Definition of workplace stress

Stress in general is difficult if not impossible to define with other great stress theorists suggesting that it is no longer worth defining. However, field specific definitions have been offered for example workplace stress has been defined as the individual's perceived ability to deal with work demands.

While the definition remains elusive, there is a general agreement by theorists on its antecedents, such as working with a difficult boss, excessive work pressure and so forth.

Why is it important to deal with workplace stress?

 It leads to companies losing billions of dollars due to employee absence and low performance due to its negative effects on employee well-being. Organisations lose a lot of money in trying to relieve employee stress at both individual and organisational level. Although the former is more popular than the later because of its cost effectiveness, its efficacy is yet to be demonstrated. 

ls workplace stress based on individual a perceptions? 

Of course two individuals in the same job report different stress levels depending on their perceptions and evaluation of the work environment which are often biased. Undoubtedly, other individual differences in personality, upbringing, genetics to mention a few, account for some of the reported differences in how employees handle stress. The same individuals also report the same event as stressful at one point and as their best memorable event at another stage.

Let me give an example to clarify the assertion above; a traffic controller reported that it was very stressful when he learnt that two planes were travelling towards each other at the same trajectory. Asked later, he reported that his timely interventions which lead to the avoidance of a near collision made the event the best moment of the day. This implies that workplace stress may depend on task outcomes which further complicate attempts to define the construct.

Does it really exist or just a moment in time which depend on outcomes or emotions?

What is certain is workplace stress depends on individuals' perception and evaluation of circumstances. Allied to this suggestion, it is not a disease (any deviation from normal physiological function of the body) which can be treated with a prescribed medical remedy. Yes it has known negative outcomes on individual well-being but that does not make stress a disease. May be it is just a negative emotion, who knows?

Is stress always negative?

On the contrary, stress may influence outcomes positively, for example when it causes a rise in endorphins in athletes before the race begins. Endorphins have been shown to be a natural performance enhancer. These positive effects differentiate it from a disease whose outcomes are always negative. If workplace stress can be positive how can it be promoted to enhance performance while negative stress is minimised?

What are the most effective stress management programmes?

Effective workplace stress management intervention levels range from primary (elimination of the stressor at organizational level), secondary (training individuals to cope or manage stress) and tertiary (rehabilitation of individuals already affected by stress).

Theorists, authors and researchers have concentrated on ways to reduce stress at secondary and tertiary level interventions while paying a blind eye to organisational interventions. These individual interventions include counselling, relaxation techniques and behavioural modification. The reason for the hype in individual based interventions is mainly because they are often more cost effective at least in the short term. Studies have however demonstrated that individual interventions can not singly eliminate effects of workplace stress without secondary interventions. This has been show by reported number of cases of individuals relapsing into stress when exposed to the same workplace stressors.

Why are organisations not willing to intervene at secondary level?

It is common knowledge that if organisations initiate interventions at secondary level it is perceived as an admission that they are the cause of stress. Organisations are not willing to take this responsibility which can be costly to the organization through employee litigation.

Elimination of stressors by the organization is more plausible in order to reduce relapse rates. However, secondary interventions as said before are cost intensive at the initial stages although their outcomes are often long-lasting. If the stressor e.g. excessive noise is totally eliminated there is little change for relapse. In the long run employees who can not cope with chronic stressors may leave the organization. Costs of replacing experienced employees are often very high. The elimination of stressors remain the best option.


It is generally agreeable that there is no longer any need to waste resources on trying to define stress but on ways to mitigate its effects. How researchers can deal with a construct without an agreed definition remains a challenge because the diverse research results are difficult to compare. Workplace stress costs economies billions each year due to employees’ poor performance or total absence from work. Individual interventions remain popular as they are cost effective and produce quick results. However there is need to complement them with the costly, secondary interventions to avoid relapse. There is a suggestion that it must be compulsory for organizations to implement secondary interventions. No consensus has been reached on how to asses the prevalence of stress in organisations for it to warrant the cost intensive secondary interventions.