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Stress: Definition, Model and Level

Stress: Definition, Model, Level, and Potential Stressors

by Businesspedia

What is Stress?

Stress may be defined as “a state of psychological and/or physiological imbalance resulting from the disparity between situational demand and the individual’s ability and/or motivation to meet those demands.”

Stress is the body’s reaction to a change that requires a physical, mental or emotional adjustment or response. It can be caused by both good and bad experiences. When people feel stressed by something going on around them, their bodies react by releasing chemicals into the blood. These chemicals give people more energy and strength, which can be a good thing if their stress is caused by physical danger. But this can also be a bad thing if their stress is in response to something emotional and there is no outlet for this extra energy and strength. Stress can be positive or negative. Stress can be positive when the situation offers an opportunity for a person to gain something. It acts as a motivator for peak performance. Stress can be negative when a person faces social, physical, organizational, and emotional problems. Stress can cause headaches, eating disorders, allergies, insomnia, backaches, frequent cold, and fatigue to diseases such as hypertension, asthma, diabetes, heart ailments, and even cancer.

What stress is not?

The word stress has been used so loosely, and so many confusing definitions of it have been formulated, it is useful to state what does not constitute stress. Each of the following does not amount to stress:

  • Stress is not nervous tension:

        People exhibiting these behaviors may not be under stress.  

  • Stress is not the nonspecific result of damage on: 

         Normal and even pleasant activities can produce considerable stress without causing conspicuous damage.

  • Stress is not that which causes an alarm reaction: 

        The stressor does that, not stress itself.

  • Stress itself is not a nonspecific reaction:

         The pattern of the stress reaction is very specific. it affects certain organs in a highly selective manner.

  • Stress is not a reaction to a specific thing:

         The stress response can be produced by virtually any agent.

  • Stress is not necessarily undesirable:

           It all depends on how you take it. The stress of failure, humiliation, is detrimental; but that of exhilarating, creative, successful work is beneficial. The stress reaction, like energy consumption, may have good or bad effects.

  • Stress cannot and should not be avoided:

         Everybody is always under some degree of stress. The statement “He is under stress” is just as meaningless as “He is running a temperature.” What we actually refer to by means of such phrases is an excess of stress or of body temperature.

If we consider these points, we may easily be led to conclude that stress cannot be defined and that perhaps the concept itself is just not sufficiently clear to serve as the object of scientific study. Nevertheless, stress has a very clear, tangible form. Countless people have actually suffered or benefited from it. Stress is very real and concrete indeed and is manifested in precisely measurable changes within the body.

Hans Selye’s Model of Stress

Stressors like heat, pain, toxins, viruses, cause the body to respond with a fight-or-flight response. 

Stress consists of physiological reactions that occur in three stages:  

Alarm PhaseUpon encountering a stressor, the body reacts with a “fight-or-flight” response, and the sympathetic nervous system is activated.  Hormones such as cortisol and adrenalin are released into the bloodstream to meet the threat or danger. The body’s resources are now mobilized.  
Resistance PhaseParasympathetic nervous system returns many physiological functions to normal levels while the body focuses resources against the stressor. Blood glucose levels remain high, cortisol and adrenalin continue to circulate at elevated levels, but the outward appearance of the organism seems normal. Increase Heart Rate, BP, breathing Body remains on red alert.
Exhaustion PhaseIf the stressor continues beyond the body’s capacity, the organism exhausts resources and becomes susceptible to disease and death.  

Levels of Stress

Stress can be both positive and negative. It is our response to stress—how we manage stress—that makes a difference in terms of how it affects us.

There are two types of levels are as follows

  1. Eustress

Stress resulting from pleasant events or conditions is called eustress. Eustress can be defined as pleasant or curative stress. We can’t always avoid stress, in fact, sometimes we don’t want to. Often, it is controlled stress that gives us our competitive edge in performance-related activities like athletics, giving a speech, or acting.

  1. Distress

 Stress resulting from unpleasant events or conditions is called distress.

