Organizational Role Stress and its Impact on Performance

Organizational Role Stress and its Impact on Performance

Stress is a complex and dynamic concept. Because of its complex nature there is no agreement on a single definition of stress. Stress is broader in term and to define stress is very difficult. The concept of stress originally derives from the field of psychology. However, it has developed into a widely used concept in different organizations and in the work life of the employees. Stress at workplace is the result of rapid technological changes, process going out of control, and time pressure etc. The consequences of stress have not been adequately explored in the field of management and the organizations. Organizations have recently started to invest and trying to understand stress and its overall consequences on the organizational working.

Stress is the non-specific response of the body to a demand made upon it. It is considered to be the inability to cope with the pressures of job. It occurs when external demands exceed from the internal capabilities of the employees. It can be defined as any critical event or any internal drive, which threatens to upset the equilibrium of the organism. It is a stimulus, a response, or the result of an interaction between the person and the environment, in term of some imbalance between the two. It takes place because of the result of the transaction between the person and the environment. It can be a force, pressure, strain, or strong effort, referring primarily to an individual or to the organs or mental power of an individual. All these definitions of the stress mainly focus on the dynamic relationship of the person and the environment and how this concept can get generated as a result. The term stress has a wide use in relation to work in different organizations.

All types of stresses are not harmful. Undesirable level of stress affects overall performance of the organization. Hence, organizational employees are to properly manage the level of stress in order to get the work done effectively. For the achievement of this organizational objective, all the factors which influence stress are to be identified and measured properly. Further, there is no single level of stress which is optimal for every level of employees in the organization. Stress management is essential for the organization for its efficient performance. Stress can be reduced or minimized when the employee is helped to know how stress occurs, the causes of stress, its consequences, and prevention strategies. Stress is required to be checked at an early stage before a burnout takes place.

Stress is the non-specific response of the body to any demand made upon it. The demands made upon an employee are known as stressors.  There is a pattern explaining the stress response which the employee experiences. There are three different stages in the stress process called ‘general adaptation syndrome’ (GAS), These stages are (i) alarm reaction, (ii) stage of resistance, and (iii) stage of exhaustion. The alarm reaction stage consists of two phases namely the shock phase and the counter shock phase. It occurs when the employees are exposed to incitements which they are not used to handle. The shock phase is actuated as an instant response to threat and the counter shock phase helps the individual to establish a defense mechanism in the form of a rebound reaction. In the stage of resistance stage, the body has to cope with the stress since the natural defense mechanism is lowered by a cortisol hormone release from the adrenal cortex. The human body is capable to fend off temporary threats, however longer exposures lead to burnout. The third stage, the stage of exhaustion occurs when the exposure to stress does not decline over time. The preventive assets in the human body are emptied and if the stress levels do not decline, the body does not function normally. The long run consequences are burnouts, organ and immune system failure, or even death. The GAS framework has also received critique arguing for the unawareness of the psychological influences of stress upon an individual and the native capability to cope with stress exposure.

Stress can be a motivator and can help in getting the job done. Stress can be distinguished between negative stress termed as ‘distress’ and positive stress, termed ‘eustress’. This ‘good stress or eustress’ is actually a positive and healthy form of stress and some people enjoy it. Eustress activates and motivates people to accomplish goal. The ‘distress’ is when the good stress becomes too much to bear or cope with. It is important to note that there are three levels of stress namely (i) low level, (ii) moderate or optimal level, and (iii) high level. Moderate or optimal level of stress can act as a motivator. It is normally understood that too much stress is toxic to employees and too little stress can also lead unexpected problem. For example too little stress can result in boredom and apathy and can be accompanied by low performance and too much stress can cause depression, dissatisfaction, anxiety, tension and low performance. An optimal level of stress results in high energy, motivation and high performance.

Positive stress adds anticipation and excitement to work, and the employees thrive under a certain amount of stress. The goal of the organizational management is not to eliminate the stress, but to manage it and so that it helps the employees to perform at the optimal level.

