STRESS, PERSONALITY AND WORK

In the mid 1900s, psychosomatic medicine (see glossary) began to place importance on identifying specific psychological characteristics that might be considered as authentic risk factors in relation to diseases. From this research very interesting data emerged regarding the relationship between the personality and tolerance towards stress. In particular, with reference to the ways in which people cope with stress, it was found convenient to postulate the existence of two separate personality types characterised by differing sets of behaviour patterns known as Type A or Type B behaviour (Friedman and Rosenman, 1959).

Individuals belonging to the Type-A group are those more exposed to stress and present a higher chance of suffering from a physical or mental disorder on account of the pressure of stressful events (see also ‘Stress and Illness’). For example, Type-A people are very vulnerable with respect to cardiovascular disease (heart attack, stroke, hypertension etc.). Those in the Type-B category on the other hand reveal a greater capacity to cope with potentially stressful situations, consequently reducing their risk of becoming ill. The difference between the two types does not depend on the fact they present two different and well-defined personality structures but rather on the way in which they organise their responses to stressful situations.

Type A Behavior
Type B Behavior

- A high degree of competitiveness pervading every aspect of life. The tendency to seek and accept challenges and a desire to work hard to overcome difficulties or obstacles.

- Aggressiveness (often repressed) constantly present in all personal and social interaction.

- Impatience and an intolerance towards the different rhythms and faults of others.

- Muscular tension, explosive speech, hypervigilance, difficulty in relaxing.

- Tendency to want to perform and obtain an unlimited number of things in a limited period of time.

- A strong need to always have situations totally under control.

- A drive to acquire things, objects and assets and to be a consumer.

- Smoking, alcohol and repetitive oral activities often present.

- Very limited physical activity.

- Few interests apart from work.

- Irregular and excessive eating habits.

- A form of competitiveness which is selective and proportionate to the real importance of planned objectives.

- ‘Physical’ aggressiveness induced by stimuli that are adequately frustrating. Limited basic aggressiveness.

- A capacity to adapt to and tolerate the differences of others and their different rhythms.

- Muscular relaxation, tranquil speech and “phasic” vigilance (normal rapid mobilization of resources to process an unexpected stimulus). No difficulty in relaxing.

- Tendency to plan things that have to be achieved and obtained in accordance with available time.

- Very little need to be constantly in control in all situations.

- Relatively indifferent towards ‘consuming’ and acquiring useless things.

- Very limited use of tobacco and alcohol.

- Physical activity.

- Interests in activities other than work.

- Controlled eating habits.


Type A individuals also suffer to a higher degree from work stress. The pressures of work, deadlines, being overburdened with professional activities, conflicts with colleagues and duties or tasks that are difficult to cope with may in fact have a profound effect on the way in which a person perceives and considers his or her work. Feeling under great pressure is a negative outcome, while feeling challenged and feeling capable of responding to such challenges represents a positive result. In other words, the impact of work stressors (see previous page) and one’s personal response are modulated by the way in which an individual perceives stress factors. It is not exactly an easy thing to judge what impact stress may have in a professional or occupational context, however some estimates suggest that about half of the work days lost in the United States on account of absenteeism can be linked to the effects of stress (Elkin and Rosch, 1990). The characteristics of an occupational situation or context most easily associated with states of stress include the following:

  • Excessive noise, which makes it much more difficult to concentrate and communicate with one’s colleagues.
  • Being overburdened with professional duties, i.e., a period of work exceeding 40 hours per week.
  • Lack of time that would be normally required to carry out a task. Having to consequently work quickly and not very precisely.
  • Little variety in one’s occupational activities. Always performing the same duties.
  • The monotony of one’s professional activities. Duties are carried out mechanically without real participation or interest.
  • Insufficient or total absence of recognition or rewards for good performance.
  • The absence of any power of discretion or control. When it is not possible to control one’s activities directly and there is no chance to perform them in the way one would really desire to.
  • Too much responsibility.
  • An ambiguous role. The lack of precise information regarding one’s professional duties or unpredictable consequences and outcomes in relation to the tasks performed.
  • Conflicts with colleagues or one’s superiors. A lack of agreement with work colleagues about work procedures and interferences on the part of others in one’s activities.
  • A lack of satisfaction and no personal achievement. For example, when one cannot be sure of the continuity of one’s employment or of the possibility of professional advancement or when we find ourselves in situations in which it is not possible to express our talents, skills and capacities.
  • Being the object of prejudice, threats and vexation. Situations that lead to what is often defined as mobbing.

The term “mobbing” was coined in the early 1970s by the ethologist Konrad Lorenz to describe a behaviour typical of certain animal species that may form a group and surround and noisily attack an animal so as to expel it from the herd. Two types of mobbing occur in the workplace: hierarchical mobbing and environmental mobbing. In the first case, the abuse is perpetrated by individuals that hold a position of superiority over the victim, who is forced to carry out humiliating tasks and duties. In the second case, the victim’s colleagues themselves will isolate the individual and openly deprive him or her of ordinary forms of collaboration, the customary dialogue and any kind of respect.

The practice of mobbing consists in vexing a subordinate work colleague or employee by means of a variety of methods of psychological and physical coercion. For example, taking away gratifying work to give it to colleagues or through some form of disqualification of a worker’s contribution, which would be reduced to such boring duties as preparing coffee or doing the photocopying or in any case carrying out very dull tasks requiring practically no decisional autonomy. Another widespread practice is that of reprimanding and complaints, expressed both privately and in public, following what would be normally considered as insignificant errors. The  mobbing phenomenon can be identified in situations where workers have been deliberately provided with poor-quality equipment or computers and printers that continuously break down, uncomfortable furniture and where they have to spend time in poorly-lit environments. In such cases it will often occur that no form of technical assistance is available. In other cases, if a worker stays at home on account of illness, company managers or owners will make sure they are visited by public officials or others invested with the power to check up on and monitor the authenticity of their employees’ claims. When the victim returns to work, he may do so only to find that his desk has been cleared away or even removed and his computer has been disconnected from the company network.

Another difficulty that workers may be exposed to is the so-called ‘burnout’ phenomenon, which can affect psychologists, psychiatrists, social workers, nurses etc or others working in the helping professions. People suffering from burnout, a state of malaise that derives from a work situation being perceived as stressful, may present a state of apathy and become cynical with their “clients” or indifferent and detached from the working environment. In extreme cases the syndrome can result in quite serious psychopathological damage (e.g., insomnia, marital or family problems, an increase in the use of alcohol or medication) and the quality of the treatment or service provided by those affected worsens, leading to absenteeism and high employee-turnover rates.

>>> (Anxiety books)

 

Bibliographical references:

Elkin, A., Rosch, P. (1990). Promoting mental health in the workplace: The prevention side of stress management. Occupational Medicine: State of the Art Review, 5, pp. 739-754.

Friedman, M., Rosenman, R.H. (1959). Association of a specific overt behavior pattern with increases in blood cholesterol, blood clotting time, incidence of arcus senilis and clinical coronary artery diseases. Journal of American Medical Association, 2196, pp. 1286-1296.


Psychology and psychotherapy
Aggressività, stress, mobbing
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