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Social Stressors: Who Can Cope?

Workplaces are generally thought to be stress-inducing environments on many levels.  Various studies have examined task-related stressors (e.g., high work load), but it is also important to consider the influence of social stressors – psychological/physical strains that are social in nature (e.g., co-worker conflict, poor group climate, unjust treatment, and verbal aggression from customers).

Buffering Social Stressors

It is valuable to understand characteristics of those who can successfully buffer (cope) against social stressors.  Therefore, research has looked toward understanding core self-evaluations.   Core Self Evaluations areindividual characteristics that represent fundamental evaluations people form concerning themselves, other people, and the world in general. Core Self Evaluations consist of four distinct individual traits that vary from person to person and include:
  • Self-esteem – general confidence and assurance in oneself.
  • Locus of control – beliefs about what causes good or bad events (i.e., environmental [external], or individual causes [internal]).
  • Generalized self-efficacy – views of individual ability to ascertain goals.
  • Neuroticism – tendency to experience more negative emotional states (e.g., anger, anxiety, guilt).
These traits take part in mediating how one copes with stress and can ultimately buffer against unwanted stressors. For example, an individual who has an internal locus of control, has high self-esteem and generalized self-efficacy, while low in neuroticism may, generally, cope with stress/stressors better than an individual who has an external locus of control, is low in self-esteem and generalized self-efficacy, yet high in neuroticism.

Conservation of Resources

Core self evaluations are important to buffering against stressors, therefore one must examine the idea that individuals can gain or lose resources from four principle categories, which include valued resources:
  • Object Resources – such as place of dwelling and vehicles.
  • Condition Resources – such as status in the organization and place in the community.
  • Personal Resources – such as feelings of achievement.
  • Energy Resources – interpersonal or time investments.
Social stressors in the workplace (e.g., conflicts with coworkers, unpleasant workplaces, or organizational politics) may threaten and/or cause a depletion of valued resources. However, these stressors can be buffered by higher core self evaluations. For example, being viewed negatively at work (losing condition resources), experiencing feelings of failure (losing personal resources), or expending energy coping with negative social situations (using up energy resources) can all deplete resources.  These resources can be better maintained with higher levels of core self evaluations and can ultimately lead to higher coping of job strains.

Job Related Outcomes

Social Stressors relate to negative job outcomes such as low levels of job satisfaction, turnover intentions, and a lack of helping behaviors. Individuals reporting more social stressors at work perceive that their personal resources are being threatened or are expending additional resources (e.g., time and energy). For example, when social stressors are present in the workplace, an individual spends time thinking about how to manage and possibly avoid these situations. Individuals, therefore, expend time and energy, thus resulting in greater strains and less energy for obtaining goals and helping others. Again, greater core self evaluations are relevant and necessary as those possessing such characteristics are better equipped and more able to minimize/buffer the aforementioned negative situations (i.e., how to manage and possibly avoid social stressors) that lead to depleted resources and ultimately to negative job related outcomes.

Implications for Practice

When dealing with social stressors in the workplace:
  • Promote positive social climates and establish norms against social injustice and/or aggression – this should lead to fewer social stressors and therefore fewer resources needed to maintain/buffer against social stressors.
  • Consider employee selection and placement – individual traits such as core self evaluations are stable (i.e., enduring individual characteristics); therefore altering these characteristics may be impractical.  It is important to assess workplace social stressors and hire and/or place appropriate individuals for the job and/or situation (i.e., if there are high social stressors, seek individuals with high core self evaluations).
Ultimately, by understanding the work situation and level of stress, while evaluating (or at least understanding) an employee’s ability to cope through core self evaluations and conservation of resources there exists the possibility of mediating social stressors at work. In addition, by doing so negative job related outcomes and job strains can be avoided – increasing an employee’s resources and focus to achieve organizational goals and uphold organizational values.

Interpretation by:

Adam Bradshaw

The DeGarmo Group

This was a summary of the research and practice implications from: Harris, K. J., Harvey, P., & K. M. Kacmar (2009). Do social stressors impact everyone equally? An examination of the moderating impact of core self-evaluations. Journal of Business Psychology, 24, 153-164.