The cause or source of stress is known as ‘stressors’. Stressors are conditions and events which evoke strain. Stressors denote the demands made upon the employees for carrying out their work in the organization. The sources of employees’ stress can be categorized into six components namely (i) intrinsic to job, (ii) role in the organization, (iii) career development, (iv) organizational structure and climate, (v) relationship within organization, and (vi) organizational interface and outside. Stress can be caused by environmental, organizational, and individual variables. Fig 1 shows the relationship among stressors and coping strategies on the individuals and the organization. The consequences of stress cause great harms to both the individual and the organization.

Fig 1 Relationship among stressors and coping strategies on individuals and organization


Role is defined as any position an employee holds in an organization as defined by the expectations of the various significant persons, including self, have for that position. It is a set of obligations, generated by ‘significant’ others. It denotes the set of functions which the employees perform in response to the expectations of the ‘significant’ others and their own expectations from their position in the workplace.

The term role can be defined as an expected mode of behaviour. Role is an interaction between role sender and role incumbent. Role sender sends expectation to role incumbent who has a specific position within the organization. There are three types of roles (i) the expected role, (ii) the perceived role, and (iii) the actual role. The expected role is what the management expects from the employees. The perceived role is how the employees think they are to behave to fulfill the expected role. The actual role is the way the employees actually behave in the organization.

U Pareek has defined role as a set of functions, which an individual performs in response to the expectations about the role. For a role occupant, there are two role systems in a specified role namely (i) role space, and (ii) role set. The definition of role indicates that there are inherent issues in the performance of a role and, hence, stress is inevitable for the role occupant. The concept of role and related concept of ‘role space’ and ‘role set’ have a built in potential for conflict and stress.

Role space includes all the roles occupied simultaneously by the employees in focus. The employees find their place in the centre of this space. Thus it can be defined as the dynamic interrelationship both between the self and various roles which the employees occupy. It has three main variables consisting of self, the role under question, and other roles the employees occupy. Conflicts amongst these are referred to as role space conflicts or stress. These stress factors and their names as suggested by Pareek described later in the article. Organization and employees both have different types of needs due to different situations and different structures. The interaction between these two gets integrated in a role. Fig 2 shows role of employees in the organization.

Fig 2 Role of employees in the organization

Role stressors or role stresses are anything about an organizational role which creates negative consequences for employees. Role related stress is concerned with how employees perceive the expectations management has of them. Role stressors are associated with social roles, which are social positions with clustered expectations. They are made-up of three variables namely (i) role conflict, (ii) role ambiguity, and (iii) role overload.

Recent years have seen an increased interest in the use of role theory to describe and explain the stresses associated with the organizational employees. The concept of ‘role’ is the key concept in understanding the integration of the employees in a system. The first requirement in linking the employees and the organization is to locate the employees in the total set of ongoing relationship and behaviours comprised by the organization. The role theory is normally applied to understand stress problems at work and to examine how and to what extent role pressures contribute to the occupational stress. Kahn and co-workers have extensively studied the stresses arising from two major characteristics of organizational roles, i.e., (i) role ambiguity, and (ii) role conflict.

In the recent times, it has been noted that the role pressure occurs when the employees’ expectations or demands conflict with expectations and demands of the organization. It has further being seen that the ‘role over-load’ as well as ‘role-under-load’ has also been competent stressors. In defining the concept of role in the organization and of its employees, the extent of stress is a matter of degree. Some organizations manage to generate a more harmonious work environment whereas others have higher friction and tension. Human behaviour in the organization is influenced or directed by several physical, social, and psychological factors. One key concept to understand the integration of the employees with the organization is the role assigned to them within the overall structure of the organization. It is through this role that the employees interact and get integrated with the system.

