The Role of Stress in Organisations


Stress refers to the feeling of pressure and demand that human beings feel when in uncomfortable environments. The way of the world has evolved through the enablement of technology. Digitalization is a driver of change (Morris, 2013) and allows individuals, organisations and societies to connect, collaborate and co-create with one another from different parts of the world.

As such, the way in which humans operate now in comparison with earlier years, promote an environment of continuous availability. The concept of the milieu interieur, as conceptualised by Claude Bernard refers to the internal environment of the body. In his concept, Bernard highlights that consistency of the internal environment of the body is required and is essential for survival.

Walter Cannon (1915) further expanded on this notion by phrasing this activity as homeostasis. Cannon also invented the term ‘fight or flight’, which describes the acute stress response of such environments that cause high stress, in which the brain alarms the body to fight or take flight. 

Recipe for Success

A plethora of research has highlighted four key principles that affects stress hormones (Centre for Studies on Human Stress (CSHS), 2016). These are novelty, unpredictability, threat to the ego and sense of control. Novelty is defined as something that has not been experienced before. Unpredictability refers to the notion that one does not know what may take place. Threat to the ego refers to a risk toward an individual’s sense of self. Sense of control refers to an individual’s loss of maintaining control.

As recipes for success, CSHS (2016) state that “for a situation to be stressful it must contain one or more of the following elements.” CSHS further states “stress hormones are released in times of stress regardless of age, marital status, and ethnicity, level of income, or level of education because the characteristics of a stressful situation remain the same for everyone. The ingredients are always novelty, unpredictability, threat to the ego, and poor sense of control.”

Kinds of Stress

 There are various kinds of stress, which are acute stress, episodic acute stress and chronic stress (Healthline, 2016). Acute stress is the most common of stress and is described as the biological response to unexpected challenges or events. This is the feeling when your heart rate increases and your brain works faster due to various stress hormones being released.

Episodic acute stress is when acute stress takes place frequently. This causes the individual to become irritable, anxious and generally pessimistic. Individuals with episodic acute stress are more prone to health issues as they constantly experience such anxiety and irritability.

Chronic stress is a further expansion of episodic acute stress and if this is not resolved, more physical and mental strain will take place. Some reasons for such stress are brought upon poverty, a dysfunctional family, an unhappy marriage or having a bad job. With such physical and mental strain experienced, various diseases and medical issues may take place that include heart disease, cancer, lung disease, accidents, cirrhosis of the liver and even suicide (Healthline, 2016).

Stress in the Workplace

According to the American Psychological Association (APA) (2016), “a feeling of powerlessness is a universal cause of job stress.” This correlates with one of the recipes for stress pertaining to sense of control. A plethora of literature state that stress can be a good thing as it allows individuals to maintain focus, to be aware of their environment and to avoid various challenges and threats. Excessive stress though has the opposite affect and poses challenges of physical and mental strain.

Segal, Smith, Robinson & Segal (2016) states six ways, which can assist in minimising damaging effects of stress. One of these factors are initiating positive relationships within the workplace and beyond. Establishing such relationships promotes a powerful support structure where an individual can receive advice, a different perspective or additional knowledge on the event that is stressful.

A further factor to minimise stress is to frequently get up and move from one’s seat. Sitting for longer than an hour is not healthy for an individual and may contribute significantly toward the pressures of feeling stressed. From a dietary perspective, omega-3 fats help reduce stress and boost one’s mood. A healthy diet is beneficial in minimising both physiological and mental strain as the body can function to its full potential.

In addition to a healthy diet, is a sufficient amount of rest and sleep. According to WebMD (2016), “Most adults need 7-9 hours of sleep per night. Practicing good sleep hygiene along with stress-lowering tactics can help improve your quality of sleep.” Another ideal way to manage stress is to regain control through planning, organising and prioritising workload and deliverables. This will assist with managing pressures of deadlines and achieving urgent and important goals. In order to alleviate the negative outlook that accompanies stressful situations, humour is a great tool to improve such outlooks.

Segal et al. (2016) highlight various physical warning signs that are attributed to excessive stress. These include feeling anxious, irritable, or depressed or loss of interest in work. It may also include sleeping problems, fatigue, muscle tension and headaches. There may also be social withdrawal, stomach problems, trouble with concentration or substance abuse.

Employer’s Role in Alleviating Stress

According to Segal et al. (2016), there are three ways in which employers and organisations can contribute to minimising the role of stress in the workplace. The first factor is to improve communication between the employer and the employee. This intervention should take place in a calm setting that harbours a face-to-face discussion.

This intervention should encourage transparent and honest discussion; with the emphasis being on assisting the employee manage their current stressful challenges. By means of this kind of discussion, employers can hear the employee’s tone of voice, observe their body language and can offer coaching in terms of managing stress.

Employers should consult with their employees in such ways as to share information about their respective roles and the future at the organisation. Employers should allow employees to participate in various decision-making that affects their current role. Employees should be made to feel valued and possibly rewards and incentives could be offered.

In this consultation, employers should be aware of any high workload in terms of unrealistic deadlines. Workload should be suitable for employees in terms of their abilities and available resources. Opportunities for career development is a great incentive for employees, as well as employees having ownership in their work. This promotes such a culture where employees feel they have control over their work, which thereby minimises damaging stress effects.

Another factor that employers should incorporate into their strategy is the cultivation of a friendly social climate (Segal et al., 2016). This allows the organisation to provide opportunities to employees for social interaction amongst one another. This increases the employee’s network for support and advice.

The employer should establish a zero-tolerance policy for harassment. Further to this, Executive management of an organisation should promote consistency of their culture in alignment to their organisational values.


Stress is part of human’s everyday life and although it can be a good thing for people in terms of survival, the dangers of chronic stress can have detrimental effects both on physiological and mental levels. Further to this, workplaces are becoming more demanding as digitalization has led to lack of boundary in many individuals personal life. This naturally leads to a stressed environment that promotes challenges and complex situations.

In this time of high-stress, employees and employers need to be aware of damaging stress effects and to take action, both in their work lives as well as their personal lives in order to handle and manage stress effectively.



Storm Thomas

January 2017







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