Stress, in general, has received widespread attention in the professional literature and popular press. This attention is due to the fact that excess stress has been known to have detrimental effects on an individual's psyche. Moreover, stress has been a common factor affecting all aspects of life including interpersonal relationships, work, school, and family (Greenglass, 2002). It also represents a major health concern implicated in most of the top 10 causes of death in the United States, with the first being heart disease (World Health Organization, 1999). Coping, on the other hand, has been extensively researched as well. More importantly, coping strategies play a vital role in an individual's physical and psychological well-being when confronted with challenges since these help alleviate the harmful stress effects individuals can face. Also, coping can be viewed as a goal managing approach that utilizes social resources such as co-worker and family support (Greenglass, 2002).
One form of stress that is commonly examined and is prevalent in today's fast-paced society is occupational stress, also referred to as job or work stress. Such stress results in a variety of negative health outcomes, impacting the individual, the family and the organization at which the individual is employed. It stands to reason that a solid understanding of the causes and results of occupational stress can lead to improved health among workers, both young and old. According to Shultz and Adams (2006), the literature on aging in the workplace has been receiving more attention as the number of retirees reaching the age of Social Security and Medicare is on the rise. With more Americans finding their retirement incomes insufficient to keep up their standard of well being or simply wanting to supplement what they receive, the demographic shift of older workers continuing in the workplace has instigated a whole new area of research on aging and stress in the workplace and the coping mechanisms of the elderly. To retain an older workforce is to understand potential differences in how they, versus the young workforce, deal with occupational stress (Barnes-Farrell, 2005). Hence, this literature review contributes to the understanding of occupational stress and coping mechanisms by first reviewing the concept of stress, its causes and consequences, and established models within the literature that attempt to explain the relationships among individuals, environmental characteristics, their coping strategies, and stress. Furthermore, this paper will review the literature concerning coping and the impact of age and gender upon both coping mechanisms and the experience of occupational stress. It is imperative to understand how older workers deal with this type of stress compared to their younger counterparts since the past literature has failed to address the importance of how older workers uniquely cope with occupational stress and the existence of an interaction effect between age and gender in coping related to occupational stress.
The concept of stress incorporates two distinct ideas, stressors, which refer to environmental characteristics that cause adverse reactions in an individual, and strain, the actual adverse reaction to the stressors. While stress itself is most often associated only with the situation and the subsequent response, this conceptualization does not give consideration to mediating factors or individual susceptibility to the phenomenon. Therefore, stress is more aptly explained as a result or product of the interaction between individuals and their environment. As such, most stressful situations are not, in and of themselves stressful, but rather are defined that way by the unique individual involved in the situation. That is, “what one person may deem stressful, another individual may view as comfortable” (Bamber, 2006, p.5).
Universally, stress may also be viewed in a more positive manner. For example, McGowan, Gardner, and Fletcher (2006) characterized stress as an interaction between demands made upon an individual and the ability to respond to those demands. The outcome of this interaction need not be negative since there exists a term for positive stress known as eustress in which the stressor elicits a positive response depending on the positive psychological state of the individual. For example, eustress may be characterized by positive affect, meaningfulness, and hope in response to a particular stressor. Moreover, this type of stress helps an individual cope with stress in a healthy manner.
Larzarus and Folkman (1980) developed the Cognitive Theory of Stress and Coping. This theory of stress suggests that there exists a relationship that is transactional between individuals and their environment which can be strenuous, could exceed their resources and become threatening to their well-being. Judkins (2001) suggested that the emphasis of stress is on the individual's perception or cognitive appraisal of its importance that takes into account the situational demands and individuals' ability and resources for coping with that situation. Thompson (1992) used Lazarus and Folkman's theoretical framework to further emphasize that stress is not an object in the world but it is a reaction of the organism to the events in the world. Thus, individuals experience stress based on how they react to life events such as stress at work.
As occupational stress has become a common fixture of the lives of millions of Americans, consequences of this type of stress for both employees and organizations has received growing interest. Occupational stress is related to a range of factors both external and intrinsic to the workplace. Intrinsic factors include work overload or under-load (i.e., boredom), shift work, long hours, travel requirements, larger work environments, and poor physical work settings. Other factors associated with it include role ambiguity, role conflict, mistrust or envy of coworkers, job insecurity, downsizing, poor communication among employees, low recognition by superiors, and low decision authority (Biron, Ivers, Brun,& Cooper, 2006; Danna & Griffin, 1999; Sexton, Teassley, Cox, & Carroll, 2007). External factors may be thought of as factors beyond the control of the individual. For example, a company's decision to merge with another company for profit and does not take into account suggestions or concerns of their own employees. Occupational stress occurs when an individual experiences an overload of stressors stemming largely from the occupational environment. Bridger, Kilminster, and Slaven (2006) described a workplace stressor as an aspect related to the work environment which poses demands that the individual is not ready to comprehend, and as a result causing strain. So, a strain is caused by a stressor. For example, in attempting to meet an important deadline the employee is unsure about meeting and hence the employee may feel over-worked and skill-deficient. Past literature has specifically focused on researching domains that include the physical characteristics of the occupational climate such as heat, crowding, and noise and even the personal characteristics of workers within the occupational environments that include their coping styles, strong beliefs about avoiding stress, and cognitive capacities (Byrne & Espnes, 2008).
