Sources of Stress – Workplace stress, including the effects of work load and control.

Description, AO1 of Research into Workplace Stress

Definition: Workplace Stress: Some aspect of our working environment (such as work overload or impending deadlines) that we experience as stressful, and which causes a stress reaction in our body. A number of factors have been identified as common causes of stress in the workplace. These include physical sources such as noise, level of danger, length of working hours and work overload as well as psychological factors such as amount of responsibility, perceived amount of control and relationships with colleagues.

In recent years, the workplace has been seen as the major source of stress. According to Furedi (1999), stress has overtaken common colds as the main cause of work absence.

Sources (or causes) of workplace stress:

1. Low Control: Although the popular perception is that managers and senior executives are most susceptible to stress (as they have ‘responsibility’ and therefore ‘control’) It has been suggested that the relationship is more complicated than this. Fox et al (1993) found a combination of low control and high demands for nurses was related to stress-related illness (high blood pressure). Therefore, it was argued ‘low control’ can cause stress.

2. Work Overload: Work overload can lead to stress. One way of identifying work overload is in terms of the number of hours worked per week. Breslow and Buell (1960) studied workers in light industry and found that those who worked over 48 hours a week were twice as likely to develop heart coronary disease as those who worked 40 hours or less per week.

Key Study Looking at the Workplace as a Source of Stress:

Aim: Johansson et al (1978) aimed to find out how workplace stress affected health and productivity.


  • They studied a small group of 28 male manual labourers) in a large Swedish timber sawmill. This group was considered to be the high risk group (high workload and low control) and consisted of sawyers, edgers and graders (the finishers*).
  • The rate at which the high-risk group worked determined the output of the mill so their job was very responsible.
  • This high-risk group was compared with low-risk workers/a control group of stickers (repair men and maintenance workers).
  • Both groups were matched in terms of factors such as education and job experience.
  • The researchers’ measured both groups stress hormones (adrenaline and noradrenaline) daily and obtained self-reports on job satisfaction and patterns of illness.
  • *Sources of stress for the ‘finishers’ included:(a) Responsibility for the mill’s output (work overload)                                                     (b) Responsibility for the pay of other employees (since pay was linked to productivity – work overload)),                                                                                           (c)Working independently (in isolation, so they didn’t have others to share problems with).                                                                                                                        (d) Little control (since they worked on a conveyor belt)                                                (e)Highly skilled but repetitive work.


  • The high-risk group were found to have higher illness rates and also higher levels of adrenaline in their urine in comparison to the low-risk group.
  • The high-risk group reported more illness in comparison to the low-risk group.
  • The high-risk group (sawyers, edgers and graders) had a greater workload and lower sense of control –their jobs were repetitive and constrained and since the tasks were pre-planned there was little possibility of individual design of work-routine and self-control of work pace.
  • The high-risk group also reported more cases of social isolation.


Conclusion: The researchers concluded that the workplace can cause stress which in turn can cause illness. The features of the workplace that are associated with stress include low control and work overload.


Evaluation, AO3 of Research into Workplace Stressors


(1) Point: Further research has supported Johansson’s conclusion that stress in the workplace can lead to the development of illness. Evidence: For example, Marmot et al (1997) who studied civil servants working in London. He found that the people in lower grade positions were one and a half times more likely to have cardiovascular problems than those in higher grade positions due to the fact that those individuals in lower-grade positions had low control over their job. Evaluation: This is a strength as it supports the idea that a low degree of control, lack of flexibility can increase stress in the workplace causing illness and disorders such as coronary heart disease (CHD).


(1) Point: The sample used in Johansson’s study can be criticised for being bias/ not reflective of the whole population. Evidence: For example, Johansson used a sample made up of just male sawmill workers, however it is possible that other individuals working in different professions may react in a different way to specific factors in the workplace. Evaluation: This is a weakness because the participants used in Johansson’s study are not reflective of the whole population as the sample excludes females and as a result, the findings cannot be generalised as the research lacks population validity. Think why might the sawmill workers react differently to the individual (mentioned above) excluded from the sample?

(2) Point: Research has found conflicting findings between whether work over-load or work under-load causes the most stress therefore leading to illness. Evidence: For example, Shultz et al (2010) gathered data from 16,000 adult employees across 15 European countries. The discovered that employees reporting work over-load had the highest level of stress related illness. However, those who reported stress under-load also reported low job satisfaction and significant levels of absence due to stress related illness. Evaluation: This is problematic because the findings into work-under-load contradict Johansson’s findings suggesting that work under-load can be just as stressful as work overload.