Lesson 1: Introduction to Stress

At the end of this lesson, you should be able to

Describe the major problems associated with stress in the workplace.

Discuss the effects of stress on worker productivity.

Understand the need for stress counseling programs.

Explain the epidemiology of stress in the workplace.

Lesson 1: Introduction to Stress

Stress at work has been found to be increasing in most of the developed and developing world (Cooper, Dewe, & O ’ Driscoll, 2001). The drive toward cutting both the workforce and costs has resulted in fewer people doing more work and feeling more insecure in their jobs. In addition, the rapid expansion of information technology through the Internet, cellular phones, and other wireless technology, like BlackBerrys, has accelerated the pace of work and created demands for immediate response to work demands twenty – four hours a day.

The hours people spend on-site at the workplace have also increased, which has had negative effects on the two-earner family, which is now in many countries the most common family unit. In fact, the number of anxiety, stress, and neurotic disorder cases involving days away from work has increased since the late 1990s. Consequently, Worrall and Cooper (2001) found that a lack of work-life balance has moved up the agenda of work-related sources of stress in many employee surveys.

Job stress can be defined as the harmful physical and emotional responses that occur when the requirements of the job do not match the capabilities, resources, or needs of the worker. The individuals charged with supervising occupational health and safety monitor stress because it can lead to poor health and injury as well as decrease productivity that may be tied to the psychological effects of stress.


The most recent report on stress from the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) cites the following findings from various surveys of workers on the extent of workplace stress:

Three Stages of Stress

Physician Hans Selye was one of the first to write about stress, with an article in the British journal Nature in the summer of 1936. At that time stress, symptoms were referred to as general adaptation syndrome (GAS). Selye later started referring to GAS as “ the stress syndrome, ” and set out to investigate the ways in which the body deals with this syndrome and what he referred to as the “ noxious agents ” that were present in the body as a result of it.

Selye explained that the body goes through three universal stages of coping. He determined that first there is an “ alarm reaction, ” in which the body prepares itself for “ fight or flight. ” No being can sustain this condition of excitement, however, and the second stage of adaptation must happen if the organism survives the first stage.

In the second stage, a resistance to the stress is built. Finally, if the duration of the stress is sufficiently long, the body eventually enters a stage of exhaustion, which results in a sort of aging “ due to wear and tear. ” Research built on Selye ’ s early work has determined that stress produces physiological reactions within the body as the body experiences the three stages of reaction to stress.

During the first stage, the alarm reaction, the body prepares to cope, and the hormones epinephrine (adrenaline) and norepinephrine (noradrenaline) are secreted in large quantities. They move into the bloodstream to prepare an individual for action.

When these hormones are secreted, activity in the sympathetic nervous system steps up, and this can lead to an increase in blood pressure, heart rate, blood sugar, and blood flow to the muscles (Blascovitch et al., 1992).

In the second stage, the resistance stage, as the body begins to recover from the initial stress and tries to start coping, the epinephrine secretion decreases, as do the other body responses.

In the third stage, exhaustion, the body ’ s resources are depleted, and the body starts to break down.


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