  • Acute stress

Acute stress is usually for short time and may be due to work pressure, meeting deadlines pressure or minor accident, overexertion, increased physical activity, searching for something but you misplaced it, or similar things. 

  • Chronic stress

 Chronic stress is prolonged stress that exists for weeks, months, or even years. This stress is due to poverty, broken or stressed families and marriages, chronic illness, and successive failures in life. People suffering from this type of stress get used to it and may even not realize that they are under chronic stress. It is very harmful to their health.

Both distress and eustress elicit the same physiological responses in the body. While stress may not always be negative, our responses to it can be problematic or unhealthy.

Both positive and negative stressful situations place extra demands on the body—your body reacts to an unexpected change or a highly emotional experience, regardless of whether this change is good or bad. If the duration of stress is relatively short, the overall effect is minimal and your body will rest, renew itself, and return to normal.

Stress: Definition, Model, Level, and Potential Stressors

Potential Stressors

Factors that cause stress are called “Stressors.” The following are the sources or causes of organizational and non-organizational stress.

Individual-level Stressors

  1. Career Changes: When a person suddenly switches over a new job, he is under stress to shoulder new responsibilities properly. Under promotion, over promotion, demotion and transfers can also cause stress.
  2. Career Concern : If an employee feels that he is very much behind in corporate ladder, then he may experience stress and if he feels that there are no opportunities for self-growth he may experience stress. Hence unfulfilled career expectations are a major source of stress.
  3. Role Ambiguity: It occurs when the person does not known what he is supposed to do on the job. His tasks and responsibilities are not clear. The employee is not sure what he is expected to do. This creates confusion in the minds of the worker and results in stress.
  4. Role Conflict: It takes place when different people have different expectations from a person performing a particular role. It can also occur if the job is not as per the expectation or when a job demands a certain type of behaviour that is against the person’s moral values.
  5. Role Overload: Stress may occur to those individuals who work in different shifts. Employees may be expected to work in day shift for some days and then in the night shift. This may create problems in adjusting to the shift timings, and it can affect not only personal life but also family life of the employee.
  6. Frustration: Frustration is another cause of stress. Frustration arises when goal directed behaviour is blocked. Management should attempt to remove barriers and help the employees to reach their goals.
  7. Life Changes: Life changes can bring stress to a person. Life changes can be slow or sudden. Slow life changes include getting older and sudden life changes include death or accident of a loved one. Sudden life changes are highly stressful and very difficult to cope.
  8. Personality: People are broadly classified as ‘Type A‘ and ‘Type B‘.
    1. Feels guilty while relaxing.
    2. Gets irritated by minor mistakes of self and others.
    3. Feels impatient and dislikes waiting.
    4. Does several things at one time.

While the ‘Type B’ people are exactly opposite and hence are less affected by stress due to the above-mentioned factors.

Group Level Stressors

  1. Managerial Behaviour : Some managers creates stress for  employees by
    1. Exhibiting inconsistent behaviour
    2. Failing to provide necessary support
    3. Providing inadequate direction 
    4. Showing lack of concern and
    5. Creating high productivity environment.   
  2. Lack of Group Cohesiveness: Every group is characterised by its cohesiveness although they differ widely in degree of cohesiveness. Individuals experience stress when there is no unity among the members of work group. There is mistrust, jealously, frequent quarrels, etc., in groups and this lead to stress to employees.
  3. Lack of Participation in Decision Making: Many experienced employees feel that management should consult them on matters affecting their jobs. In reality, the superiors hardly consult the concerned employees before taking a decision. This develops a feeling of being neglected, which may lead to stress.
  4. Interpersonal and Intergroup Conflict : Interpersonal and intergroup conflict takes place due to differences in perceptions, attitudes, values and beliefs between two or more individuals and groups. Such conflicts can be a source of stress to group members.
  5. Lack of Social Support: When individuals believe that they have the friendship and support of others at work, their ability to cope with the effects of stress increases. If this kind of social support is not available then an employee experiences more stress.
  6. Workplace violence:  Workplace violence is a very serious interpersonal stressor.  Individuals who experience violence have symptoms of severe distress after the violent event.  Workplace violence is also stressor for those who observe the violence. 
  7. Sexual Harassment:  This refers to un-welcome conduct of a sexual nature that affects the job related performance of an employee adversely. 

