Academic journal article New Zealand Journal of Psychology

Positive and Negative Affective Outcomes of Occupational Stress

Academic journal article New Zealand Journal of Psychology

Positive and Negative Affective Outcomes of Occupational Stress

Article excerpt

Occupational stress is a significant problem throughout the industrialised world. The prevalence of occupational stress is increasing and the negative consequences of stress for individual health and wellbeing are increasing. This attention to the negative aspects of stress is, however, one sided. Stress, if negotiated appropriately, can produce positive responses and outcomes (Nelson & Simmons, 2003). The present research returned to the original stress conceptualisation as proposed by Selye (1976) and addressed the positive affective response to the stress process, 'eustress'.

One hundred and forty four employees from three New Zealand organizations completed a survey that assessed cognitive appraisals and coping processes used to deal with a stressful work-related event. Using structural equation modelling, a model was posited that proposed that appraisal and coping processes would be the precursors of work-related distress and eustress. The precursors of eustress were the appraisal of a demand as a challenge and the use of task-focused coping strategies. Distress was related to threat appraisals and emotion-focused coping strategies. Results suggested that the model fit was reasonable and the hypothesised paths were all statistically significant and in the correct direction. The implications for the management of work-related stress are discussed.


Much research over the last decade has emphasised the negative consequences of excessive work-related demands on an individual's physical and psychological health and wellbeing. While there is as yet no single agreed-upon definition of stress, the present research defines it as a "relationship between the person and the environment that is appraised by the person as taxing ... and endangering his or her well-being" (Lazarus & Folkman, 1984, p19). Occupational stress arises from demands experienced in the working environment that affect how one functions at work or outside work.

Past research has predominantly focused on the negative aspects of stress. This is not surprising given the documented impacts of stress on health, wellbeing and work-related performance. However the positive psychology movement proposes that, instead of focusing on human pathology, research attention should also be directed towards positive health, growth and wellbeing (Seligman & Csikszentmihalyi, 2000). It has been argued that stress is a part of life and cannot be avoided, and that stress can result in beneficial outcomes as well as negative ones (Selye, 1973, 1974). If negotiated appropriately, stress can be energizing, stimulating and growth producing for the individual as abilities are extended and new accomplishments made (Quick, Nelson, & Quick, 1990). There is increasing interest in the potential for positive outcomes from the stress process including stress-related growth and positive personal changes (Folkman & Moskowitz, 2004; Somerfield & McCrae, 2000). If a stressful situation is resolved successfully then positive, rather than negative, emotions may predominate but there is a need for further to identify the stress-related processes associated with positive and negative emotions (Folkman & Moskowitz, 2004). Good health encompasses more than just avoiding disease: it also involves the attainment of positive wellness, "emotional, intellectual, spiritual, occupational, social and physical" (Nelson & Simmons, 2003, p 98). Acknowledging the positive response to the stress process may impact on how stress in the workplace is managed.

Distress and Eustress

The term 'eustress' was coined by Selye to denote the positive aspects of stress in contrast to 'distress' representing the negative aspects (Selye, 1974). Other influential writers have also suggested that stress is not inherently maladaptive (Hart, 2003; Hart & Cotton, 2002; Karasek, 1979; Lazarus, 1999; Lazarus & Folkman, 1984; Tedeschi & Calhoun, 2004). …

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