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   Stress and the Organization - An Academic Perspective

   The Moderator Effects of Hardiness and Social Support on the Person-Environment (P-E) Fit-Strain Relationship.

During 1990, Janine completed her Masters degree (cum laude) in Industrial Psychology entitled The Moderator Effects of Hardiness and Social Support on the Person-Environment (P-E) Fit-Strain Relationship, a study which examined certain stress-strain relationships and moderating factors in organizations. The strains examined were psychological distress, organizational commitment, management stress, and propensity to leave the organization.

Since then, armed with this detailed knowledge of stress and the organization, which she converted to practical programs, she has coached a multitude of employers, employees, and executives about how to cope with stress within their organizations, as well as conducting in-house programs dealing with this very pertinent issue that affect most of us in our lives, and relationships. Years of hands-on experience, have added to her practical knowledge of organizational stress. Here are some extracts of this study.

Definitions of Stress

Stress has become inextricably bound to our quality of life. That individuals are confronted by stressor's in their day-to-day living is no longer a disputed issue. However, the varied definitions of stress from the distinct disciplines within which it has been examined, namely, psychology, physiology, and sociology, together with the different approaches toward studying stress, have all led to the absence of a universal understanding of the concept of stress.

Three major definitions of stress have been advanced, that of a response pattern elicited in an individual, a stimulus external to the individual in the environment, and a dynamic interactional process between the individual and the environment. The latter two approaches conceptualize stress as an independent variable and the former categorize it as a dependent variable.

Stress as a Response

Stress as an adjustment process constitutes the response definition. Stress, seen as a dependent variable, is in the form of an appropriate fight or fight reaction necessary to return the organism to homeostasis. Following this, stress can be defined as a non-specific physiological response elicited in an organism which followed three sequential stages. This process can be termed as the general adaptation syndrome that consists of an alarm (initial shock and counter shock), a resistance, and an exhaustion phase. The inverted-U shape relationship between stress and performance, as previously observed by Yerkes and Dodson (1908) and so called the "Yerkes-Dodson Law", has highlighted the possible existence of both negative stress (dystress) and positive stress (eustress)......

Stress as a Stimulus

Situations external to an individual function as a stimulus. The orientation is toward identifying causes of stress within the environment. Stress, therefore, was viewed as an independent variable. The stimulus-based model of stress was based on an engineering analogy of stress: People have variable in-built resistance to stress, but if the stress becomes too great, it can cause permanent damage......

Criticisms have been raised against this view of stress because of the lack of explicitly stated characteristics of stressful situations, the lack of quantification of the stress that was present, and the suggestion that a stress-free environment was optimal.....It is a mechanistic approach that places the individual as a mere passive recipient of the stressful stimuli with no regard for individual differences or the psychological processes involved.

Stress as an Interactional Process

Although circumstances might have "intrinsically stressful predicaments" inherent in them, stressful conditions would "vary significantly in relation to the perceptions and cognitions of those who react to the conditions" (Ellis, 1978, p.209). It was this psychological process interacting with stressful stimuli in the environment, together with the resulting responses (consequences), that formed the basis for the approach stipulating the interactional nature of stress......Then there is the conceptualization of stress were the processes of appraisal, where individuals re-evaluated the environment demands placed on them and the coping resources available to them.....where individuals took action to modify either the stressor or their own emotions. The inclusion of the aspects of appraisal and coping highlighted the importance of the moderating effect of personality, such that high or low strain levels in individuals were not attributable solely to the presence or absence of stress.

Criticism has been directed at the interactional approach for excluding those extremely stressful situations where demand was excessively high so that a response was directly elicited without any intervening psychological process. Methodologically, it was very difficult to operationalize the appraisal and coping processes and cognitive appraisal elicited its own empirical problems because it could be influenced by impulsive or unconscious appraisals which render self-reports inaccurate for the reflections on the time that the stressful situation took place.

Two Approaches to Examining Stress

Both the stimulus view of stress and the interactional process definition of stress present stress as an independent variable. The two approaches used to investigate stress in this research, were, namely, life-events research and P-E fit research.

The term stressor is taken to mean an environmental demand, stress is seen as a subjective perception of demands that are received, strain implies the responses to these demands, and the term moderator means the attributes of influences on an individual that can influence at any stage the stress-strain process that the individual is experiencing.

Life-Event Approach

Some stress researchers have adopted a “life-events” approach. The life-event approach has been a recognized methodology for studying complex psychological processes. A life event is defined as an incidence in the recent life of a person which may have been associated with the experience of stress. It is a life change that involves some form of social adjustment. With excessive changes, adjustment efforts become more difficult to make and so strain may be experienced by an individual. The purpose of life-events research was to establish the relationship between increases in the number and perceived impact of life events which were presumed to have additive effects, and strain or illness onset……

Person-Environment (P-E) Fit Theory

An individual’s interaction with the work environment has been conceptualized as person-environment (P-E) fit……The P-E fit theory is based on two central features of organizational stress, first, the characteristics of the person and second, the potential source of stress in the work environment. The idea is that stress increases in an individual as the degree of fit decreases and this misfit can be in both directions (i.e., underload and overload can be stressful). Central to this thinking is that people are viewed as active agents in their environment, so that behaviors are seen as a function of the characteristics of both the person and the environment. In this way, an individual’s experience of organizational stress is a function of the interaction between personal and environmental characteristics. Therefore, P-E fit (or misfit) depends on individuals’ perceptions of their abilities, needs, personality, and resources interacting with their perceptions of the situation within which they find themselves. P-E fit also includes the ability of individuals and work environments to change in an ongoing process.

