As we mentioned in the introduction, there are positive types of stress that motivate us and drive us to improve ourselves, our relationships, and our lives. For example, when you have a child, there is positive stress around the excitement of the birth, preparing to make sure that you have taken the right parenting classes and assuring yourselves that you have done everything to keep the baby healthy. But then there is negative stress related to have a child as well: worrying about whether or not you will get enough sleep, the stress of a crying baby that can’t seem to be satisfied, and the general worry that comes with being a new parent.
The positive types of stress we experience are called eustress. In work, eustress might be caused by:
- Getting a new job
- Receiving a promotion
- Winning a huge new client
- Adding new responsibilities to your position
- Being made a supervisor of others
- Being given the lead on a new project
- Earning praise from your supervisor
Yet notice that each of these sources of eustress could become distress if you don’t handle the accompanying stress. For example, the excitement of the new job might wear off as you have to deal with the daily commute in rush-hour traffic. Or getting a promotion might be accompanied by some jealous feelings from colleagues. Winning a new client might mean a lot more money, but it also means more work. The point is that a motivating, positive stress can turn into a damaging, negative source of stress if you aren’t prepared to manage it.
The Process of Stress
The triggers or stimuli that produce stress, positive or negative, are called stressors. The things that cause you stress may not cause stress for your colleague, boss,spouse, or friend. Just as we are each individuals, we each have an individual reaction to stimuli in our environment. However, there are certain ways that our bodies respond to these stressors that are the same.
When a stimulus is experienced that we perceive as a source of danger, our bodies respond in a real and physical way.When a threat is perceived, whether to your body or other aspects of your well-being, the body responds with the “fight or flight” reaction. The pituitary gland releases a hormone into the bloodstream called adrenocorticotropic hormone (ACTH) which them stimulates the adrenal glands to produce adrenaline and cortisol, known as the “stress hormones.” They enable us to stay sharp and focused, speed up our reaction times, and temporarily boost our strength in case we decide we need to run – or in case we decide to stay and fight.
In time, once the danger passes, the hormones are reabsorbed and the body returns to normal. For some of us, this process happens more often than others. For example, people who are exposed t high stress situations sometimes become immune to them, like an EMT who deals with injured people in car crashes every day. They are able to respond without the same “fight or flight” reaction that someone who has never witnessed a crash would experience.
This is actually good news, as it shows us that stress is caused not by the situation we are in, but by our reaction to the situation. If we can learn to control or moderate our reactions to stressors, we can curtail or even eliminate some of the stress in our lives. As we’ll see in Chapter 3, there are many reasons that we want to reduce stress –both in the work environment and as individuals. Before we move on to looking at the impacts stress can have on us, we’ll look at some common causes of stress in our lives.
Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs
In 1943, Abraham Maslow published a theory on what motivates people in his paper A Theory of Human Motivation. He posited that people have five levels of needs that they seek to meet. The more basic the need, the more motivated a person will be to fulfill it, and the more stress they will experience if they are unable to fulfill it. Figure 1 shows Maslow’s hierarchy.
The bottom four layers of the pyramid Maslow called d-need or deficiency needs. Failure to meet these needs could result in physical harm in the case of the physiological level. Or if the next three layers of needs are not met, such as lack of security, friendship or love, and self-esteem, the body won’t necessarily give physical signs of the deficiency,but the person will be upset, disconnected, anxious, or tense.
The bottom, or most important needs, are the physiological needs. These are just what they sound like – with the exception of clothing, shelter, and sexual activity, the things that our bodies need in order to keep functioning. These are the things that we will be most stressed by should we experience a lack of them. They include:
- Sexual Activity
Figure 1: Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs
Level Two – Safety Needs
Once the physical needs have been met, the individual will then focus on making sure that they are safe. These are the things people want in order to create a certain level of predictability and order in the world. It doesn’t just mean physical safety, but can also mean general health and well-being, safety from financial ruin, injustice, or having to deal with the stress of the unfamiliar. Other examples related to our professional lives include:
- Job security
- Protection from unilateral authority
- Financial savings
- Insurance policies
- Reasonable accommodations for the disabled
Level Three – Belonging Needs
The third level of human needs revolve around social interactions and the need to belong. These needs will be pursued once the lower needs are met, but the lack of them will still produce stress if they are missing. People will fulfill this need by pursuing individual relationships and by joining larger social organizations. These relationships are emotionally-based and fulfill the need to be loved by, cared, for, and accepted by others.
