Organizational Stress: A Review and Critique of Theory, Research, and Applications


Cary L. Cooper, Philip J. Dewe & Michael P. O'Driscoll

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  • Foundations for Organizational Science: A SAGE Publications Series

    Series Editor

    David A. Whetten, Brigham Young University


    Peter J. Frost, University of British Columbia

    Anne S. Huff, University of Colorado and Cranfield University (UK)

    Benjamin Schneider, University of Maryland

    M. Susan Taylor, University of Maryland

    Andrew Van de Ven, University of Minnesota

    The Foundation for Organizational Science series supports the development of students, faculty, and prospective organizational science professionals through the publication of texts authored by leading organizational scientists. Each volume provides a highly personal, hands-on introduction to a core topic or theory and challenges the reader to explore promising avenues for future theory development and empirical application.

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    ORGANIZATIONAL STRESS: A Review and Critique of Theory, Research, and Applications

    Cary L. Cooper, Philip J. Dewe, and Michael P. O'Driscoll


    W. Richard Scott


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    Introduction to the Series

    The title of this series, Foundations for Organizational Science (FOS), denotes a distinctive focus. FOS books are educational aids for mastering the core theories, essential tools, and emerging perspectives that constitute the field of organizational science (broadly conceived to include organizational behavior, organizational theory, human resource management, and business strategy). Our ambitious goal is to assemble the “essential library” for members of our professional community.

    The vision for the series emerged from conversations with several colleagues, including Peter Frost, Anne Huff, Rick Mowday, Benjamin Schneider, Susan Taylor, and Andy Van de Ven. A number of common interests emerged from these sympathetic encounters, including enhancing the quality of doctoral education by providing broader access to the master teachers in our field, “bottling” the experience and insights of some of the founding scholars in our field before they retire, and providing professional development opportunities for colleagues seeking to broaden their understanding of the rapidly expanding subfields within organizational science.

    Our unique learning objectives are reflected in an unusual set of instructions to FOS authors. They are encouraged to (a) “write the way they teach”—framing their book as an extension of their teaching notes, rather than as the expansion of a handbook chapter; (b) pass on their “craft knowledge” to the next generation of scholars—making them wiser, not just smarter; (c) share with their “virtual students and colleagues” the insider tips and best bets for research that are normally reserved for one-on-one mentoring sessions; and (d) make the complexity of their subject matter comprehensible to nonexperts so that readers can share their puzzlement, fascination, and intrigue.

    We are proud of the group of highly qualified authors who have embraced the unique educational perspective of our “Foundations” series. We encourage your suggestions for how these books can better satisfy your learning needs—as a newcomer to the field preparing for prelims or developing a dissertation proposal, or as an established scholar seeking to broaden your knowledge and proficiency.

    David A.Whetten Series Editor


    The last half-century has seen an enormous change in the nature of society and of the workplace in particular (Cooper, 1998). The 1960s epitomized the limitless possibilities of change, with the British prime minister of the time proclaiming that the “white heat of technology” was about to transform our lives, producing a leisure age of 20-hour working weeks. This was followed by a period of industrial strife and conflict during the 1970s in much of the developed world. The workplace became a battleground between employers and workers, highlighted by Studs Terkel's observation, in his acclaimed 1972 book, Working:

    This book, being about work, is, by its very nature, about violence—to the spirit as well as to the body. It is about ulcers as well as accidents, about shouting matches as well as fistfights, about nervous breakdowns as well as kicking the dog around. It is, above all, about daily humiliations. (p. xi)

    Out of the industrial relations turmoil of the 1970s came the “enterprise culture” of the 1980s, a decade of privatization, merger mania, joint ventures, process reengineering, and the like, transforming workplaces into free-market, hothouse cultures. Although this entrepreneurial period on both sides of the Atlantic improved economic competitiveness in international markets, there were also the first signs of strain, as “stress” and “burnout” became concepts in the everyday vocabulary of many working people.

    By the end of the 1980s and into the early 1990s, the sustained recession, the move toward the privatization of the public sector, and the information technology revolution laid the groundwork for potentially the most profound changes in the workplace since the industrial revolution. The early 1990s were dominated by the effects of recession and efforts to get out of it, as organizations downsized and flattened their structures. There were fewer people doing more work and feeling more job insecure. The rapid expansion of information technology also meant the added burden of information overload and the accelerating pace of work, with people demanding more and more information coming in faster and faster. From the middle 1980s throughout the 1990s, we also saw a dramatic increase in the number of women in the workplace, with a noticeable pushing of the “glass ceiling” further upward. The changing role of men and women at work, and at home, added another dimension to the large changes taking place in the world.

    The downsizing and the rapidity of change had certainly taken its toll in the 1990s. Although this scenario is cause enough for concern, the underlying trend toward “outsourcing” is leading toward a new form of employment arrangement, the “short-term contract” or “freelance” culture. This has led to what employers refer to euphemistically as “the flexible workforce,” although in family-friendly terms it can at times be anything but flexible. The psychological contract between employer and employee in terms of “reasonably permanent employment for work well done” is truly being undermined, as more and more employees no longer regard their employment as secure and many more are engaged in part-time working and short-term contracts. Indeed, the British Institute of Management survey (Worrall & Cooper, 1997–1999) has generated some disturbing results among Britain's managers. In particular, organizations at the end of the 1990s were found to be in a state of constant change, with over 60% of this national sample of managers having undergone a major restructuring over the previous 12 months. Furthermore, and of specific relevance in the context of the present book, these changes led directly to increased job insecurity, lowered morale, and the erosion of motivation and loyalty. Most of these changes involved downsizing, cost reduction, delayering, and outsourcing. The perception of managers in this research was that although inevitably these changes led to a slight increase in profitability and productivity, decision making was slower and, more importantly, the organization was deemed to have lost the right mix of human resource skills and experience in the process (Worrall & Cooper, 1997–1999).