Sparks and Cooper (1997) argue that occupational stress can result from a combination of work stressors. Work relationships and interactions between supervisors and co-workers can be one source of both strain and support. For example, if employees considered their supervisors to be hostile towards them, they experienced more pressure at work than those employees who had supportive bosses. Moreover, if employees had brief interactions with their supervisors without having a sufficient supervisor-employee time, employees might think that their supervisors are taking them for granted and unsupportive of their work. Cartwright and Cooper (1997) argued that another potential stressor can be a lack of job security. If an employee working in a company is uncertain of his or her job position, it may affect the overall work productivity and satisfaction of the employee. The reason is that this employee might constantly be under the stress of fear of job loss. Additionally, negative performance appraisals and persistent role ambiguity can be detrimental to employee well-being. Moreover, over-promotion such as frustration of having reached a career ceiling can make stress unbearable. In other words, an employee who has taken a leadership role or has been laden with many responsibilities by the company might feel over-worked and worn out.
Cooper and Lewis (1994) suggested the fact that the work-family interface can also be a likely stressor for employees coping with occupational stress. Experiencing work overload, lack of role clarity, and a hostile environment at work may affect the home environment since the employee brings these problems home with him and thus can strain relationships with family members. Danna and Griffin (1999) also agreed with Cooper and Lewis that factors related directly to the work environment are not the only potential causes of stress but the link between home and work could also present problems. Difficulties in managing the dual environments, particularly among two-income couples or individuals experiencing a personal crisis, could contribute to occupational stress.
Other research suggests that individuals with certain personality traits are more prone to occupational stress. For example, the “Type D” personality is linked to introversion and neuroticism. Oginska-Bulik (2006) reported that individuals with this personality type were more likely to perceive their work environments as stressful, due to lack of rewards, control, and responsibility, and would experience greater frequency of burnout in the form of emotional exhaustion, and demonstrate mental health disorders, including anxiety, insomnia, and depressive symptoms. Other researchers have stated that individuals with high positive affect and low negative affect demonstrate lower levels of blood pressure in response to stress than do individuals with both a high positive and negative affect (Norlander, Bood, & Archer, 2002).
The consequences of occupational stress can range in severity from mild to severe and impact both professional and personal lives. In one study of university staff members, participants identified professional aspects negatively impacted by stress such as job performance, interpersonal work relations, commitment to the organization, and extra-role performance, the latter which refers to participation in extra tasks in the workplace or willingness to work extra hours. As previously mentioned, occupational stress can also spillover into one's personal life. Negative consequences within this domain include physical health problems, such as weight loss, fatigue, back pain; psychological health problems such as burnout, anger, irritability, frustration, and feeling overwhelmed; as well as strained family and personal relations (Gillespie, Walsh, Winefield, Dua, & Stough, 2001). Several models on occupational stress have been proposed and have influenced contemporary organizational stress research and they are discussed in the following sections.
Theoretical Models of Occupational Stress
The Demand-Control Model of Occupational Stress
Developed by Karasek (1979), the Job Demand Control model explains the relationships among job demand, job control, and psychological strain in the workplace. Job demands are described as the amount of workload experienced by a worker, while job controls refer to a worker's sense of autonomy in the workplace and the ability to control the response to job duties and how to complete them (Karasek & Theorell, 1990). An additional component, support, was added to this model in the early 1990s by other researchers and this component consisted of the instrumental and emotional assistance provided generally by immediate supervisors to the work. It is also a theoretical model that suggests psychological strain as being a result of a combination of factors. Strain from a job environment is influenced by job demands and by the amount of autonomy workers perceived they have in facing these work demands (Tansey, Mizelle, Ferrin, Tachopp, & Frain, 2004). These facets related to the work situation initiate conflicts and demands that place workers in a position dominated by stress. In other words, the interaction of high work demand and low job control can trigger the onset of occupational stress. The main theme of the Job Demand Control model is that job control is able to protect against the detrimental effects of high work demands on psychological strain.
The Job Demand Control model consists of four dimensions, each incorporating various levels of job demand and control. The first of the three dimensions, termed “High Strain Jobs”, suggests that the adverse effects of psychological strain, including anxiety, depression, fatigue, and physical illness occur when job control is low and job demand is high. “In situations with high levels of stress or strain, the resulting arousal becomes damaging when the worker has little to or no control over his environment and the constraints that restrict how he can respond to the strain” (Karasek & Theorell, 1990, p. 31).The second dimension of the model, known as “Active Jobs”, is characterized by high levels of both psychological demand and control. In this particular situation, workers have the liberty to use their talents and skills to mitigate negative psychological stressors. “The energy from these stressors is then translated into action through active problem solving, which results in little psychological disturbance and average amounts of psychological strain” (p. 35). For example, jobs of heart surgeons where psychological pressures such as operating on the heart and pressure to perform the operation on time is common practice, however, they have some decision latitude to make decisions in saving the life of the patient.
