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Job Stress: Definition, Historical Origins, and Intervention Strategies
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Job Stress: Definition, Historical Origins, and Intervention Strategies

Mark S. Preston, MSW, MPA, Ph.D., Assistant Professor,
Columbia University School of Social Work

Editor’s Note: Dr. Mark Preston’s research on staff morale and the effects of stress in the workplace is directly connected the Chapter’s continued focus on addressing working conditions for social workers and self-care. Dr. Preston shares specific examples of how supervisors can plan a vital role in ameliorating the effects of stress, highlighting the importance of implementing job stress interventions that address not only the individual worker, but also the work environment.

Fiscal constraints, layoffs, high caseloads, and other macro and micro organizational issues have heightened the level of job stress in social services agencies.1 Moreover, as the costs associated with job stress--individual ill-health, reduced organizational productivity, and increasing health care expenditures--have become more visible, the importance of worker well-being also has increased.2 This article aims to succinctly define job stress, explain its historical origins, as well as suggest evidence-based, cost-effective intervention strategies for reducing stress and improving the well-being of social work professionals.

Definition of Job Stress

Despite its frequent use, no agreed upon definition of job stress currently exists.3 Nonetheless, Kahn and Byosiere4 have identified three areas of consensus. First, job stress results from the influence of external stimuli (stressor). Second, it involves the personal evaluation of external stimuli (appraisal). And third, job stress negatively impacts mental, emotional, physical, and/or behavioral functioning (strain). In short, job stress is a dynamic process in which subjective cognitive appraisals of job-related stressors produce negative health and/or behavioral strain outcomes.

From this general definition, scholars have developed four perspectives for understanding job stress.5 First, originating from medicine, the response-based view classifies job stress as a strain outcome in the form of either a cognitive (dissatisfaction), physiological (illness), and/or behavioral (absenteeism) response. Second, the stimulus-based view applies an engineering analogy to job stress. Its chief concern is identifying stressors (e.g., caseloads or layoffs) capable of weakening one’s internal means of resistance, rather than the outcome associated with these stresses. Third, derived from organizational psychology, the interactional view emphasizes the interplay between two distinct stressors. For example, stress arises when social workers managing high caseloads are delegated little, to no control, over assigned job duties.

The fourth perspective is the transactional view. Emerged from cognitive psychology, job stress is construed as a reciprocal person-environment relationship involving subjective judgments of the work milieu that influence the presence or absence of strain outcomes. Only the transactional view encompasses Kahn and Byosiere’s6 three definitional elements (external stressor, cognitive appraisal, and mental/physical/behaviorial outcome); and as such, is the perspective currently favored by most stress researchers.7

Historical Origins

Drawing heavily from the theory of evolution, Walter Cannon8 and Hans Selye9 are credited with establishing stress as a legitimate scientific phenomena.10

Evolution, according to Darwin, is the on-going physiological adaptation of a species to its external environment that helps ensure its long-term survival.11 Cannon12 coined the term “fight or flight” to explain the physical reactions of people when they encounter a potentially threatening event or situation. Consistent with Darwin, Cannon considered the ability to respond quickly to an external threat (by fighting or fleeing) a positive evolutionary response that advanced human survival.

Selye13 extended Cannon’s work by exploring the long-term impact of stress. He developed a three-stage theory to explain how organisms respond to noxious stimuli. In Stage 1 (alarm), the body aggressively reacts to the foreign threat. Next, various internal biological systems actively fight the danger and, if successful, the body gradually returns to normal functioning in Stage 2 (resistance). If, however, the foreign threat continues (Stage 3) internal resources are eventually depleted (exhaustion) and negative mental and/or physical outcomes, including death, occur.14

By placing stress within an evolutionary framework, Cannon and Selye fundamentally shaped our understanding and treatment of job stress in three important ways. First, in line with Darwin’s organism-environment fit model and the transactional perspective, job stress is perceived as a worker-work environment misfit. Second, because both men presented evolutionary adaptation as a reactive process, social workers experiencing stress are often depicted as passive victims, rather than active beings. Third, job stress today is seen as a person-centered problem with most stress interventions designed to facilitate reactive coping, as opposed to proactive adaptation of the work context.15