    So what are the consequences of this change? First, as more and more people work from their homes, whether part time or on a short-term contract, we will be increasingly creating “virtual organizations.” The big corporate question here is: How will the virtual organization of the future manage this dispersed workforce, along with the communication difficulties already apparent in existing organizational structures? Second, with two out of three families/couples engaged in two-earner or dual-career employment, how will working from home affect the delicate balance between home and work, or indeed the roles between men and women? Third, since the industrial revolution, many white-collar, managerial and professional workers have not experienced high levels of job insecurity, and even many blue-collar workers who were laid off in heavy manufacturing industries of the past were frequently reemployed when times got better. This situation has clearly changed. The question that society has to ask itself is: Can human beings cope with permanent job insecurity, without the safety and security of organizational structures, which in the past provided training development and careers?

    The purpose of the present book is to review research in the field of organizational stress in order to reflect upon what this research can tell us about the current and future state of the workplace and its impact on the health of all employees. It helps to focus our efforts on the future of work, where it is going, and the role industrial and organizational psychologists can play in better understanding the dynamics of occupational stress. Hopefully, this book will provide the groundwork for PhD students and academics alike in their efforts to identify future areas of fertile research in the field of workplace stress, stress management interventions, and what can be done to minimize or eliminate the sources of stress that are so poignantly represented in Studs Terkel's insightful observations about working.

    Cooper, C. L. (1998). The Psychological Implications of the Changing Nature of Work. Royal Society of Arts Journal, 1, 71–84.
    Terkel, S. (1972). Working. New York: Avon.
    Worrall, L., & Cooper, C. L. (1997–1999). IM/UMIST Quality of Working Life Survey. London: Institute of Management.


    The authors wish to acknowledge Ben Schneider, Arthur Brief, and David Whetten for their feedback and comments on earlier versions of this volume and also to thank Dan Ganster, Tom Kalliath, Arie Shirom, and Paul Spector for comments on specific chapters. Appreciation is extended to Sue Cartwright, Lyn Davidson, Valerie Sutherland, and Brian Faragher, along with all of our graduate and postgraduate students who have worked with us over the years in conducting research on job stress, burnout, and coping. Finally, we wish to express our deep appreciation to our wives (Rachel Davies Cooper, Linda Trenberth, and Elizabeth O'Driscoll) for their ongoing support and encouragement throughout the writing and production of this book.

  • About the Authors

    Cary L. Cooper is BUPA Professor of Organizational Psychology and Health in the Manchester School of Management and Deputy-Vice-Chancellor (External Activities) of the University of Manchester Institute of Science and Technology (UMIST) United Kingdom. He is the author of over 80 books (on occupational stress, women at work, and industrial and organizational psychology), has written over 300 scholarly articles for academic journals, and is a frequent contributor to national newspapers, TV, and radio. He is currently Founding Editor of the Journal of Organizational Behavior, coeditor of the medical journal Stress Medicine, and coeditor of the International Journal of Management Review. He is a Fellow of the British Psychological Society, the Royal Society of Arts, the Royal Society of Medicine, and the Royal Society of Health. He is the President of the British Academy of Management, is a Companion of the (British) Institute of Management, and is one of the first UK-based Fellows of the (American) Academy of Management (having also won the 1998 Distinguished Service Award for his contribution to management from the Academy of Management). He is the Editor (jointly with Professor Chris Argyris of Harvard Business School) of the international scholarly Blackwell Encyclopedia of Management (12-volume set). He has been an advisor to the World Health Organisation and the International Labour Office and has recently published a major report, entitled “Stress Prevention in the Workplace,” for the European Union's European Foundation for the Improvement of Living and Working Conditions.

    Philip J. Dewe is Professor of Organizational Behaviour and head of the Department of Organizational Psychology at Birkbeck College, University of London. He graduated with a master's degree in commerce and administration from Victoria University in Wellington, New Zealand, and with an MSc and PhD (in organizational psychology) from the London School of Economics. After a period of work in commerce in New Zealand, he became a Senior Research Officer in the Work Research Unit of the Department of Employment (United Kingdom). In 1980, he joined Massey University in New Zealand and headed the Department of Human Resource Management until joining Birkbeck College in 2000. His research interests include work stress and coping, human resource management issues, and the employment of the older worker. He is a member of the editorial board of Work and Stress and the International Journal of Selection and Assessment. He has written widely in the area of work stress and coping.

    Michael P. O'Driscoll is Professor of Psychology at the University of Waikato, Hamilton, New Zealand, where he teaches courses in organizational psychology and organizational research methods. He has a PhD in psychology from the Flinders University of South Australia. His primary research interests are in the fields of job-related stress and coping, and the interface between job experiences and people's lives off the job (especially family commitments and responsibilities), including conflict between job and family commitments. More generally, he is interested in work attitudes and behaviors and the relationship between work and health. He has published empirical and conceptual articles on these and other topics in organizational and social psychology. He has served as an editorial consultant for several academic journals and in 2001 will assume editorship of the New Zealand Journal of Psychology.

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