Objective vs subjective fit

The first element of the P-E fit model is the clear distinction made between objective and subjective fit. Experiencing stress from a misfit between individual and environmental characteristics is a function of cognitive appraisal. Studies using commensurate objective and subjective measures have shown that an individual’s perceptions of stressors serve as the intervening variables between objective stressors and the resultant strains. Potential organizational stressors become actual stressors only if they are perceived as being stressful or representing a threat. The subjective environment is that which is formed by the individual’s perceptions or cognitions of the external objective environment.

The objective environment alone cannot significantly alter the stress levels experienced by individuals; the person’s perception or translation of the objective environment has to be included when examining stress. In much of the P-E fit stress research, subjective paper-and-pencil measuring instruments are used to assess stress. Because P-E fit theory has identified that cognitive distortion of the objective environment occurs, the important component is the subjective assessment of P-E fit. The relationship between the objective environment and the subjective environment (i.e., how the person perceives the environment to be) is influenced by the “contact with reality” that the person has and the relationship between the objective and the subjective person is influenced by the “accuracy of self assessment” that the person possesses. However, research has indicated that there is a correlation between subjective and objective measures of both person and environment, and that subjective P-E fit bears a stronger association with the psychological and physiological consequences of person-environment interactions than objective P-E fit does. The pivotal concept in the P-E fit model arises, then, as the subjects’ cognitive appraisal of themselves, their environment, and the perceived match between the two.

Coping and defenses

Certain dynamic concepts are included in the P-E fit based stress-strain model. The adjustive techniques, namely, coping and defenses, influence objective and subjective fit respectively in the model, but are not included as directly interacting with each other. Coping involves action-oriented efforts (instrumental coping) to modify the objective stressor and internal psychological efforts (palliative coping) to regulate the person’s emotions. Instrumental coping involves dealing with the actual source of stress and palliative coping entails accommodation to the stressful situation by changing how one views the source of stress or the stressful situation. The coping strategies that are adopted can ultimately influence health. Healthy outcomes were more frequently being attributed to effective coping than to the absence of any recorded stress by an individual......

The two dimensions of P-E fit

The perceived match between an individual and the environment has been distinguished in P-E fit theory into two types. The one P-E fit is between the external demands of the job or work environment and the employee’s abilities, skills and knowledge to function effectively in the job (termed the demand-ability dimension of P-E fit). The other type of fit propounded is that between an individual’s internal needs and values and the extent to which the job environment is able to meet these needs and values (termed the supply-need or supply-motive dimension of P-E fit). A misfit, known as underload, exists if environmental supplies are inadequate to meet the individual’s needs, or the individual’s abilities exceed the environmental demands. A misfit known as overload, results if the environmental supplies exceeds the individual’s needs or the environment demands exceeds the individual’s abilities……

P-E fit and strain

Consequences of P-E misfit are serious for both the person and the organization involved. In the case of individuals, this is measured from their strain levels experienced. People’s perceptions of the situations to which they have been exposed determine whether they are experiencing P-E fit or misfit and whether it has resulted in strain. The relationship between perceived fit and the level of strain experienced is not necessarily of a positive or negative linear nature……

Variables involved

Organizational Stressors (P-E fit variables)

In the relationship between the person and the environment, where there are discrepancies between job demands and an individual’s capabilities in either direction (i.e., over- or underload), any resulting misfit is a source of stress. Similarly, when the job or organization is unable to fulfill the needs of the individual, a resultant misfit can also be experienced. A person perceived no stress when there is a fit between factors at work and one’s own actual characteristics. Research results have indicated that perceived incongruence (i.e., poor P-E fit) is an important determinant of strain and ill health……

Quantitative workload

Quantitative overload occurs when the work expected of the individual is more than could be accomplished by the individual within a given time limit. Quantitative overload results if the tasks demand skills, abilities or knowledge that is beyond what the individual has to offer. A further distinction between overload and underload can be made. Where the latter occurred if there was insufficient work to do in a time period or the task was too simple. Both overload and underload could be perceived as stressful within the person-environment fit approach, allowed the individual to discriminate between what was an under- or over quantitative workload for themselves……

Responsibility for people and things

Responsibility, as a stressor, has been differentiated into responsibility for people and responsibility for things. The former deals with taking responsibility for the work of others, their future careers, and their job security. The latter is of a more impersonal nature where responsibility is for budgets, equipment, projects and the like.

When one holds responsibility for people, it leads to a greater potential for role conflict and role ambiguity and the possibility of having to make unpleasant interpersonal decisions. It has been found that responsibility for people is significantly correlated with increased smoking, blood pressure, and serum cholesterol levels. It has also been found that the existence and severity of ulcers and hypertension in an individual are affected by the amount of responsibility for people that one has. It has been found that responsibility for people, rather than responsibility for things, is significantly more likely to lead to coronary heart disease. Higher scores registered on both responsibility for people and things, are related to increased strain.

The higher up in the organizational hierarchy one goes the more responsibility for people a person has. For those people lower down in the hierarchy, responsibility for things constitutes a fair portion of their job. This seems to suggest that studies covering blue and white collar workers would need to consider both types of responsibility, for although both have been found to be stressful, they involve different kinds of work.


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Janine Sergay



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