Karasek and Theorell (1990) described “Low Strain Jobs” as the third type of situation that is defined by a small number of psychological demands and high levels of control. “Such jobs are associated with relaxation and leisure and low levels of psychological strain and physical illness. There are a few challenges in the workplace, and the worker possesses the ability to respond to any challenges that may appear” (p.36). An example of low strain jobs may be monitor technicians who monitor patient heartbeats and only report to the nurses if they see a spike in the patient's rhythm. Other than that, the job itself is comfortable because all you do is sit in front of the monitor until an abnormal heart rhythm is discovered.
The final component of the Job Demand Control model is “Passive Jobs”, distinguished by both low levels of demand and control. In this type of situation, the authors contended that the “worker's skills and abilities eventually wither, resulting in negative learning, loss of skills, and low levels of leisure and political activity outside of the work environment” (p. 37). Motivation and productivity are threatened when one is incapable to fully satisfy one's desire to implement one's own ideas for improving the work environment or when a job is less challenging. “Jobs with low levels of both demand and control are also associated with average levels of psychological strain and illness” (p. 38). An example of a passive job might be janitorial duties. In this type of job, an individual is not challenged enough to do something about the work because the work requires minimal special knowledge or skills with little discretion of how to complete the work.
Mixed support for the Job Demand Control model exists in the literature surrounding occupational stress. Dollard, Winefield, and De Jong (2000) utilized the model to investigate differences in self-reported levels of job strain and productivity among different occupational groups, contending that occupational stress was primarily due to environmental factors rather than personal characteristics. The authors collected data on negative affectivity, work environment, emotional strain, and productivity. Findings indicated that a negative work environment significantly correlated with job strain. The level of job demand correlated positively with emotional exhaustion, depersonalization, and personal accomplishment, and negatively with job satisfaction. Job control, however, positively correlated with the latter two factors, while social support correlated negatively with emotional exhaustion and depersonalization.
Rusli, Edimansya, and Naing (2008) also utilized the Job Demand Control model to investigate the relationship between job demand, job control, social support, stress, anxiety, depression, and quality of life. They mentioned that the quality of life was predicted by increased social support and less social support led to increased health risks. Other results demonstrated a relationship between social support and job control and demand. Results indicated that job demand was reciprocally related to environmental work conditions and job control was positively correlated with social relationships in the workplace. The researchers concluded that stress, anxiety, and depression mediated the relationship between job demand and quality of life. An additional result from this study, which adds an interesting perspective to the Job Demand Control model, was that job control, stress, anxiety and depression increased with increasing age of the worker.
Another study conducted by Tarris and Feij (2004) addressed occupational stress by presenting findings that did not necessarily support Karasek and Theorell's model. In this study, the researchers investigated how job demands, control, and strain impact working aspirations of young workers with respect to the motivation to learn from more experienced colleagues and supervisors. The data was collected from younger workers over a period of two years. Cross-sectional results supported each of the four tenets of the Job Demand Control model, assuming that reduced job strain translated into increases in motivation to learn; however, some of these results did not hold true over time. For example, the authors demonstrated that increased job demand and control led to increased learning in the short term, but no increases in learning over the long term. Within these conditions over time, the level of strain decreased, likely due to the opportunity to utilize new strategies in dealing with strain. These results as with the study conducted by Rusli et al. (2008), suggest that changes may occur over time which cannot be explained in full by the Job Demand Control model.
While the previous two studies involved younger workers with a mean age of 26 who were followed for a length of time, Totterdell, Wood, and Wall (2006) followed a group of workers for six months whose mean age was 48 years old. The purpose of their study was to investigate how the Job Demand Control model applied to changes within the individual with respect to work characteristics and strain over time. The researchers collected data concerning optimism, emotional stability, problem-solving demands, time and method control, emotional support, and job-related stress. Results suggested that while demands, control, and support all affected job strain, they did so in an independent manner rather than interactively, which is contrary to the model. However, when considering levels of personal optimism, interaction between demands and control was observed. For example, pessimists experienced greater levels of strain during periods of high demand and low control than did optimists. This study suggests that the components of the Job Demand Control model were affected by extraneous factors, such as individual emotional characteristics, although it provided no clue as to whether or not younger workers would yield similar results. In addition, studies done on job demand control model have looked more at psychological work demands of employees in general without paying close attention to the types of work demands that are stressful to workers from various groups (e.g., older versus younger workers). Yet, a recent study by Shultz, Wang, Crimmins, and Fisher (2009) did find some support of interactive effects of demand and controls for older workers, but not for younger workers. Specifically, they found that for the problem solving demand, only one job control mechanism such as having plenty of time to complete a work goal buffered a stressful response for younger workers while all job control mechanisms demonstrated buffering effects against job stress related to different job demand types for older workers.
