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Sources of Stress

This section considers some of the variety of causes of stress rather than the effects of stress. Two important potential sources are life events and the workplace. However, not all people respond to stress in the same way. So this section also looks at the ways that personality and gender can influence the stress response.


Life events as sources of stress

Holmes and Rahé’s work in the 1960s paved the way for considerable further research paper into the effects of life changes and critical life events, particularly in relation to health. Their 1967 study used the social readjustment scale to measure the frquency and severity of life events.


Holmes and Rahe (1967)


Stress in the Workplace

There is now a huge literature on the causes and consequences of workplace stress. This area is important because work is one of the most common sources of stress in everyday life. A number of stressful job factors have been identified.


Work overload/pressure

This is the most commonly reported source of work stress. People who feel that they have to work too long or too hard feel stressed and have poorer health. Breslow & Bell (1960) found that manual workers who did more than 48 hours per week had twice the death rate from CHD compared to those in similar jobs but who worked for less than 40 hours per week. In another study, but this time of university lecturers, those who felt most pressure had a higher level of uric acid in the blood (a sign of stress). In a study in Japan, people who have a working day in excess of 11 hours are more at risk from heart attacks than those with a more moderate workload (Sokejima & Kagamimori, 1998). The Japanese even have a special word for sudden heart attacks brought on by long working hours: ‘karoshi’.

When work pressure and overload are combined with responsibility for people, then stress levels may be greater.


Cobb & Rose (1973) Illness rates in air traffic controllers


Role conflict and role ambiguity

Role conflict occurs when the individual has conflicting information about his or her role at work or, in the case of role ambiguity, has no clear ideas about what has to be done or how performance will be assessed. Chronically high blood pressure as well as other illnesses have been linked to role conflict and role ambiguity.


Poor interpersonal relationships

Workers who have little opportunity to interact with others have less job satisfaction and show higher levels of stress hormones (Cooper & Marshall, 1976). Supportive relationships at work generally help people cope with stress. In a study of local government workers there was a general trend that linked higher workloads with high blood pressure, but this was exacerbated in groups that did not have a supportive relationship with their supervisors (French, 1974).


Lack of control over work

This has been linked to number of stress indicators, including raised stress hormones, job dissatisfaction and absenteeism. Marmot et al (1997) suggested a 'job-strain' model to understand stress at work. Stress and illness at work are the result of being subject to high demands but having little control. They tested this is a study of civil service workers.


The combined effect of many of these factors are illustrated in a study of Swedish saw-mill workers. Frankenhaeuser (1975) studied groups of workers such as sawyers, who have to cut timber into predetermined sizes. These jobs were very dull and repetitive and workers had little control over the pace of their work as it is determined by the machine. The work cycle was about 10 seconds long so that decisions had to be made very quickly. Finally, in a very noisy environment, social contact was minimal. Predictably, it was found that these workers had high levels of stress hormones. Compared with other workers they had high rates of headaches, higher blood pressure and gastrointestinal disorders such as ulcers.




Mediators of the stress response


One important criticism of Selye’s approach to stress (ie the GAS) was that he saw the stress response as universal and ignored psychological processes: particularly individual differences. In fact, vulnerability to stress varies considerably from one person to another, some seem to cope (and even thrive) on high levels of stress while others are severely affected by even moderate stressors. It is therefore impossible to define the effect of stressors without taking in to account factors such as personality.



One influential contribution in this field is that of Friedman and Rosenman who distinguished so-called Type A and Type B personalities. It was claimed that the former appears to be much more affected by stress than the latter. However, as we have seen, early studies indicating that Type A personalities have a higher risk of developing CHD have not been supported by latter research. To make sense of sometimes contradictory findings, it has been suggested that a critical factor is hostility. There is evidence that when this is combined with Type A personality, correlations with CHD are higher. Individual who repress rather than express their hostility may be particularly vulnerable. Temoshok (1987) describes such individuals in terms of a Type C personality.


Another personality trait associated with responses to stress is sensation seeking (Zuckerman, 1979). It seems that some people have a preference for high levels of sensory stimulation while others do not. High sensation seekers would be found at places like Alton Towers and taking part in sports such as rock climbing. They actively seek out activities that other people would find acutely stressful. The extent to which a person measures high or low in sensation seeking has been found to correlate with that of their partner in intimate relationships (Lesnick-Oberstein & Cohen, 1984). Zuckerman also suggests that high and low sensation seekers also tend to seek out the ‘right’ occupation, preferring high-pressure or more routine jobs respectively.


Cultural differences

In addition to personality, stress responses may also be influenced by cultural differences. Clearly sources of stress in the environment differ widely, according to such factors as level of economic development, political stability, frequency of natural disaster and so on. There are also wide variations in the way that people cope with stress, for example social support may be more readily available (through extended families or religious organisations) to some cultural groups rather than others.

However it is actually very difficult to assess whether the effects of stress, for example in relation to health, are more severe in some cultures rather than others. This is because cultures differ in so many ways that it is difficult to isolate just one factor such as stress. Health is the outcome of a combination of factors ranging from the level of medical provision to lifestyle and diet. Thus we cannot be sure whether better health is due to better ways of avoiding or dealing with stress, or to any number of other factors.

One interesting hypothesis is that culture itself may be a source of stress to some people. Acculturative stress is the term given to emotional challenges faced by members of minority groups, for example being subjected to prejudice and racism.


Gender differences and the stress response

This may be another important individual difference in the way that we react to stress. The longer life expectancy for women may be due to the fact that they respond differently to stress and there is some evidence that this could be biological. For example, Frankenhaeuser et al. (1976) compared boys and girls taking examinations and found that boys showed a more rapid rise in stress hormone levels that took longer to return to normal. Performance in the exam was similar, as was reported levels of stress. This finding is echoed in a number of studies: men show more arousal when stressed than women.

Women seem to be less likely to show Type A personality behaviour, and this may account for lower mortality rates in women. However, a more straightforward explanation is in terms of lifestyle differences, for example there have been lower rates of smoking and drinking in women (though this is changing!).




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