The organization can be defined as a system of roles. However, role itself is a system. Hence, any organization can be perceived as a system of role or combination of roles. The measures of roles are different from position or rather various portfolios of the offices. Office is a relational or power related concept, while role is a concept of obligation. Office is associated with the hierarchical position and privileges, but role refers to the obligations and responsibilities attached to the office. In their daily life, humans are being as such associated with various roles concurrently. They play relation roles, role of the gender they belong, and roles associated with their age group etc. It is a matter of fact that an individual simultaneously performs several roles and this performance is done not in a single period of time but at the same span of time.

Under this perceived situation with the engagement of several roles, employees frequently face the issue about their command over their roles, the issue of their intruding over another, the issue of expectation from them, the issue of his understanding of the concerned job etc., these and several other issues can be constantly plaguing them. And because of these issues, employees certainly experience role stress.

Two major factors identified for role stress are role ambiguity and role conflict. Role overload and role under-load have also been noted as competent factors of occupational stressors. The features of job role set which cause occupational stress have been given due importance in evaluating stress at work for the employees. Except role ambiguity, role conflict, and role overload other potential variables of job roles were not in use before a theoretical speculation of organizational role stress was first made popular by U Pareek.

Organizational role stress

Stress is an inherent physical function enacting with the human brain to inform the nervous system of potential threats. Hence, stress can be considered as a safety mechanism preparing the nervous system to avoid or meet danger, which was especially important two million years ago when it helped humans to survive all potential threats. The potential threats have shifted from mainly short-term survival decisions to long-term decisions and consequences. Nevertheless, the same physical function in the human body is activated. Times have drastically changed and humans are facing new threats compared to the people living two million years ago. The new threats are mainly associated with workplaces. The increased globalization and liberalization have formed workplaces with an increased emphasis on performance and high expectations. The increased expectations in the organization affect how the employees perceive their role in an organization, which is normally referred to as organizational role stress. All the negative experiences the employees experience at work spur and increase the likelihood to develop work related stress-disorders.

An individual who is exposed to organizational role stress for longer periods of time are more likely to get burned-out, which decrease the overall performance and affect co-workers morale negatively. The organizational role stress is present in all types of organizations. Apart from serious illness of the employees, organizational role stress decreases employees’ productivity, which affects the overall competiveness of the organization. Longer exposures to organizational role stress also results into decrease in the quality of services and products, poor customer relations, dysfunctional work climate, and high employees’ turnover.

In case of poorly defined jobs, people have different expectations of the employee’s activities. In consequence, the employee does not have the idea of what to do, eventually fail to meet the expectations. Role conflict, role ambiguity, and other role-related variables do affect the employee’s performance to a great extent. Work and job environment also have bearing on the performance of the concerned employee. Individualities matching with job related factors produce stressors for the employee. It is not necessary that same job environment creates same type of stressors on different employees. On the other hand same stressors do not have equal impact on every stressed employee.

Some jobs provide more stress than others. Those who are involved in rotating shift work, machine paced tasks, and routine and repetitive work, or work in hazardous environments, are associated with higher risk of stress. Evidence also indicates that the sources of stress differ by hierarchical level of organization. Higher level managers’ stress can arise from the pressure for short- term financial results or the fear of hostile take-over attempt, and corporate cutbacks etc. Stressors at the lower level managers include the pressure for quality, customer service, numerous meetings, and responsibility for the work for others. Employees at the working level, on the other hand, are more likely to experience the stressors because of the low social status, lack of perceived control, resource shortages, and the demand for a large volume of error free time bound work. Stress at work resulting from increasing complexities of work and its divergent demands, has become a prominent and pervading factor of the present day organizations.

It is seen that employment in any type of organization is a considerable source of stress. The increased workloads and working close to deadlines increase the demands on employees negatively. The organization consists of several functions denoted as roles and employees occupy specific roles in which they are expected to perform. A broader definition of organizational role stress is the stress the employees experience when organizational and individual needs do not align. For adequately performing in a particular organizational role, the employees are to try and meet the expectations created by the peers they are required to interact with. The level of perceived organizational role stress while confirming to the expectations of others, varies according to the employees’ perception of threats, opportunities, constraints, and situations.