If these needs are not met, individuals become more at risk for stress, depression, social awkwardness or anxiety, or loneliness. In some cases of extreme peer pressure, individuals may actually sacrifice the lower levels of needs in order to fit in.
People may fulfill this level of need through different relationships, such as:
- Intimate Relationships
- Clubs or Social Organizations
- Sports Teams
- Office Culture
- Religious Groups
- Professional Organizations
Level Four – Ego-Status
The ego-status needs are related to the belonging needs, but with one major difference. Whereas belonging needs refer to being a part of a group, ego-status needs refer more to how the individual believes she is seen by those groups. We each have a self-image which is at least in part developed by how we believe we appear to others.
For example, we believe we are smart, funny, kind, considerate, or any number of different attributes. We also believe that others see us that way. Our needs at this level revolve around us reinforcing our self-image and, by turn, the image others have of us. If you feel that your supervisor, colleague, client, or subordinates don’t see you the way that you believe that you are, it will result in stress in those relationships.
People will strive to fill this need by such means as:
- Status and achievement at work
- The accumulation of wealth
- The accumulation of ‘status symbols’ (cars,homes, etc.)
- Recognition from others
- Taking opportunities to lead others
- Associations with people who have the esteem of others
- Personal achievement in areas such as education,skills, and hobbies
- Pride in the achievements of their family members
Additionally, we perceive a certain ‘status’that we have in our groups. This status could be could be conferred on us literally with a title, such as Director, Manager, Administrator, Chair,Treasurer, or Secretary. It could be an honorary status in the sense of being the person that others come to when they need help or advice. Or it could be that you simply have a certain level of popularity, success, or other achievement that gives you a strong sense of self-esteem and accomplishment. If these needs are not met, the individual may suffer from stressors such as low self-esteem or an inferiority complex.
Stress can be caused at this level of needs if changes at work occur such as:
- Change that increases or decreases a person’s position in the company
- Change that reduces or increases the number of positions between the individual and the top leadership
- Change that reduces or increases the number of subordinate positions that report to an individual
- Changes in benefits or ‘perks’ received by certain groups or individuals
- Reorganization that changes the person’s perceived level of power or influence
- Changes that make it more difficult (or appear to make it more difficult) to achieve the previous level of performance (and accolades)
- Any change which threatens one’s ability to receive monetary, public, or other recognition (and the resulting status)
- Any change which removes the individual from the group where he held a high level of informal status
Level Five – Self-Actualization
Maslow described this level of human need as the desire to become more and more oneself, and to become more and more of what we are capable of becoming. This level of need is related to meeting one’s full potential – whatever that might be. The exact need is very individual. For example, one person might have the need to be the perfect parent. Another individual might have the need to become athletically gifted, or another to become artistically expressive.
It’s important to realize that this level of need is only achievable when the other four have been met. One must be physically nourished, not have to focus on safety, feel loved and a sense of belonging, and have a good level of self-esteem before he or she would seek this level of desire. Yet if a person is able to pursue this level of needs,the pursuit can cause positive stress, while failures in the pursuit will cause distress.
Additional Types of Organizational Stress
Some of what we discussed in the last section crossed over into organizational stressors. For example, if you get demoted or your perceived power in the workplace is threatening your need for self-actualization, you could say that is also an organizational stressor because it comes from a change to the organization for which you are working.
Some other times when stress may be experienced in the workplace due to organizational stressors include:
- The organization is merging or being acquired
- The structure of the organization is changing to the point that you feel you no longer have a say
- The organization is changing its focus, mission,or values
- The organization is ‘re-branding’ itself
- A significant change is being made in benefit or compensation plans
- You are assigned to a new supervisor whose expectations you are unfamiliar with
- You have a disagreement with a colleague, your supervisor, or your subordinates
Personal Sources of Stress
As we mentioned in the introduction there are also personal sources of stress that just arise from life in general. For example, think about times that you have experienced:
- Your car breaking down
- A robbery or home invasion
- A fire or other damage to your home
- A child getting in trouble at school
- Someone you care for getting sick or injured
- The loss of a loved one
These are just examples – there is literally no end to the ways that stress can arise in our lives. In the next chapter, we’ll look at why we should care about managing stress, both in the workplace and outside of it.