The Effort/Reward Imbalance Model of Occupational Stress
A second model of occupational stress is the Effort/Reward Imbalance model or ERI, which adds a more subjective dimension to the Job Demand Control model. This model asserts that occupational status and successful role performance provide the means to increase self-esteem. However, both the individual's efforts and the rewards obtained in response to those efforts, such as money or career opportunities are dependent on the psychological benefits associated with work. An individual who puts forth great efforts, whether due to extrinsic motivation such as job obligation and demands; intrinsic motivation like employee over-commitment to strive to do the best work possible on the job or a combination of both, but receives a few rewards experiences emotional stress and negative health consequences (Calnan, Wainwright, & Almond, 2000). Over-commitment, a third dimension of the model, may be a risk factor that impacts the balance between efforts and rewards (Niedhammer, Chastang, David, Barouhiel, & Barrandon, 2006).
Although this model can serve alone as a useful framework for understanding the impact of psychosocial factors on mental and physical health outcomes, it is further strengthened when considered in conjunction with the Job Demand Control model. For example, Niedhammer et al. (2006) investigated the health outcomes of workers in a company that distributed publications. In light of the Job Demand Control model, results indicated that, among male workers, job strain served as a risk factor for depressive symptoms, likely due to low levels of control and decision-making authority among such workers. In addition, women who experienced low levels of social support, an additional component of the Job Demand Control model, were at a greater risk for depressive symptoms. When viewed in light of ERI model, the data indicated that, among male workers, this imbalance was associated with depressive symptoms and psychiatric disorders, possibly due to low rewards and job instability. Taken together, the two models provided a more well-rounded picture of the association between work-related factors, including strain, social support, and an imbalance between effort and reward, upon the occurrence of depressive symptoms which is a negative health outcome. Moreover, Siegrist, Dagmar Starke, Chandola, Godin, Marmot, Niedhammer, and Peter (2004) agree with Niedhammer et al about ERI by suggesting that the consequences of occupational stress are related to the balance between the amount of effort an employee puts in the job and the level of rewards they receive such as money, self-esteem, and job security that can be gained from the effort put forth. The model further argues that those who are excessively motivated to be committed to their jobs may expose themselves to high work demands or they might exaggerate their efforts beyond what is required for a particular job. For example, employees might flatter their supervisors to make them feel worthy of them in order to receive a type of monetary reward.
Depressive symptoms are but one of many negative health outcomes that could occur when perceived effort does not correspond with perceived rewards (Martin-Fernandez, Gomez-Gascon, Beamud-Lagos, Cortes-Rubio, & Alberquilla-Menendez-Asenjo, 2007). Preckel, Meinel, Kudielka, Huag, and Fischer (2007) reported on the effects of ERI upon the health outcomes of skilled workers within an aircraft manufacturing plant. Results indicated that over-commitment, a third dimension to this model, increased the risk of poor health outcomes, including self-reported health-related quality of life factors such as physical functioning; freedom from pain; vitality; vital exhaustion, characterized by loss of energy, trouble sleeping, irritability, and apathy; depressed mood; and negative affectivity. Another research study suggested that in a nursing profession, burnout and the desire to leave that profession, positively correlated with imbalances between efforts and rewards (Hasselhorn, Tackenberg, & Peter, 2004). However, the notion of “rewards” is subjective in nature, with some individuals placing higher value on certain rewards that may be deemed unimportant to others.
Voltmer, Kieschke, Schwappach, Wirsching, and Spahn (2008) attempted to further clarify the relationship between efforts/rewards and health outcomes by categorizing individuals according to correlated psychosocial factors and outcomes. In their study of medical students and physicians, the authors gathered data concerning professional commitment, resistance to stress, and emotional well-being. Based upon the specific health risks that correlated with each of these work-related behaviors, researchers identified four categories of individuals. Type “G” or the Healthy Ambitious Type individuals are ambitious at work but remain capable of maintaining a healthy emotional distance from the environment. Such behaviors correlated with resistance to stress and positive emotions. The second type of individual, Type “S” or the Unambitious Type, demonstrated lower commitment to work and a higher sense of detachment from the work environment. However, individuals in this group also scored well on measures of inner balance, satisfaction with life, and social support, indicating an overall sense of commitment with their personal lives. Like Type G individuals, members of this group did not experience any significant negative health outcomes; however, the lack of motivation was identified as one negative outcome.
The remaining two groups of individuals demonstrated negative health outcomes related to behaviors at work. “Type A” individuals, described as excessively ambitious, were characterized by excessive commitment to their work and difficulty maintaining an emotional distance from that environment. Health outcomes for these individuals included higher risk for coronary artery disease and myocardial infarction. “Type B” individuals, defined as “resigned” demonstrated low scores for professional commitment, emotional distancing, and coping skills. Outcomes for these individuals included greater risk for mental instability, dissatisfaction with work and life, and limited social support, all of which are related to job burnout. This study clearly illustrates the main premise of the Effect/Reward Imbalance model in that psychosocial factors related to the work environment serve as risk factors for physical and mental health outcomes.