Organisational level Stressors

  1. Organisational Climate:  A high pressure environment that places chronic work demands on employees fuels the stress response.  
  2. Organisational Structure: It defines the level of differentiation, the degree of rules and regulations and where decisions are made.  Excessive rules and lack of participation in decisions that affect an employee are examples of structural variables that might be potential stressors. 
  3. Organisational Leadership: Represents the managerial style of the organisation’s senior executives.  Some chief executive officers create a culture characterised by tension, fear and anxiety.
  4. Organisational Changes: When changes occur, people have to adapt to those changes and this may cause stress. Stress is higher when changes are major or unusual like transfer or adaption of new technology.
  5. Occupational Demands: Some jobs are more stressful than others. Jobs that involve risk and danger are more stressful. Research findings indicate that jobs that are more stressful usually requires constant monitoring of equipments and devices, unpleasant physical conditions, making decisions, etc. 
  6. Work Overload: Excessive work load leads to stress as it puts a person under tremendous pressure. Work overload may take two different forms :-
    1. Qualitative work overload implies performing a job that is complicated or beyond the employee’s capacity.
    2. Quantitative work overload arises when number of activities to be performed in the prescribed time is many.
  7. Work Under load: In this case, very little work or too simple work is expected on the part of the employee. Doing less work or jobs of routine and simple nature would lead to monotony and boredom, which can lead to stress.
  8. Working Conditions: Employees may be subject to poor working conditions. It would include poor lighting and ventilations, unhygienic sanitation facilities, excessive noise and dust, presence of toxic gases and fumes, inadequate safety measures, etc. All these unpleasant conditions create physiological and psychological imbalance in humans thereby causing stress.

Extra-Organisational StresssStress: Definition, Model, Level, and Potential Stressors

  1. Technological Changes: When there are any changes in technological field, employees are under the constant stress of fear of losing jobs, or need to adjust to new technologies. This can be a source of stress.
  2. Civic Amenities: Poor civic amenities in the area in which one lives can be a cause of stress. Inadequate or lack of civic facilities like improper water supply, excessive noise or air pollution, lack of proper transport facility can be quite stressful.
  3. Caste and Religion Conflicts: Employees living in areas which are subject to caste and religious conflicts do suffer from stress. In case of religion, the minorities and lower-caste people (seen especially in India) are subject to more stress.
  4. Economic Factors: Changes in business cycle create economic uncertainties. When the economy contracts, people get worried about their own security. Minor stress also cause stress in work force.


Variables that cause the relationship between stressors, perceived stress, and outcomes to be weaker for some and stronger for others are called moderators. An awareness of moderators helps managers identify those who are more likely to experience stress and negative outcomes. 

Cognitive Appraisal of Stressors

 Cognitive appraisal of stressors reflects an individual’s overall perception or evaluation of a stressor.

  • Primary Appraisal determines whether a stressor is irrelevant, positive, or stressful.
  • Secondary Appraisal assessing what might and can be done to reduce stress.


  • Physiological consequences
    • 50%-75% of all illnesses
    • Cardiovascular diseases
    • Ulcers, sexual dysfunction, headaches
    • Burnout
  • Behavioral consequences
    • work performance, accidents, decisions
    • absenteeism — due to sickness and flight
    • workplace aggression
  • Cognitive Consequences
    • Poor concentration
    • Inability to make sound decisions or any decisions at all
    • mental blocks
  • Psychological Consequences
    • Anxiety
    • Frustration
    • Apathy
    • Lowered self-esteem
    • Aggression
    • Depression
    • Moodiness
    • Emotional fatigue

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