Preventive Management of Work Stress:
Current Themes and Future Challenges
Debra L. Nelson
Oklahoma State University
James Campbell Quick
The University of Texas at Arlington
Bret L. Simmons
Oklahoma State University
Work stress may be defined, in broader though parallel fashion to job stress (J. C. Quick & Nelson, 1997), as the mind-body arousal resulting from physical and/or psychological demands associated with work. Work stress may lead to enhanced work performance up to an optimum level of stress. Conversely, it may place an employee at risk of distress if the work stress is too intense, frequent, chronic, unremitting, or employees do not possess necessary skills to meet the work demands and manage their stress response. Work stress underload may also lead to potential problems associated with boredom, lack of attention, and other less than desirable psychological outcomes due to unused capacity within the employee. Understanding work stress is important so as to reduce strain, distress, and dysfunction for employees in working health psychology become important in the context of work stress research and practice to the extent that they are central to: assessing risk factors for strain, distress, and dysfunction and designing preventive management programs to enhance healthy work stress. The aims of the latter may be either to reduce, to increase, and/or to modify the amount, focus, and direction of stress in the work environment.
The concern of psychology with work stress may be arguably traced to Hugo Mtinsterberg's efforts to study industrial accidents and human safety in the early 20th century (Offermann & Gowing, 1990), as indicated in Fig. 19.1. The figure includes key historical events during the 20th century related to work stress. In the extreme, industrial accidents can become full-blown crises in which the human, organizational, and technological elements of the system are overwhelmed, such as occurred in Union Carbide's plant in Bhopal (J. C. Quick, 1997; Shrivastava, 1987). This chapter focuses on the less extreme yet more frequently occurring forms of work stress, strain, and distress that occur in organizations.
Kahn, Wolfe, Quinn, Snoek, and Rosenthal's (1964) studies in role conflict and ambiguity drew attention to the organizational stress problem of role taking in large industrial organizations. Kahn et al. (1964) used social psychology as their conceptual and theoretical point of departure. Prior to this seminal program of research, the primary focus in stress research has been its physiological origins and medical consequences, neither with particular attention to the work or organizational