Cary L. Cooper, Philip J. Dewe, and Michael P. O’Driscoll: Organizational Stress. A Review and Critique of Theory, Research, and Applications. – book review
2001, London: Sage Publications. 288 pages
This book is published in the Sage series ‘Foundations for Organizational Science’. The purpose of this series, among others, is to enhance the quality of doctoral education by ‘providing broader access to the master teachers in our field’ (p. ix). I have just started working as an assistant professor at the Erasmus University in Rotterdam, so this made me curious. How do they teach?
Cooper et al. start with a brief historical overview of the changing nature of the workplace in the second half of the 20th century. Their overview captures developments that many readers may recognize. At least, I did so. For instance, the authors’ description of the sustained recession in the early 1990s had indeed marked the beginning of my ‘boundary-less’, ‘protean’ career, searching for jobs and assignments in which I could use and further develop my skills and abilities, but none of which ever offered me job security. Recognition increases readers’ personal involvement in the topic, which is, of course, one of the basic tools in teaching.
The body of the book gives a straightforward overview of the current state of affairs concerning stress research. Organized into nine chapters, it sketches developments in stress theories, gives many examples of empirical results, and comments on research methods and applications. The book has been written for PhD students and academics alike, so the news value of this overview may be limited for advanced readers. However, the authors raise several critical issues in a way that may stimulate them to reflect upon their own work.
Starting with the stimulus–response paradigm, Chapter 1 gives the definitions of stress that have been used throughout the years, the insights they have generated, and their shortcomings. Most recent is the transactional stress approach, which tries to encapsulate the essentials of the continually changing nature of the processes between the person and the environment. Although this approach has received much attention at the theoretical level, the authors conclude that the practice of stress research nowadays is still transactional, meaning it focuses on static relationships. This calls for a reconsideration of contemporary measurement practices and research designs.
Chapters 2 and 3 read like an example of the stress–response paradigm. Interlarded with empirical examples, Chapter 2 identifies job-related stressors that have been reported as most salient to workers in previous stress research. Subsequently, leaning somewhat heavily on previous reviews, Chapter 3 deals with the assessment of physiological, psychological and behavioral job-related strains. After finishing Chapters 2 and 3, I was left with the burning question as to why all these stressors had been related to all these strains. This is in line with the major critique Cooper et al. ventilate concerning previous stress research. Additionally, they signal that stress researchers need to pay closer attention to, for example, combined impacts of stressors, the time interval between the occurrence of stressor and strains, temporal relationships among strains, the objective environment, and the relevance of the stressors and strains to the workers.
Chapter 4 deals with the definition and measurement of burnout, introduces some theoretical models explaining its occurrence, and gives an overview of burnout correlates. Additionally, it addresses the generalizability of results in human service professions to other occupational groups, and across cultural boundaries. The authors give some directions for future research, which include refining the definition of burnout, improving its measurement, and exploring the possible ‘contagiousness’ of burnout. Those who, like me, have learned that lack of reciprocity, inequity, and a perceived imbalance between effort and reward are core ingredients in the development of burnout (e.g.. Buunk and Schaufeli 1991; Hobfoll and Freedy 1991), will search for these topics in vain.
Chapter 5 deals with possible moderators of the stressor-strain relationship, which are categorized in dispositional variables (e.g. Type A personality, negative affectivity, and hardiness), situational variables (control and autonomy) and social variables (social support). Confusingly, more attention is given to additive models and mediator effects of these potential moderators, probably because limited empirical evidence has been found in support of moderating processes. Yet, the authors conclude that the search for moderator effects is important and they give some directions for future research, such as looking at a possible erosion of stress-buffering effects over time.
Chapter 6 shows that research on coping so far has been rather disappointing. Studies addressing coping suffered from problems concerning its measurement at both the construct and the systems level. Additionally, the definition of coping-effectiveness is fraught with problems. For example, should researchers focus on whether individuals achieve what they are aiming at or apply their own standards of success? Not surprisingly then, empirical findings on the role coping plays in the stress process have been inconsistent. Cooper et al. offer several good suggestions for improving coping research. Most important, they advocate combining qualitative and quantitative techniques, and the use of longitudinal designs.
In Chapter 7, Cooper et al. signal a lack of congruence between the insights obtained on the causes of stress, and the practice of stress management interventions. Organizations primarily manage stress at the level of the individual worker. In contrast, well-designed and well-executed evaluation studies of stress management interventions underscore the superiority of organization-level interventions as compared to individual programs. The authors conclude that well-constructed empirical evaluation research is still scarce, and offer guidelines for experimental designs. The chapter concludes with guidelines for successful implementation of stress management interventions, which include ascertaining levels of strain and stressors, and carefully considering the target of the intervention (preferably the work environment).
Based on their review, in Chapter 8 Cooper et al. underscore that current methodologies are not suited to capture the complex and dynamic nature of the stress process. Stress research in industrial and organizational psychology has been too static. Moreover, the variable-based methodological approach that most researchers have adopted threatens to become an entity on its own, imposing an outsider’s view on the stress process rather than exposing employees’ reality. The authors argue that current measurement methods need to be refined, and the stress process needs to be assessed free from structural limitations. The authors demonstrate the potential of qualitative techniques, such as exposing individuals’ goals, the effects of earlier actions and the social context.
The final chapter describes psychological effects of current changes in the nature of work, and its challenges for future stress research. These include a range of new research topics, for instance related to the increased responsibility for individual workers for developing their own career path, and stress-contagion among working couples. On a more general level, Cooper et al. advocate a more holistic view, in which work stress is studied in relationship with other domains of life, and with an eye towards the context in which coping occurs. Additionally, they suggest the use of a more proactive approach, such as the examination of theoretically driven stress management systems.
For newcomers to stress research, Organizational Stress is a good introduction to the field. Its strength is in generating ideas; it shows many possible directions for future research and advises on how to avoid important pitfalls. On the downside, I found it unsatisfactory that theories and models of stress were discussed very briefly and rather ad hoc. Additionally, and most important for teaching, I missed information placing organizational stress research in the broader context of, for instance, the field of occupational health psychology, which is currently expanding towards a more positive approach (e.g. Quick and Tetrick 2003).
Buunk, B. P., and W. B. Schaufeli
1991 ‘Burnout: a perspective from social comparison theory’ in Professional Burnout: Recent developments in theory and research. W. B. Schaufeli, C. Maslach and T. Marek (eds), 53-66. Washington D.C.: Taylor & Francis.
Hobfoll, S., and J. Freedy
1991 ‘Conservation of resources: a general stress theory applied to burnout’ in Professional Burnout: Recent developments in theory and research. W. B. Schaufeli, C. Maslach and T. Marek (eds), 115-133. Washington D.C.: Taylor & Francis.
Quick, J. C., and L. E. Tetrick
2003 Handbook of occupational health psychology. Washington D.C.: American Psychological Association.
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