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Social Stress in the Workplace

As organizations experience budget reductions, cutbacks, and workforce reduction, it is easy to understand that workplaces can be stressful. We all know that stress can lead to a myriad of problems with our health and well-being, but we also know that it is impossible to merely avoid all sources of stress.  Certain types of stress (i.e., stress related to deadlines or difficult tasks) are hard to alleviate because we cannot simply move deadlines or make difficult tasks easy, but other types of stress (i.e., social stress) can be addressed.

Social Stress

Social stressors are defined as behaviors and situations, social in nature, that are related to physical and psychological strain. Examples of social stressors include:

  • verbal aggression from customers or superiors
  • co-worker conflict
  • negative group environments
  • organizational politics
  • unfair treatment

The experience of social stressors can lead to a host of outcomes that are directly oppositional to some of the most desired organizational behaviors and consequences. The reason for this is that social stressors deplete our coping resources (or our ability to ‘deal’ with strain). Research has explicitly shown that social stressors in particular lead to the following outcomes:

  • reduced job satisfaction
  • increased turnover
  • feelings of failure
  • loss of productivity (due to time spent dealing with ‘situations’)
  • reduced altruism and organizational citizenship behavior (i.e., helping behavior at work)

Reducing Social Stress

Although it is understood that stressors are never completely avoidable, the good news is this:  there are research-based actions that can be taken to decrease the effects of social stress in your workplace. Below is a list of such actions that will, if committed to, reduce social stress and the negative outcomes associated with it:

  • For leaders:  avoid feelings of unfair/unjust treatment by being aware of your interactions with employees. Make an effort to be seen as a fair leader (give feedback to all, make yourself available), and never pick favorites.
  • For everyone:  help establish norms against co-worker aggression. Remember that not all types of conflict are bad (e.g., debates about how to accomplish a particular task), but social conflict is generally negative and will lead to social stress. Avoid social conflict by making sure that debates are centered on tasks, not people.
  • For leaders and HR:  when hiring new employees, honestly evaluate the presence of social stressors in the relative job environment. Research shows that core self-evaluations play a crucial role in how employees react to the presence of stressors. Core self-evaluations include self esteem, locus of control, self-efficacy and emotional stability. These can easily be measured using assessment tools.

-Scontrino-Powell

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