Managing Organizational Stress through General Semantics

Article excerpt

"The stress response can lead to eustress (a positive outcome) or
distress (an unhealthy outcome)."

STRESS is a creatively ambiguous word with little agreed-on scientific definition (Khan, 1987). This word has served as an overarching precept for the domain concerned with how individuals adjust to their environments, achieve high levels of performance and health, and become distressed in various physiological, medical, behavioral, or psychological ways (Quick, Quick, Nelson & Hurrell, 1997). While there may be good reason for stress to retain its "creative ambiguity" (e.g., people can find common cause by commiserating over the stress in their lives), general semantics, a system based on science, tends toward operational definitions of terms. Let us look at how the scientific community characterizes stress.

Stress, a currently trendy notion, has a strong scientific base of medical, physiological, managerial, and organizational research dating from Walter B. Cannon's work on physiological stress response at the Harvard Medical School just prior to World War I. (Cannon labeled stress the "emergency response." The stress concept gained popularity as the "fight-or-flight response" and became more widely known due to the comprehensive medical hormonal research of Hans Selye during the middle part of the twentieth century. In the latter half of the century, psychologists Robert Kahn, Richard Lazarus, Harry Levinson, and Charles Spielberger have made contributions to the understanding of the social psychological, appraisal and coping, psychoanalytic, and clinical psychology aspects of the stress response.)

Four key concepts have emerged from the scientific research that provide more precise and explicit definitions of stress. The concepts are stressors, the stress response, eustress, and distress.

Four Key Concepts

Stressors and the Stress Response

A stressor is the physical or psychological stimulus to which an individual responds (another term for stressor is demand). The stress response is the generalized, patterned, unconscious, mobilization of the body's natural energy resources when confronted with a demand or stressor. Four mind-body changes constitute the stress response. First, there is a redirection of the blood to the brain and large muscle groups and away from the extremities, skin, and vegetative organs. Second, there is a powering up of the reticular activating system in the ancient brain stem, which leads to increased alertness. Third, there is a release of glucose and fatty acids, which are fuels that sustain an individual during this emergency period. Fourth, there is a shutting down of the immune system and the body's emergent and restorative processes, such as digestion. These four mind-body changes prepare a person for action during a stressful situation. The stress response can lead to eustress (a positive outcome) or distress (an unhealthy outcome).

Eustress and Distress

Hans Selye coined the term eustress (from the Greek root "eu" for good), which can be defined as the healthy, positive, constructive outcome of stressful events and the stress response. (Some of the positive, healthy effects of an optimum stress load on performance have been know since 1908, and are stated in the Yerkes-Dodson Law (Yerkes & Dodson, 1908). This formulation recognizes that optimal stress load on performance varies by individual and task--individual considerations include susceptibility to stress, fatigue, psychological and cognitive skills, and physical capacity. Task considerations include complexity, difficulty, duration, and intensity. A situation with too little stress and arousal often fails to stimulate performance, just as too much stress and arousal can interfere with performance.)

The word distress, with the Latin prefix dis meaning "bad" (Selye, 1976a, p.15), refers to the unhealthy, negative, destructive outcomes of stressful events or the stress response. …