Work Demand Stressors and Employee Job Performance

Organizations today are under more pressure than ever to remain efficient and  to  reduce   barriers   to   employee performance. At the same time, employees are faced with an increasing number of work-related stressors. Since these stressors can negatively impact employees’ job performance, it is important for organizations to be aware of the sources as well as how to effectively address stressors.

How Stressors Impact Performance

Stressors can detract from employee performance in three ways.

  1. If an employee perceives a stressor to be threatening or harmful, they will use up their energy coping with the stressor.
  2. Threatening stressors produce adverse physiological effects.
  3. High levels of stressors can result in “information-overload,” in which employees experience a reduced ability to recognize job-related cues and information apart from the stressor.

Dimensions of Stress

Stressors contain two dimensions: threat and challenge. Stressors can contain elements of both threat and challenge. Threat occurs when an employee perceives the stressor to be beyond his or her control or ability to cope with the situation. This level is what we typically think of when we think about “stress;” threat is negatively associated with performance.  Challenge, on the other hand, might be considered “good” stress. Challenge is often positively associated with performance.

Types of Stressors

There are several different types of work-related stressors.

  1. Role Ambiguity: uncertainty and lack of clarity about the tasks to be performed for a particular job.
  2. Situational Constraints: an employee’s immediate work environment inhibits or constrains performance, for example, if the employee has inadequate skills or supplies needed to do the job.
  3. Role Conflict: an employee is required to take on multiple, incompatible roles.
  4. Role Overload: work demands exceed the resources available to meet them.
  5. Job Insecurity: uncertainty about the permanence of one’s job.
  6. Work-family Conflict: conflict between work and family demands.
  7. Environmental Uncertainty: lack of security in the organizational environment (i.e. market uncertainty).

High levels of role ambiguity and situational constraints have the strongest negative impact on job performance. This is likely because they are threatening stressors that employees have little control over; they contain little of the challenge component that can lead to increased performance.

The other stressors have a more complex relationship with job performance; these stressors can contain more of a challenge component and therefore may not be as detrimental to performance. For example, role overload can have negative effects on performance, but in some situations an employee may choose to take on additional responsibilities; in this case, role overload would be more of a challenge than a threat.

The Importance of Perception

Not all individuals will perceive a stressor in the same way. For example, some people prefer a highly structured job in which their responsibilities and tasks are explicit. For these individuals, having a job where little direction is given would be very stressful. On the other hand, an individual who prefers a more ambiguous job might find a highly structured job very stressful.  What is important is whether the employee perceives a situation as stressful.

The Importance of Organizational Context

In addition to individual differences, the organizational context can affect the way a stressor is perceived. For example, in an organization that rewards and values challenging initiatives and innovations, role ambiguity may be perceived as a challenge and  actually improve performance. On the other hand, in an organization that emphasizes standardization and well-established procedures, role ambiguity would more likely be perceived as a threat and therefore more negatively affect job performance.

How to Reduce Negative Impacts of Stressors

  1. Focus efforts on alleviating role ambiguity and situational constraints.

Since these stressors are more consistently related to lowered job performance, organizations should focus their efforts here. Situational constraints can be addressed by providing adequate training and ensuring that the proper supplies and equipment are available to employees.  Role ambiguity can be improved by clarifying and discussing job expectations, goals, and evaluation standards with employees.

  1. Stay informed about which stressors are most prevalent and detrimental to performance in your organization.

Employees’ perceptions of stressors may change over time due to turnover or shifting organizational goals. It is important to be aware of changes and to use resources to reduce the most relevant stressors in order to improve employee performance.

  1. Include several dimensions of job performance in evaluations.

Because of the complicated relationships stressors have with job performance, include several dimensions of performance in evaluation to ensure that you are getting a clear picture of the impact of stressors. For example, you may want to use supervisor-rated performance, self-rated performance, and objective measures of performance (when applicable) such as sales data.

  1. Keep in mind the importance of individual perception as well as organizational context.

Not all individuals will react in the same way to stressors, and stressors do not always have the same meaning across organizations.

Interpretation by:

Michelle Toelle

The DeGarmo Group

This was a summary of the research and practice implications from: Gilboa, S. et al. (2008). A meta-analysis of work demand stressors and job performance: Examining main and moderating effects, Personnel Psychology, 61, 227- 271.

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