The Person-Environment Fit Model or P-E Fit explains that positive outcomes occur when individuals are closely matched to their work environment with respect to career-relevant personality type (Carless, 2005). Since individuals are often unique in regards to personal qualities, abilities, coping skills, and needs, different individuals may perceive the same job in different ways. What one person views as being demanding and stressful, another employee may regard the same situation as challenging and exciting. Thus, based upon this theory, it is important to closely match an employee's unique characteristics with specific qualities of jobs. Occupational stress is lessened when an appropriate match exists between the work environment and the individual; however, when a poor match exists, occupational stress may be quite high (Bamber, 2006).
According to the literature, several different types of fit occur within the realm of P-E Fit: these include Person-Organization Fit, Person-Job Fit, and Person-Innovation Fit. Carless (2005) described Person-Job fit as match between an individual's knowledge, skills, and abilities and job or personal demands and what the job provides. When these two dimensions closely match, positive outcomes occur, such as low attrition rate, high work performance, low turnover, and high job satisfaction. Person-Organization fit refers to the similarity that exists between the individual's and the organization's wants, needs, and characteristics. Individuals who perceive that an organization closely mirrors their own values, personality, attitudes, and goals are more likely to seek out and accept employment there.
Person-Innovation fit, a more recent development based upon the Person-Environment fit model, explains how people respond to innovations and predicts the outcomes of innovation implementation on an individual level. Values and abilities are two distinct attributes associated with the concept of innovation. The values attribute refers to the perceived values and goals underlying the innovation, while the abilities attribute refers to skills, knowledge, and expertise needed for successful implementation of innovation. Past research has shown that different types of person-innovation fit predict different types of individual outcomes. To be specific, job satisfaction, well-being and low stress is closely correlated with value-fit. While the value-fit correlates with affective outcomes, abilities-fit correlates with behavioral outcomes such as the use of technology or innovation and innovation implementation efforts (Choi & Price, 2005).
In addition to the characteristics associated with these three types of fit, including knowledge, skills, abilities, wants, needs, and values, another variation on the Person-Environment fit focuses upon an individual's interests. The Interest-Vocation fit suggests that a person's interests play a role in job satisfaction equal to the role played by skills and abilities. Furthermore, these factors are closely related, as research indicates that among some individuals, Interest-Vocation fit positively correlates with cognitive ability. More specifically, among individuals whose interests lie mostly in the artistic domains, high cognitive ability positively correlates with successful Interest-Vocation fit. Individuals with high cognitive ability whose interests are characterized as conventional or realists were less likely to participate in vocations that matched their interests than their lower-cognitive ability counterparts (Reeve & Heggestad, 2004). In spite of the support found in the literature for the applicability of Person-Environment fit model in predicting factors such as work stress, criticism does exist. Bright and Pryor (2005), for example, discussed a number of these criticisms found in the literature. According to these authors, one problem with the model is that the interaction between the person and the environment is characterized in terms of traits. These traits, along with the concepts of “persons” and “environment” represent static ideas that do not reflect the changing nature of today's work environment. Other problems with this model include inadequate conceptualization and measurement within the literature with regards to the terms “person” and “environment” and the failure to incorporate the complexities and uncertainties associated with a changing job environment into the model.
Coping with stress has become a crucial area for research in reducing workers' perceived level of stress. The focus on coping and ways in which it can reduce the levels of stress and promote a quality of life that is healthy has received abundant attention. According to Folkman and Lazarus (1980) coping takes into account the behavioral and cognitive efforts to familiarize, tolerate, and reduce the internal and external demands and conflicts among them. These coping efforts provide two main functions: the source of stress is to manage the person-environment fit, which is considered to be problem focused; whereas the ability to regulate stressful emotions is considered to be emotion-focused. Additionally, it is important to understand that individuals make use of both defense functions to manage stressful demands. Basically, coping efforts are made in response to stress appraisals.
Folkman and Lazarus (1988) argued that cognitive appraisal can take two forms: primary and secondary. They emphasized primary cognitive appraisal in which the individual asks “What do I have at stake at this encounter?” The answer to this question relies on the intensity and emotional quality. For example, if an individual's self-esteem is on the line at work, there is a potential for anger or shame whereas if an individual's physical well-being is on the line, there is potential for fear and worry. In the secondary appraisal, the individual's concern has to do with asking the question “What can I do?” or what coping options do I have in dealing with my problem. A third type of appraisal, called reappraisal occurs based on feedback from primary and secondary appraisal. For example, a person must first decide that the job is demanding (primary appraisal) and then decide how to cope with it by, asking for assistance (secondary appraisal). At some point in time when the person has successfully coped with a particular situation, he no longer perceives the situation as stressful or threatening to well-being. Moreover, Folkman and Lazarus (1980) argue that coping is multidimensional depending on the nature of a demanding situation and how the thoughts of stress an individual experiences change as a particular situation unfolds. Thus, the coping process is the process of thinking at that moment and then performing a situation-specific action when confronted with a demanding situation.
