7.4 Coping with Stress

Coping with Stress at Work

In terms of addressing and mitigating the effects of stress at work, there are many evidence-based suggestions. We will review some from both the individual level (that is to say, what a person can do to manage their own stress) and at the level of the organization.

Individual Strategies for Managing Stress

There are many things people can do to help eliminate the level of experienced stress or, at the very least, to help cope with continuing high stress. Consider the following:

Developing Self-Awareness

Individuals can increase awareness of how they behave on the job. They can learn to know their own limits and recognize signs of potential trouble. Employees should know when to withdraw from a situation (known to some as a “mental health day” instead of absenteeism) and when to seek help from others on the job in an attempt to relieve the situation.

Developing Outside Interests

In addition, individuals can develop outside interests to take their minds off work. This solution is particularly important for Type A people, whose physical health depends on toning down their drive for success. Employees can ensure that they get regular physical exercise to relieve pent-up stress. Many companies sponsor athletic activities, and some have built athletic facilities on company premises to encourage employee activity.

Leaving the Organization

Sometimes an employee may be unable to improve her situation and, as a result, may find it necessary (i.e., healthful) simply to leave the organization and find alternative employment. Although this is clearly a difficult decision to make, there are times when turnover is the only answer.

Finding a Personal or Unique Solution.

Another means individuals can use to cope with stress is through a variety of personal or unique solutions. If an employee cannot leave a stressful situation (e.g., a nurse helping a patient), this may be a good temporary way out of it.

Physical Exercise

Because part of the cause of the fatigue resulting from stress is the body’s physical reaction, exercise can be an effective means of enabling the body to more effective deal with the physical components of stress. Regular exercise can be an important and effective individual strategy.

Cognitive Perspective

Finally, because stress is in part a function of how events are perceived and interpreted, controlling one’s cognitive perspective of events can also be an effective strategy. Positively framing situations as well as distinguishing factors that are within as well as outside your control and influence can be effective means of reducing stress.

Organizational Strategies for Managing Stress

Because managers usually have more control over the working environment than do subordinates, it seems only natural that they have more opportunity to contribute to a reduction of work-related stress. Among their activities, managers may include the following eight strategies.

Personnel Selection and Placement

First, managers can pay more attention in the selection and placement process to the fit between job applicants, the job, and the work environment. Current selection and placement procedures are devoted almost exclusively to preventing qualitative role overload by ensuring that people have the required education, ability, experience, and training for the job. Managers could extend these selection criteria to include a consideration of the extent to which job applicants have a tolerance for ambiguity and can handle role conflict. In other words, managers could be alert in the job interview and subsequent placement process to potential stress-related problems and the ability of the applicant to deal successfully with them.

Skills Training

Second, stress can be reduced in some cases through better job-related skills training procedures, where employees are taught how to do their jobs more effectively with less stress and strain. For instance, an employee might be taught how to reduce overload by taking shortcuts or by using new or expanded skills. These techniques would only be successful, however, if management did not follow this increased effectiveness by raising work quotas. Along with this could go greater effort by managers to specify and clarify job duties to reduce ambiguity and conflict. Employees could also be trained in human relations skills in order to improve their interpersonal abilities so that they might encounter less interpersonal and intergroup conflict.

Job Redesign

Third, managers can change certain aspects of jobs or the ways people perform these jobs. Much has been written about the benefits of job redesign. Enriching a job may lead to improved task significance, autonomy, responsibility, and feedback. For many people, these jobs will present a welcome challenge, which will improve the job-person fit and reduce experienced stress. It should be noted, however, that all people do not necessarily want an enriched job. Enriching the job of a person with a very low need for achievement or external locus of control may only increase anxiety and fear of failure. Care must be taken in job enrichment to match these efforts to employee needs and desires.

In addition to job enrichment, a related technique aimed at reducing stress is job rotation. Job rotation is basically a way of spreading stress among employees and providing a respite—albeit temporary—from particularly stressful ore tedious jobs.

Company-Sponsored Counseling Programs

Several companies have begun experimenting with counseling programs. Once again, much work-related stress can be reduced simply by encouraging managers to be more supportive and to provide the necessary tools for people to cope with stress.

Increased Participation and Personal Control

Fifth, managers can allow employees greater participation and personal control in decisions affecting their work. As noted above, participation increases job involvement and simultaneously reduces stress by relieving ambiguity and conflict. However, although the benefits of increased participation are many, it should be noted that being more participative is no easy task for some supervisors.

Work Group Cohesiveness

Sixth, managers can attempt to build work group cohesiveness. Team-building efforts are common in industry today. These efforts focus on developing groups that will be both more productive and mutually supportive. A critical ingredient in the extent to which stress is experienced is the amount of social support employees receive. Team building represents one way to achieve this support.

Improved Communication

Managers can open communication channels so employees are more informed about what is happening in the organization. With greater knowledge, role ambiguity and conflict are reduced. Managers must be aware, however, that communication is a two-way street; they should allow and be receptive to communication from subordinates. To the extent that subordinates feel their problems and complaints are being heard, they experience less stress and are less inclined to engage in counterproductive behavior.

