Karasek's (1979) high-demand, low control model is among the best-supported stress theories.
We all know what it is, right?
Actually, we don’t. Is it anxiety? Is it frustration? Is it a set of physical symptoms? Or is it some combination of those things... and more? We really don’t know what most people mean when they say they are feeling “stressed,” and there’s no reason to believe that we are all using the term in the same way.
In popular use, this isn’t much of an issue. But for companies that are concerned about worker stress and ill-health effects, as well as academics conducting stress research, it’s a problem – and not even one that’s commonly acknowledged. The basic issue is that we can’t address stress-related issues if we don’t agree on what “stress” means.
Bluntly put, “stress” as a concept is a mess – and here’s a simplified version of how that happened.
Selye, rats and adaptation energy
Based on rather cruel-sounding experiments with rats, physiologist Hans Selye, M.D., introduced the terms “stress” and “stressor” to academia. Eventually, he left the scientific community in order to lecture publicly about his own philosophy of how people should manage the stress in their lives. His research and theories were not carried forward directly, though there are interesting parallels between some of his ideas and contemporary stress research.
One example is something that Selye called “adaptation energy.” From his observations of how rats adapted to a range of stressors, recovered, re-adapted and then died, Selye concluded that organisms have a finite amount of “adaptation energy.” He believed that once this mysterious energy becomes depleted, the organism dies. Today’s parallel can be found in how perceptions of long-term individual stress may be linked to the shortening of our DNA’s telomeres, and consequently, premature aging.
“Good” stress versus “bad” stress
Another parallel is the distinction between “good” versus “bad” stressors – or as some researchers today call them, “challenge” versus “hindrance” stressors. “Hindrance” stressors imply failure, while “challenge” stressors imply gain and can be energizing. This distinction argues against the popular notion – sometimes sold by even by Ph.D. consultants – that companies will be better off if they can identify work stress and get rid of it.
So far, the best-supported theory regarding the connection between work stress and illness is the Karasek model, also known as the "demand-control" model. It positions harmful “stress” as what people experience when there’s an imbalance between the psychological demands of work and the degree of control that one has in performing the work. In other words, employees experience stress if they don’t have sufficient control on-the-job to do what’s being asked of them.
In fact, the Whitehall studies, which were conducted in the U.K., found that workers in high-demand, low-control jobs were at greater risk for cardiovascular morbidity than those in executive positions.
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Image: Richard Dudley
Jan is the author of The Cultural Psyche of India: Guidance for the U.S. Marketer. She is a member of the International Association for Cross-Cultural Psychology and an associate member of the Society for Industrial and Organizational Psychology. She holds a master's in organizational psychology from the University of London and has written as a consultant for the life sciences industry since 1993.