What organizational stress is and why it matters

Christina G. Leonore Nerstad, Ingvild Müller Seljeseth, Astrid M. Richardsen, Sir Cary Cooper

Organizations can turn negative stress into learning and growth.

Stress is often viewed as something unhealthy, dangerous, and “a must be avoided” because of the heavy toll it has been found to play on individuals’ lives. Examples of such stress related problems are heart disease, drug abuse, alcoholism, complaints of illness, work groups or families suffering from the stress problems of their members. Also, stress is seen as a detrimental factor to the productivity and health of companies and countries due to the high cost it can impose on employee well-being and organizational productivity.

We need to understand the process of stress

Still, stress can also be adaptive for individuals because it has the capacity to foster learning and growth. Thus, stress is not to be the root of all ills and social problems at work or in life, it may also engender positive outcomes such as work-related well-being. We therefore need to re-shift the focus from the extent to which there is too much or too little stress in employee's lives, to how we can understand the stress process (the negative and positive) and its implications for the management of stress.

There are wide discrepancies in the way stress is defined, but stress theories typically have a common theme of addressing an imbalance or misfit between the person and the environment. An underlying premise is that strain, such as burnout, is the individual's responses to stressors which can be stimuli such as time pressure, workload, destructive leadership, and job insecurity, occurs when there is an imbalance between the demands of the work situation and the resources of the employee.

Stress arises when the misfit is perceived as salient and significant by the individual, when it is an initial threat to the individual’s well-being, and when it requires actions over and above normal functioning. A situation which can create such an imbalance may for example be holding a work-related presentation in front of a big audience. This may by some be perceived as a stressor and engender what we refer to as negative stress, while for others it may rather engender positive stress.

How our brain reacts to stressors

What is the source of the different stress responses? The brain becomes aware of a potential danger, such as public speaking, and sends signals of this potential danger to the part of the brain, the amygdala, where emotional information is processed. Amygdala further sends information to the sensory center of the brain, thalamus, and informs about the arousal state of the individual. Further, the potential danger is evaluated, the stress hormones adrenalin and cortisol are released, and based on an evaluation of the danger “alarm”, a stress response, results if the alarm is interpreted as threatening.

To what extent a stressor such as public speaking is perceived as threatening or pleasant, as in negative or positive stress,  may depend on the employee’s appraisal. This appraisal depends on the previous experiences of the employee, but also on their expectations of how they will be able to cope with the particular situation of public speaking.

Employees’ appraisal matters

An important reason for a reduction in a stress response may be that one learns from the situation. For example, an employee who has experienced making a successful public presentation in the past may have developed a positive expectation of being able to cope when making the upcoming presentation.

This means that when the brain stores information about coping success in previous stressful encounters (e.g., public speaking, organizational change), it produces a positive expectancy of being able to cope in similar situations.

The best way organizations can manage stress

Employees are more likely to experience negative stress and strain such as burnout and depression, when they lose their resources at work. Therefore, organizations and their leaders are well advised to facilitate and boost employees’ pools of resources through for example strengthening social support, organizational support, creating work climates and cultures characterized by aspects such as teamwork, participation, autonomy, mastery, development, and cooperation, health and well-being promoting HR practices and leadership.

Furthermore, given the burden of too high job demands, organizations need to be conscious of the level of demands that their workers experience, and seek remedies to decrease the burden of too high demands. This is particularly important considering recent changes where work is excessively available, manifested through for example working from home, long working hours, taking work along on holidays, or being present at work when one is sick and should have stayed at home.

The way organizations manage stress is important. Organizations and their leaders can harness and use the energy that stress creates to foster learning and growth, rather than experience the toll of stress by the loss of productivity and ill-health for the employees.

This article was first published on the Sage Perspectives Blog.


Nerstad, C. G. L., Seljeseth, I. M., Richardsen, A. M., Cooper, C. L., Dewe, P., & O’ Driscoll, M. P. (2023). Organizational stress: A review and critique of theory, research, and applications, 2nd ed. Sage.


Published 24. May 2023

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