Intervention Strategies

Contrary to Cannon and Selye, Darwin16 envisioned species as active participants in the evolutionary process and, as such, were capable of reciprocally shaping their host environments. Consequently, any effective model of social worker well-being should simultaneously address the person and the environment. That said, job stress interventions generally fall into two broad categories: 1) primary interventions that modify the work context (e.g., job redesign), and 2) secondary interventions focused on the employee (e.g., stress management classes). While the former is more effective at minimizing the negative long-term effects of job stress, the latter is far more prevalent in social services agencies. One explanation for this is the high costs associated with organizational-level change.17 Fortunately, the job stress literature has identified several work characteristics that can effectively reduce stress at little cost to the agency.

Because direct supervisors play a central role in the well-being of social workers, I highlight three core work characteristics that help strengthen this dyadic relationship and can positively impact social worker well-being: 1) job control, 2) social support, and 3) feedback. Job control pertains to sufficient autonomy and decision-making authority. Sufficient job control is essential when discretion over duties and methods is required, such as high workloads situations.

When work is emotionally demanding, social support becomes critical. Types of supervisor social support includes task-specific (e.g., strategic help), emotional (e.g., active listening), and informational (e.g., advice).

Another essential work characteristic is instrumental or goal-related feedback. Feedback facilitates the attainment of goals, which when perceived as meaningful or important fosters positive well-being. Forms of instrumental feedback include process (how to achieve the goal) and outcome (was the goal attained) feedback. Process feedback is more valuable for new social workers, while outcome feedback is more useful for experienced social workers.

Jointly, factors relating to job control, supervisor social support, and supervisor instrumental feedback account for roughly 20% of job stress.18 Therefore, primary stress interventions (in conjunction with secondary interventions) directed towards advancing these high impact cost-effective work characteristics can have a substantial effect on the well-being of social work professionals.


1. Polanyi, M., & Tompa, E. (2004). Rethinking work-health models for the new global economy: A qualitative analysis of emerging dimensions of work. Work, 23: 3-18.

2Jex, S, & Crossley, C. (2005). Organizational consequences. In J. Barling, E. Kelloway, & M. Frone (Eds.), Handbook of Work Stress (pp. 575-599). Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications.

3Hart, P., & Cooper, C. (2002). Occupational stress: Toward a more integrated framework. In N. Anderson, D. Ones, H. Sinangil, & C. Viswesvaran’s (Eds.), Handbook of Industrial , Work, & Organizational Psychology (pp. 93-114). London: Sage.

4, 6Kahn, R., & Byosiere, P. (1992). Stress in organizations. In M. Dunnette, & L. Hough (Eds.), Handbook of industrial and organizational psychology (2nd ed., Volume 3, pp. 571-650). Palo Alto, CA: Consulting Psychologists Press.

5, 7,14,17Cooper, C., Dewe, P., & O’Driscoll, M. (2001). Organizational Stress: A review and critique of theory, research, and applications. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications.

8Cannon, W. ([1932] 1939). The wisdom of the body (2nd ed, revised and enlarged). New York: Norton.

9,13Selye, H. (1946). The general adaptation syndrome and the diseases of adaptation, Journal of Clinical Endocrinology, 6, 117-230.

10,15Newton, T., Handy, J., & Fineman, S. (1995). ‘Managing’ stress: Emotion and power at work. Thousand Oaks: Sage.

11,16Darwin, C. (1859). On the origin of species by means of natural selection. London: Murray.

12Cannon, W. (1925). Bodily changes in pain, hunger, fear and rage. London: D. Appleton and Co.

18Preston, M. (2010). Instrumental feedback versus social support: Comparing the strain-buffering effects of two types of supervisory behaviors . Working Paper. Columbia University: New York, NY.

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