic controllers and health care workers (Iverson, DeFrank and Ivancevich, 1998; Sparks and Cooper, 1999; Taylor et al., 1997). Work overload has been placed as the independent variable in this research to ascertain the correlation towards employee stress. Hotel employees are particularly vulnerable to the adverse effects of stress largely because of recent dramatic increase in workloads, plus the past decade of rapid business growth and changes that have accompanied the industry.

Job Characteristics Theory asserts that job ambiguity is the dominant cause of stress (McDonold & Korabik, 1991). According to Beehr (1985); Burke, (1988); and Nelson and Burke (2000), job ambiguity, which occurs when aspects of a job are not clearly outlined, is a potential source of stress. Due to this, it is felt that job ambiguity would be relevant to the research as hotels have started embarking on multitasking in order to trim payroll expenditure.

Another important source of stress as espoused by Karasek (1979), for the manufacturing industry, is the lack of control, i.e. when employees sense that they have little control over the work they carry out. The research to ascertain on this correlation may be important as in the hotel industry for example, the one who prepares the meal does not serve the guest, and the guests may never complain to the chef but only to the waitress. As such, in a hotel the primary providers of guest service actually do not interface with the guests.

Another factor that may trigger stress is interpersonal conflict, which is especially relevant in the hotel industry as dealing and communicating well with co-workers and customers is very essential to ensure satisfactory customer relationship and service. Matteson & Ivancevich, 1982 made a general comment that interpersonal conflict is a source of stress. Employees such as hoteliers whose positions involve interpersonal contact are more prone to stress and have symptoms such as increased pulse rates and blood pressure (Forbes, 1979; Pelletier, 1985; Schnall, et al., 1990).

According to Greenberg and Baron (1995), stress if left undiagnosed causes impaired functioning in the workplace such as reduced efficiency, decreased capacity to perform, dampened initiative, reduced interest in working, increased rigidity of thought, lack of concern for the organisation and loss of responsibility. Therefore, it is necessary for human resources practitioners to consider such issues in the context of managing for better employee performance.




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