Equally important in the application of models to understand occupational stress is the study of coping strategies used by individuals. A wide range of coping strategies exist, perhaps as varied as individuals themselves. Researchers often distinguish these strategies as emotion-focused versus problem-focused coping. As briefly mentioned previously, Lazarus and Folkman (1980) have described problem-focused coping as efforts to manage the present problem which may include finding solutions to resolve the problem or evaluating the pros and cons of different problems to solve the current problem. Additionally, this type of coping is more effective when the individual possesses a high degree of control over external stressors and factors and is associated with general well being. On the other hand, coping that is emotion-based involves managing the emotional distress that is associated with a particular situation and often involves coping mechanisms such as denial, seeking social support, positive reframing of events, and venting of emotions. The research indicates that emotion-focused forms of coping (e.g., humor or prayer) are effective when the individual perceives that managing harmful or challenging environment or work conditions are beyond their control.
Research indicates that individuals in different occupations may rely upon different types of coping strategies to deal with stress. One study, which explored occupational stress and coping strategies among certified older registered nurses, reported that these individuals most often utilized emotion-focused coping mechanisms, including intentionally calming themselves down. Internalization of the stress, verbalizing stressors with friends and coworkers, joking, and distracting themselves from stress with hobbies outside of work were other emotion-focused strategies identified in the study (Perry, 2005). Like the nurses in this study, IT managers in another study indicated that social support was an important and effective coping mechanism. However, these individuals also relied upon problem-focused coping mechanisms, such as adding resources, problem-solving, and planning to cope with occupational stress. It was interesting to learn that men in the study used problem solving more often than women (Richmond & Skitmore, 2006).
Proactive behavior can be viewed as anticipating potential stressors and acting in advance to prevent the stressors from happening. According to Aspinwall and Taylor (1997), skills that are associated with this behavior include goal-setting, future planning, and organization of thoughts. In proactive coping, specifically, individuals see future risks, opportunities and demands as not threatening but perceive them as future challenges they have to confront (Greenglass, 2002). Basically, these individuals take personal charge of their stressful demands by acting on them to provide future success, personal growth, and happiness.
Gender Differences in Coping and Occupational Stress
The body of literature involving occupational stress and coping suggests that gender may confer a significant influence in the way individuals experience and cope with stress. Patton and Goddard (2006) reported that women experience more job burnout, stress, and exhaustion and demonstrate higher levels of work-related physical illness, mental illness, and fatigue than men. Ghorayshi (2002) reported that the reason for women experiencing more occupational stress depended on the different socialization patterns of men and women. There exists an increased level of expectation for women in a particular workplace to succeed and the pressure to succeed often leads to a negative stress response that can be overwhelming. Vagg and Spielberger (1998) pointed out that women reported higher levels of occupational stress when there was a mismatch between performing the task and the job description and when they felt the pressure of competition for advancement. However, women experienced less stress when they felt a sense of autonomy on job tasks, had the opportunity to make valuable contributions on the job, or when they interacted with co-workers (Hill, Leinbaugh, Bradley, & Hazler, 2005). Men, on the other hand, reported stress more frequently when participation in policy decisions was minimal, departmental conflicts arose, dealt with health problems at work, had no overtime, and had lack of managerial support to perform duties (Vagg & Spielberger, 1998).
Past studies have also focused on the coping differences between men and women. As previously mentioned, women are more emotion-based copers while men are more problem-focused copers (Matud, 2004). Ashton and Fuehrer (1993) reported that men do not request and receive more social support than women. In addition, women are more influenced by the social context and their coping involves forming relationships that are emotional in nature. According to Ptacek, Smith, and Dodge (1994) for problem-solving coping, there exist inconsistent findings that suggest no gender differences while other studies point to the fact that men are more problem-focused individuals. Torkelson and Muhonen (2004) suggest that the reason for the inconsistent research findings may be the direct result of differences in the type of job, power, or status held by both genders. An important development on the literature on gender and coping, is that “different strategies may be more or less effective for men and women” (Lengua & Stormshak, 2000, p. 792). Nelson and Burke (2002) reported that the reason for the different effects of the coping strategies involves the existence of a strong relationship between the gender of the person doing the coping and the gender role of the coping itself. In other words, throughout history both genders have been taught to act according to their gender roles through gender socialization. For example, men have not been socialized in expressing their emotions, or emotionally caring about people as women have been educated to do so. On the contrary, men are expected to be fearless, strong, and assertive (Burke, 2002). This literature clearly suggests that people should utilize coping strategies that best fit their supposed gender roles. Christie and Shultz (1998) found that emotional social support positively predicted work stress only for the sample of men. This suggests that if there is a mismatch in the utilization of a particular coping strategy and the gender role can lead to severe stress on the job.
Based on the previously discussed research on gender differences in coping and occupational stress, the following hypotheses are proposed:
Hypothesis 1: Gender will predict differences in occupational stress.
Hypothesis 2: Gender will predict differences in coping.