It is being frequently argued that the expectations on a specific role in the organization are a natural built-in source of stress. It is normally emphasized that the organizational role stress is denomination to explain all the different types of stresses the employees experience in their work roles. Organizational role stress occurs when the employees experience negative situations in their role in the organization.

Organizational role stress framework

Organizational management frequently focuses only on three stressors namely (i) role ambiguity, (ii) role conflict, and (iii) role overload when it works on managing organizational role stress. In a study, the positive influences of these three role stressors a model has been created, in which these role stressor are depicted as positively correlated to burnouts. These three stressors are also the most conventional stressors which are being focused when studying the organizational behaviour. Only these three role stressors existed under organizational role stress framework until 1982 when U Pareek introduced seven additional dimensions in Organizational role stress framework. The introduction of these additional seven dimensions has considerably expanded the framework to measure organizational role stress. These seven new dimensions are namely (i) inter-role distance, (ii) role stagnation, (iii) role erosion, (iv) role isolation, (v) personal Inadequacy, (vi) self role distance, and (vii) resource inadequacy.

All the ten stressors are important to understand the organizational role stress since they all affect employees’ satisfaction, performance and organizational commitment. These ten role stressors are derived from situations the employees experience while carrying out their specific role in the organization. The ten different stressors included in the organizational role stress framework are described below.

Inter role distance – Every working employee plays more than one roles at a time. Employees’ role in work place can come into a conflict with family or social roles they are otherwise preoccupied with. Inter role distance occurs when different roles possessed by the employees are in conflict. Inter role distance is the conflict which is likely to arise when the employees attempt to play several roles. For example an employee can occupy a managerial role in the organization and family role at the same time as well. Inter role distance can be described as the neglect of family, friends, and personal interests, which all are likely to cause negative stress. The conflict which arises because of the organizational and non-organizational role generates such element of stress.

Role stagnation – Role stagnation can be defined as the lack of development in the role possessed by the employees. This sort of conflict is generated due to the difference between the extreme involvement with an existing role and the new role which one incumbent has to accept for the change in the organization. This peculiar phenomenon occurs especially when the employees enter new role / job after occupying a fixed role for a long period of time. If the employees have occupied a specific role for a long time, the role development can stagnate due to comfort, which hinders them to undertake new roles and challenges. Role stagnation occurs when the employees experience the lack of development and the feeling of being stuck in the same role. It can also occur when the employees feel that there is no opportunity for the progress of their career. When the employees are given a new or higher role, they can stick to the old role due to the feeling of insecurity. The stresses which give the feeling of being stuck in the same role lead to the perception that there is no opportunity for further development.

Role expectation conflict – This is a kind of stress when a role occupant remains in dilemma about whom to please. There can be two or more than two persons interested in the outcomes of employees’ performance in the role and surprisingly, their expectation can differ from each other. Role expectation conflict is a result of the different expectations employees develop in their social setting and identification with other peers. The discrepancy between the employees own expectations about their role and their role in the organization frequently differ from the expectations of peers and managers, which is a source of stress. Further, role expectation conflict occurs when discrepancies exists between the employees’ own expectations and expectations of others namely colleagues, or reporting manager.

Role erosion – Role erosion is a feeling of stress when the role occupants feel that their job is being performed by others due to indulgence of the authority. It can also surface when credit of performance is otherwise shifted from the actual doer to other one. Role erosion is the employees’ perception that some functions in the organization belong to their role, however performed or transferred to some other employees in the organization. Role erosion can also arise when the employees perform adequately in the work role, but credit is given to some other employees. Role erosion arises if functions and tasks belonging to a specific role are being performed or shared with others. It is likely to occur in organizational changes and when the organization creates new roles or redefining current roles.