Health Promotion Programs

Finally, many companies have recently embarked on a more systematic and comprehensive approach to stress reduction and wellness in the workplace. These programs are usually referred to as health promotion programs, and they represent a combination of diagnostic, educational, and behavior modification activities that are aimed at attaining and preserving good health (Matteson & Ivancevich, J A typical program includes risk assessment, educational and instructional classes, and counseling and referrals. Health promotion programs tackle a wide array of health-related concerns, including physical fitness, weight control, dietary and nutritional counseling, smoking cessation, blood pressure monitoring, alcohol and substance abuse problems, and general lifestyle modification.

Companies involved in such programs usually feel that the costs invested to run them are more than returned through higher levels of productivity and reduced absenteeism and stress-related illness (Roberts & Harris, 1989). Moreover, many companies have found that providing such services serves as an attractive incentive when recruiting employees in a tight job market.

Developing Emotional Intelligence

The importance of emotional intelligence, as we introduced at the start of this section, is imperative to being successful at work. Figuring out a plan on how we can increase our emotional intelligence skills can also benefit us personally in our relationships with others.

To increase our self-awareness skills, we should spend time thinking about our emotions to understand why we experience a specific emotion. We should look at those things that cause a strong reaction, such as anger to help us understand the underlying reasons for that reaction. By doing this, we can begin to see a pattern within ourselves that helps explain how we behave and how we feel in certain situations. This allows us to handle those situations when they arise.

To increase our self-management skills, we can focus on the positive instead of the negative. Taking deep breaths increases blood flow, which helps us handle difficult situations. Although seemingly childish, counting to ten before reacting can help us manage emotions such as anger. This gives us time to calm down and think about how we will handle the situation. Practicing positive self-talk can help increase our self-management. Self-talk refers to the thoughts we have about ourselves and situations throughout the day. Since we have over 50,000 thoughts per day, getting into the habit of managing those thoughts is important (Willax, 1999). By recognizing the negative thoughts, we can change them for the positive. The following are some examples:

Table 7.9 Positive and Negative Thoughts

Positive Negative
I made a mistake. I am, or that was, dumb.
I need some work on xx skills. I am an idiot.
It may take a bit more effort to show them what I have to offer. They will never accept me.
I need to reprioritize my to do list. I will never be able to get all of this done.
Let me see what seminars and training is available. I just don’t have the knowledge required to do this job.
Source: Saylor Academy, Human Relations, CC BY-NC-SA 3.0.

Increasing social awareness means to observe others’ actions and to watch people to get a good sense of how they are reacting. We can gain social awareness skills by learning people’s names and making sure we watch body language. Living in the moment can help our interactions with others as well. Practicing listening skills and asking follow-up questions can also help improve our social awareness skills.

Strategies for relationship management might include being open, acknowledging another’s feelings, and showing that you care. Being willing to listen to colleagues and employees and understanding them on a personal level can help enhance relationship management skills. Being willing to accept feedback and grow from that feedback can help people be more comfortable talking with you.

The Power of Positive Emotions

In 1998, Seligman, who was then president of the American Psychological Association, urged psychologists to focus more on understanding how to build human strength and psychological well-being. In deliberately setting out to create a new direction and new orientation for psychology, Seligman helped establish a growing movement and field of research called positive psychology (Compton, 2005). In a very general sense, positive psychology can be thought of as the science of happiness; it is an area of study that seeks to identify and promote those qualities that lead to greater fulfillment in our lives. This field looks at people’s strengths and what helps individuals to lead happy, contented lives, and it moves away from focusing on people’s pathology, faults, and problems. According to Seligman and Csikszentmihalyi (2000), positive psychology, at the subjective level is about valued subjective experiences: well-being, contentment, and satisfaction (in the past); hope and optimism (for the future); and… happiness (in the present). At the individual level, it is about positive individual traits: the capacity for love and vocation, courage, interpersonal skill, aesthetic sensibility, perseverance, forgiveness, originality, future mindedness, spirituality, high talent, and wisdom. (p. 5)

Some of the topics studied by positive psychologists include altruism and empathy, creativity, forgiveness and compassion, the importance of positive emotions, enhancement of immune system functioning, savoring the fleeting moments of life, and strengthening virtues as a way to increase authentic happiness (Compton, 2005). Recent efforts in the field of positive psychology have focused on extending its principles toward peace and well-being at the level of the global community. In a war-torn world in which conflict, hatred, and distrust are common, such an extended “positive peace psychology” could have important implications for understanding how to overcome oppression and work toward global peace (Cohrs, Christie, White, & Das, 2013).

Although stress is an emotional response that can kill us, other emotions can help us cope with and protect ourselves from stress. The stress of the Monday through Friday grind can be offset by the fun that we can have on the weekend, and the concerns that we have about our upcoming chemistry exam can be offset by a positive attitude toward school, life, and other people. Put simply, the best antidote for stress is a happy one: Think positively, have fun, and enjoy the company of others.

Adapted Works

The Pursuit of Happiness” in Psychology 2e by Rose M. Spielman, William J. Jenkins, Marilyn D. Lovett, et al. and Openstax is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.

Emotional Intelligence” in Human Relations by Saylor Academy is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 License without attribution as requested by the work’s original creator or licensor.


Compton, W. C. (2005). An introduction to positive psychology. Thomson Wadsworth.

Seligman, M. P., & Csikszentmihalyi, M. (2000). Positive psychology: An introduction. American Psychologist, 55, 5–14.

Willax, P. (1999, December 13). Treat customers as if they are right. Business First, accessed March 2, 2012, http://www.bizjournals.com/louisville/stories/1999/12/13/smallb2.html?page=all


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