Age Differences in Coping and Occupational Stress
A growing percentage of the workforce is occupied by older Baby Boomers (Barnes-Farrell, 2005; Alley & Crimmins, 2007). To understand the concept of age in the workforce, we must be able to pay special attention to the needs of older workers and how they cope with occupational stress. In addition, we must be able understand the cognitive and emotional demands that work places on older workers and how we can help them be successful in their job. Age related differences in reaction to physical stressors can occur through an employee's physical capabilities and mental abilities. Research has suggested that old people experience less stress, however the rate of experiencing stress is increased with less educated people of low socio-economic status (Finkelstein, Kubzansky, Capitman, & Goodman, 2007).
Past research has focused on relying on stress models that identify the typical characteristics of the work task and the work environment that can hinder the capabilities of workers. Much of the research carried out has been driven to identify possible gaps between employee skill level and demands, their work task, and the environment at which they are employed. When a disparity arises between the task and physical/psychological characteristics of the individual and work environment, the result is a stress response to manage the person-environment fit (Barnes-Farell, 2005).
While the literature is not abundant with regards to the impact of age on the factors such as occupational stress and coping strategies, some studies do suggest that younger and older workers may react differently to occupational stress. For example, according to Wilkerson and Bellini (2006), emotional exhaustion negatively correlated to the number of years of experience by school counselors implying that individuals with fewer years of experience were more likely to experience these outcomes of stress more frequently. Wisdom is considered to play a role in combating occupational stress in older workers as well. In a study conducted by Limas and Hansson (1998), older working adults were given the chance to select a wise co-worker with the average age of 50 years whose presence facilitated honest responses in the growth and progress of the organization. Wise co-workers were honored for creating a safe environment and a culture of unity (Limas and Hansson as cited in Hansson, Robson, & Limas, 2001). Basically, the presence of a wise co-worker helped other team members feel more in control of their work load and be productive. They felt a sense of safety and security when confronted with work problems.
While Wilkerson and Bellini's (2006) study addressed years of experience rather than biological age, other research does address this very aspect, providing important insight into the differences between younger and older workers. For example, a recent study reported that managers between the ages of 25 and 35 experienced less job satisfaction and higher levels of job stress compared to their older counterparts, ranging in age from 36 to 55 years (Chandraiah, Agrawal, Marimuthu, & Manoharan (2003). Other research confirms a greater impact of stress upon younger individuals, in this case below the age of 25, than upon workers older than 45 with regards to emotional exhaustion (Oyefeso, Clancy, & Farmer, 2008). Conversely, Vokic and Bogdanic (2007) reported that workers over the age of 50 experienced greater stress than their younger counterparts in similar occupations. In addition, age negatively correlated with occupational stress. In another study, concerning Catholic school teachers, researchers reported that occupational stress was significantly predicted by age with younger workers experiencing greater levels of stress than older workers (De Noble & McCormick, 2007). Results from the Bristol Stress and Health at Work study, a survey of 17,000 random individuals, reported on workers from a wide variety of occupations, rather than focusing on one specific job. Investigators reported that individuals ranging in age from 33 to 50 experienced increased levels of stress over their younger and older counterparts (Smith, Brice, Collins, Mathews, & McNamara, 2000). Moreover, older workers experienced more stress from work overload and from the feeling of being responsible for the work organization compared to their younger counterparts. However, the conditions of physical environment (i.e., heat, noise.) were deemed less stressful for older workers (Osipow & Doty, 1985).
Tumkaya (2006) investigated if a relationship existed between university faculty members based on their age, gender, academic position, and the work environment related to their levels of job burnout. In addition, they investigated if the faculty members coped with burnout using humor as a coping strategy. The main effect of age was found to statistically significant for emotional exhaustion. In addition, higher the age, the less exhaustion experienced by the faculty. Elderly faculty members experienced less emotional exhaustion than their young colleagues. One reason for this difference was that older faculty members have been able to cope with stress because of the confidence they have gained from years of experience on the job. The study also pointed out that humor was used mostly by older faculty members because they felt less threatened by competition with their younger colleagues. Since older faculty members had a sense of personal accomplishment and did not have to prove themselves to anyone quite often, they were less emotionally exhausted than their younger colleagues who had to constantly prove themselves in every situation.
Not every study examining the influences of age upon occupational stress reported a significant correlation. Yahaya, Hashim, and Kim (2006) reported that age did not impact the level of stress teachers experienced due to student misbehavior, workload, time, and resource difficulties, or interpersonal relationships with coworkers. One possible reason for this result may involve some factor inherent in this specific occupation not present in other jobs. Other relevant research on age differences and coping focused on religious prayer as a means to combat a stressor experienced by older people (Becker, 2005).
Based on the previously discussed research on age differences in coping and occupational stress, the following hypotheses are proposed:
Hypothesis 3: Age will predict differences in occupational stress.
Hypothesis 4: Age will predict differences in coping.
