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College Quarterly
Winter 1995 - Volume 3 Number 2
Occupational Stress Among Canadian College Educator: A Review of the Literature
by George F. Grant, Elvis A. Ali, Elizabeth J. Thorsen, George J. Dei and Kathryn
Definition of Occupational Stress
  1. Stress: Selye (1974) defined stress as the nonspecific response of the body to any demand made upon it. Previously Selye (1956) defined stress as the sum of all nonspecific changes caused by function or damage or the rate of wear and tear in the body. Stress has been defined differently by various experts. Some define stress as the stimulus, others define it as the response, and still others as the whole spectrum of interacting factors. Probably the best definition for stress is a combination of a stressor and stress reactivity. Occupational distress is the negative effect on the individual from work. Stress is not something to be avoided since the absence of stress is death (Selye 1956). The disagreement among experts about a common definition for stress and the wide variations in perceiving stress among individuals present a challenge in investigating occupation stress.
  2. Stressor: Selye (1956) defined a stressor as a stimulus with the potential of triggering the fight-or-flight response. It is simply the factor that produces stress. The stressor may lead either to distress or to eustress but many researchers refer to stressor as only the negative stressor.
  3. Stress Reactivity: Selye (1956) termed the fight-or-flight response that includes increased muscle tension, increased heart rate, stroke volume, and cardiac output, elevated blood pressure, elevated neural excitability, reduction of saliva secretion in the mouth, increased sodium retention, more perspiration, change in respiratory rate, higher serum glucose, more release of hydrochloric acid in the stomach, changes in brain waves, and increased urine output. The longer the duration and degree of the stressor(s), the more likely ill effects will result from the stress reactivity. Stress reactivity has three phases: alarm reaction; resistance and, finally, exhaustion.
  4. Distress: The body adapts to negative stress with disease, poor performance, and impaired interpersonal relationships. This is a harmful stress that may have a noticeable short-term or long-term effect on individuals if they fail to cope with or adapt to the effect of stress.
  5. Eustress: Positive or pleasant stress to which the body must adapt. This results in good consequences, such as producing personal growth. Eustress is a beneficial stress that enhances performance, and leads to a positive outcome.
  6. Burnout: A syndrome of complete physical and emotional exhaustion with psychological, psychophysiological, and behavioral components. It is characterized by pessimism, paranoia, rigidity, diminished sense of humour, increased physical complaints, self-medication, and social withdrawal. Burnout is a chronic condition that occurs in the helping professions such as doctors, nurses, teachers, lawyers, social workers and police officers (Freudenberger, 1981). There is an overlap between the use of the term stress and burnout in literature and the nomenclature requires further clarification and standardization among researchers.
Occupational Stress Among Teachers

"Job burnout and job dissatisfaction are not synonymous constructs" (McIntyre, 1984, p.23). Teachers expect and want to teach (Kalker, 1984), yet the body's ability to adapt to stress, called "adaptation energy", is finite. Exposure to constant stressors can be tolerated only so long. Rest and relaxation can restore resistance and adaptation levels in the individual to a certain point, but if the stress continues, ultimate exhaustion will occur. Prolonged exposure to occupational distress was found to work in a counter productive way, setting the stage for future pathology (Selye, 1956). Burned out is "a feeling of exhaustion and fatigue, being unable to shake a lingering cold, suffering from frequent headaches and gastrointestinal disturbances, sleeplessness, and shortness of breath" (Friesen, 1988). In short, one becomes too somatically involved with one's bodily functions (p.160). It is a result of working "too much, too long and too intensely. Those who burn out often have a need to give that is excessive and, in time, unrealistic" (pp.161-162).

Burnout occurs when people "lose all concern, all emotion for the persons they work with and come to treat them in detached or even dehumanizing ways" as reported in an American study (Maslach, 1982, p.16). Burnout occurs "when the professional is forced to provide care for too many people" (p.18). "Mental exhaustion is best characterized by the development of a negative self-concept and a decrease in self-esteem. There is a self-preoccupation and increased negative self-talk" (Kalker, 1984, p.17). There is an agreement in literature about the occurrence of the phenomenon of burnout as the chronic phase of repeated exposure to stress.

Pine et al. (1981) cited three reasons why helping professionals, such as teachers, burn out more frequently than other professionals. First, they do emotionally taxing work; second, they share certain personality characteristics that make them choose human service as a career, and third, they share a "client-centred" orientation (p.48). Helping professions, such as teaching, appear to attract people who set high standards for themselves and others; are typically punctual, hurried, and easily bored; have an external locus of control; are flexible, and tend to withdraw from others when they are experiencing stress. These qualities may contribute to burnout in the individual. Whiteman et al. (1985) identified five personality traits which are common to people who tend to burn out: neurotic anxiety, "type A" syndrome, external locus of control, flexibility and introversion. In another study, however, "the intensity, duration and frequency of symptoms and consequences were found to vary from individual to individual (Kalker, 1984, p. 17).

Sources of Occupational Stress

George Bernard Shaw's aphorism: "Labour is doing what we must; leisure is doing what we like" illustrates the distinction between occupational distress and eustress. Selye (1981) said that work is an essential need for everyone. The question is not whether we should or should no work, but what kind of work suits us best. It is estimated that over 75% of adults' non-sleeping time is devoted to job activities and people find a satisfaction and personal identity by means of their employment.

The examination of occupational stress is extremely important in consideration of the billions of dollars lost in stress-related disability claims. Decreased productivity, absenteeism and staff replacement cost, particularly when stress claims were awarded by Worker's Compensation Boards in Canada (Finn, 1982). The annual report from Statistics Canada (1994) showed that workplace stress costs Canadian businesses more than $13 billion annually and 70% of all employees will, at some time, experience problems that reduce performance due to stress. It is estimated that occupational stress costs American businesses over $15 billion per year. There is no doubt that the study of occupational stress will continue to receive the same importance in the future.

The Study of Stress in Work Organizations

The workplace has assumed a crucial role in the provision of human elements besides the obvious physical rewards. Gootlieb (1983) said that the significant amounts of time that people invest in their jobs has led to a "profound impact on their morale, their physical ad mental health, and their personal identity " ( p.160). Trist (1977) insisted that the humanistic aspect associated with work must be addressed to promote desirable outcomes in employment situation. "A new work ethic is beginning to emerge concerned about workplace as a central part of the quality of life as a whole" (Trist, 1977, p.1). This trend of thinking was viewed as particularly important in relation to the increasing demands facing people in today's work force. "Clearly the working Canadian of the 1980s faces a more diverse and complex employment scene than ever existed before in history" (Canadian Mental Health Association 1984, p.1). This trend continues to be even more complex in the 1990s due to rapid change and unpredictable economic conditions. More research on occupational stress in work organizations, particularly in educational settings, must be done now and at the end of this decade to examine the types and extent of demographic and personal variables as related to the perception of occupational stress and to compare these stressors with the research results of the past decades.

Jean Bureau (1983) regarded adaptability to this type of change as "the key to survival" (p.3). Adaptation was also called a means of living healthy existence (Greenwood, 1990). The focus on wellness, renewal and health promotion in the workplace was reflected in employee assistance programs that offered policies, education and training directed toward enrichment in work organizations (Ford, Ford & Weingard, 1985). Mansell (1980) claimed that there are various means of providing work environments with innovative ways of enhancing organization effectiveness. MacBride (1983) and Mansell (1980) believed in cooperation between management and employees toward the achievement of collective goals. Pike (1985) argued that employment improvement strategies should continue to be developed, expanded and refined to meet the changing needs of working people. He also claimed that feedback is essential to the success of people-based, quality of working life approaches.

Community colleges represent a unique model of work organizations for the study of occupational stress perceived by educators since most research has dealt with either school teachers or university professors.

Occupational Stress and Burnout

Dickie (1995) completed a qualitative study on occupational stress to examine and analyze stress situations and stress programs for faculty members in one community college in Ontario. Some issues examined in this study were related to whether educators suffer from teaching stress, and also what their participation rates were in such programs. Results revealed that among 11 educators interviewed, only 1 reported extremely stressful conditions and the remainder of the population reported from low to moderate stress. Although the faculty members were aware of the stress prevention program and other professional development opportunities, their participation rate was poor, particularly for those who needed the services the most. Because this study was strictly qualitative in nature, it did not investigate the statistical significance between the perception of stress and demographic variables, and examining only one college further limits the generalizabilty of the results.

Grant (1991) surveyed stress factors affecting college educators in Ontario. Results showed 53% (66 out of 125) who returned the questionnaire rated stress level from moderate to quite stressful. Areas causing the most stress were: student literacy/numeracy skills, indoor air quality, lack of student motivation and available supplies and resources. The key recommendation in this study was to enhance both corporate and personal wellness. Since this study examined only one college, results may not represent other colleges in Ontario. Future research to examine perceived stress by educators in other college locations is highly recommended.

Woolley (1983) investigated occupational stress among college administrators in Ontario using a survey and found that both type A behaviour (aggressive) and the quality of interpersonal relationships at work had significant influence on the intensity of perceived occupational stress. The study failed to identify the relationship between stress perceived by administrators and college educators. Further research in this areas is highly recommended to elucidate the correlation between occupational stress perceived by college administrators and college educators.