The interaction of age and gender on coping and occupational stress
There is some research that has focused on predicting occupational stress coping responses based on the interactive effect of a single variable such as gender or a particular work context, however, inadequate research has been conducted that has addressed the overall interaction of both age and gender on coping and work stress. Krajewski and Goffin (2005) conducted a study on the interactive effect of gender and work context, in this case, self-focused and interpersonal context on predicting occupational stress and coping responses. Their findings suggested that when the interaction of gender and work context was tested for coping, a significant interaction effect was found in which women reported they would significantly use more symptom reduction coping which is a technique of alleviating negative thoughts, feelings, and emotions from the mind than men within the interpersonal-work load situation. This lends support to the previous research that women generally use more coping strategies that are emotion-based. Men on the other hand, experienced less stress in the interpersonal work-load situation because of being more comfortable with expressing rank and concerns instrumental in nature. However, how age interacts with gender on predicting coping and works stress still remains to be seen.
Based on previous research on the interaction effect of age and gender on predicting occupational stress and coping, the following hypotheses are proposed:
Hypothesis 5: The interaction of age and gender will predict differences in occupational stress.
Hypothesis 6: The interaction of age and gender will predict differences in coping.
The Current Study
As it was presented in the previous literature, occupational stress has the tendency to disrupt a person's family life and well-being. To buffer against the detrimental effects of occupational stress, learning how to cope with it, using various coping techniques can be a valuable tool. The existing literature suggests that there is a relationship between age, gender, occupational stress, and coping specific to particular occupations, demographic groups, working environments and employee lifestyles. Contrary to past research, the proposed study will take into consideration the overall impact of age and gender on occupational stress and coping. In addition, this study will include a myriad of occupations, ethnicity, age and gender groups.
The present study will use archival data from the Professional Worker Career Experience Survey (PWCES) funded by the National Science Foundation (Rosenbloom, Ash, Dupont, & Coder, 2008) with an approximate sample size of 752 working professionals. The PWCES online survey given between December 2003 and September 2004 was designed to collect data from a matched sample of professionals employed in information technology (IT) and non-IT careers. The non-IT professionals had similar education level as the IT sample but not specific degree fields to justify an IT position. Men comprised 57.4% of the overall sample whereas women comprised 42.1% of the sample. The average age of the sample was 39 years old with an age range of 22 to 70. The participants in the sample were well educated with 36.2% holding a bachelor's degree, and 27.9% holding a graduate degree.
Participants were recruited from a multitude of sources ranging from staff members from a large Midwestern Insurance company to a small organization with offices in Central United States (See Rosenbloom, Ash, Dupont, & Coder, 2008, for additional details). Participants were contacted via e-mail, and directed to secure website where they log-in using a password provided in the contact e-mail. Varied occupation backgrounds were represented in the PWCES ranging from senior scientist to accountant (See Rosenbloom, Ash, Dupont, & Coder, 2008, for additional details).
Work Stress/Stress Inventory. Participants were asked to answer six questions to assess their level of stress on the job. Work stress was assessed using a 6-item measure with a rating scale of 1(strongly disagree) to 6 (strongly agree) developed by Lait and Wallace (2002). One of the sample questions included was “I feel frustrated with my work” (See appendix B for all the items on this scale). The measure had an alpha of .838.
Stress Management/Coping. Participants were asked ten questions to assess their level of coping skills at work. One of the sample questions included “I use effective time management methods such as keeping track of my time, making to-do lists, and prioritizing tasks” (See appendix B for all the items on this scale). Responses to these questions used a 6-point Likert format 1 (strongly disagree) to 6 (strongly agree). Previous research using this data set has not explored this measure, so it will be investigated in detail in this study.
Demographic variables included age, gender, ethnicity, length of the job (months/years), length of occupation (months/years), average number of hours worked a week, education level, and occupation level (See appendix A for the demographic items).
Hierarchical Multiple Regression will be used since the two criterion variables of work stress and coping are both continuous variables. This particular analytic procedure will allow us to determine the relationships between age and gender, with work stress and coping. To test out our hypotheses, we will first enter the variables age and gender individually and then test their relationship with work stress. For example, we will test work stress differences by the first variable age, then we will test work stress differences by the second variable gender. Thereafter, we will enter the interaction term (i.e. work stress by both age and gender). Same procedure will be performed for coping. The significance of the relationship between each of the individual predictors and criterion variables will be evaluated by the respective beta weights and odds ratios associated with the predictor variables. A significance level of alpha = .05 will be adopted to conclude the statistical significance of the results.
Research indicates that the average age of the world population is increasing. By the year 2050, it is expected that one out of five individuals will be over the age of 60 (Arnold & Edgar, 2006). As the age of the general population increases, it stands to reason that the age of the workforce will subsequently increase. These workers are likely to experience greater amounts of age-related health problems unrelated to work than their younger counterparts. This idea underscores the importance of minimizing health issues for such individuals in the workplace, so that older workers are provided with the greatest opportunity possible to continue working successfully as they age. The current study will represent a first step to see if there are differences in occupational stress and coping strategies between age, gender, and its interaction. Organizations may be able to accommodate employees of both age groups and genders based on how well they cope and respond to a particular workplace stressor. Moreover, this study will provide a foundation to conduct a similar study using longitudinal instead of cross-sectional data.
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