How Educators Can Reduce Their Occupational Stress

Educators should be aware of their own level of occupational stress and they should adopt an attitude to transform distress into eustress. Some studies have shown that adult educators should be student-centred, possessing attitudes of empathy, enthusiasm, support, sensitivity, responsiveness, respect, warmth, trust, acceptance, cooperation/collaboration, understanding, responsibility, openness, caring, and helpfulness towards their adult students. The investigation of the field data revealed that only 16 of the 30 faculty members interviewed had developed a wide range of these attitudes towards their adult students. The study used a functional attitude change theory to propose strategies for addressing faculty attitudinal development needs and relating these strategies to existing programs and activities already in place at the college. Barnsley (1992) defined the effectiveness of community college teachers in coping with stress through a chronological review of the literature written about the American community colleges from 1920 to 1989. The main outcome of the study was a decade-by-decade description of how authors of each decade portrayed the effectiveness of community college teachers in coping with job stress. Several characteristics were identified as predictors in the ability of teachers to cope with job stress: the teacher is student-oriented, has a thorough knowledge of subject matter, uses a variety of teaching methods, possesses good communication skills, motivates students, is well organized, has an inborn capacity for teaching, is dedicated, enjoys teaching, is enthusiastic, has broad scholarship, keeps up to date in the field, and has a positive mental attitude. One of the key conclusions of the study was an appalling lack of research-based literature about effective coping strategies and methods used by teachers in community colleges. If the primary focus of community colleges is to provide high quality education, it is imperative that we train educators to become effective in stress management.

Reducing Educators' Stress

There are many examples in literature that link stress and leader behaviour; however, the main reasons for teachers' resignations in schools, colleges and universities as a result of occupational stress and leadership styles is not clear in scientific literature and requires further elucidation and clarification. Results from research in secondary schools can be extrapolated to include management in colleges and universities (Greenwood, 1990) but more research is needed to identify the relationship between leadership style and perceived occupational stress by college educators. Research on leadership style in the community colleges is still in its infancy despite the fact that colleges in Ontario have been in existence for 28 years. Although Wooley (1983) attempted to examine in detail occupational stress among administrators in various community colleges, he failed to examine clearly the effect of leadership style on the perception of stress among college administrators and college educators. Further research in this area is needed and highly recommended.

"Administrative structure is the salient force in the establishment and maintenance of a positive emotional climate" (Whiteman et al, 1985, p.301). Positive working environment is associated with educators' eustress (i.e., positive and desirable stress) as compared with poor working climate which results in the perception of occupational distress (negative and undesirable) and ultimately occupational burnout. "Management must accept responsibility for the role they have in the remediation of teacher burnout" (Gold, 1985, p.212). "A supportive administration, and particularly direct support from the chairperson, has surfaced as an important factor in stress reduction in the workplace (Dickie, 1995). "The element of 'buffers' has been identified as the needed administrative support" (Conorolly and Saunders, 1988, p.11).

In an article outlining what management can do for college teachers to help in coping with stress, Friesen et al (1988) listed the following key steps:

  1. Eliminate any unnecessary stress;
  2. Improve communication channels;
  3. Encourage teachers to take personal time for hobbies and activities;
  4. Workshops on stress management, relaxation, and cognitive restructuring;
  5. Encourage faculty to participate in fitness and exercise;
  6. Express clearly the mission, vision and performance goals for the organization;
  7. Encourage interaction with peers (team building);
  8. Help teachers by offering new ideas, techniques, and allowing to rotate out of exhausting jobs;
  9. Encourage staff members to express their ideas;
  10. Involve staff in decisions that are relevant to them;
  11. Encourage staff members to develop support systems;
  12. Discuss with teachers the appropriate use of worry;
  13. Help teachers in lowering unrealistic expectations.

Kaikai (1990) reported that college administration can help their faculty to overcome burnout by recognizing and rewarding teaching excellence, nominating excellent teachers for external teaching awards, and sponsoring faculty attendance at seminars, workshops, and conferences. Promoting faculty for performance, and giving extra merit salary increments to educators of recognized excellence are ways of rewarding faculty, and reducing their occupational stress. The literature on the role of management in reducing the occupational stress experienced by educators is far from complete, and further research is needed to examine in detail this relationship.

Sociological and Political Factors Related to Occupational Stress

Occupational stress occurs in different contexts: social, political, cultural, organizational settings, psychological, biological, physical and environmental. Occupational stress influenced by political and sociological factors is considered a more complex construct than merely inclusive of some sources of stress at work. Certain social motivating factors such as team spirit, respect, acceptance and friendly social interactions contribute to a positive work environment which leads to occupational eustress, as compared to hostile work environments that foster racism, sexism, and office politics which lead to occupational distress. Workers' perceptions of the degree of participation in the decision-making process on issues affecting the organization have proven to be related to job satisfaction, and enhanced self-esteem. Participative management styles to establish vision, mission and strategic planning of any organization are the current trends to ensure a healthy sociopolitical work environment.

It is clear from this review that more research in the area of occupational stress perceived by college educators is needed to elucidate the nature and extent of occupational distress/eustress as well as possible coping strategies in this age of rapid change.


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George F. Grant teaches in the School of Biological Science and Applied Chemistry at Seneca College in Toronto; Elvis A. Ali practices medicine in Mississauga; Elizabeth J. Thorsen teaches in the School of Physical and Health Education at the University of Toronto; George J. Dei teaches at the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education, and Kathryn Dickie is a recent graduate of the M.Ed. program, Brock University in St. Catharines, Ontario.