Role overload – When the employees feel that they are loaded with work, which is beyond their capacity to accomplish, this particular stress can occur. Role overload occurs when the employees with a specific role have difficulties to perform according to the demands from other roles. Role overload is defined as a situation where the demands on a specific role of the employees are too high. It occurs when the employees feel that too much is expected from them. This overloading can be of three types namely (i) too much physical load, (ii) time constraints, and (iii) intellectual incapability to combat the very element of work. It is divided into a quantitative and qualitative aspect. The quantitative aspect refers to situations where the employees have too much to do while the qualitative aspects refers to the employees not having adequate knowledge to perform tasks at hand.

Role isolation – Role isolation is defined as the mistrust and neglect from close colleagues and peers, which are related to low job-satisfaction. Role isolation is a situational distress of role occupants where they feel that due to very nature of the job, they remain isolated from other role occupants as well as from other occupants’ role. If the place of job is not conducive for interaction this sort of stress can occur among the employees where they can even feel that they and their performances are purposefully ignored in the organization. Role isolation is a direct consequence of inadequate cooperation and linkages of communication between the employees’ role and other roles in the organization. An alternative definition of the role isolation is that the employees can possess several roles in an organization and role isolation occurs when a psychological distance exist between these roles.

Personal inadequacy – Personal inadequacy arises when the employees do not possess necessary skills to perform tasks expected in their functioning of the organizational roles. This type of stress is very common among the newly appointed employees where due to lack of training and knowledge they feel that they are not capable of performing the task meant for them. Personal inadequacy can even occur due to the changes in the technology of function when existing employees can feel such stress, since they are not acquainted with the new technology. Occupant of such stress can feel alienated.

The fast development of technologies and the changes taking place in the society need that the organization management implements regular follow-up training and education for the employees. Personal inadequacy is defined as the feeling of obsolescence which can arise when the employees reach a career ceiling or are close to retirement. Personal inadequacy is the result of inadequate preparation, skills, expertise, or knowledge to manage and effectively perform in an organizational role.

Self role distance – This type of stress emerges due to conflict to understand one’s self-concepts with the demands of organizational role. Self role distance occurs when the values and self-concepts of the employees are in conflict with what is needed in the organizational role. This type of stress can occur when the employees perpetually feels that their likings do not match with the requirements of the role they occupy. Self role distance is defined as the stress arising when the role of the employees do not conform to their personality. Self role distance is experienced when role occupants have to do things what they dislike, when the employees’ special knowledge and skills remain unutilized, or when there is a conflict between the image, needs or values of the role and the role occupants. Prolonged engagement with any stereotype work can be the source of such stress.

Role ambiguity – Role ambiguity is the lack of clear, consistent information of actions needed for a particular position. This is a type of stress which takes place where the role occupants remain confused about the priority of their functioning. If authority fails to categorize the function of a role occupant with specific priority, this type of stress becomes obvious. It arises when the employees have an unclear understanding of their role in the organization and the expectations laid on them. Role ambiguity is defined as the lack of information available with the employees which is needed for adequate performance. Role ambiguity is experienced by the employees when no clear expectations exist about their role in the organization. Normally mistrust from colleagues and peers are related to high role ambiguity and low job satisfaction. Role ambiguity interferes with the employees’ ability to perform personal goals, which consequently lead to negative impact of the stress.

Resource inadequacy – Resource inadequacy occurs when resources needed for an individual to perform effectively in a role are inaccessible. Resource inadequacy is experienced by the employees when resources such as ‘human resource, building, infrastructure, materials, machines, tools, equipment, books, documents, and information etc.’, needed for performing the role, are inadequately provided. Employees experience resource inadequacy when inadequate resources are provided to them to perform task within their role. Resource inadequacy is present when employees do not have adequate resources (e.g. lack of supplies, personnel, information, or historical data in the system, or because of their own lack of knowledge, education, or experience etc.) to perform their roles effectively. This is the type of stress occurs when the role occupants feel that they are not provided with appropriate resources to combat the challenges of the requirements of the role they occupy. It can even occur due to late as well as casual direction from the end of their manager.

Causes of organizational role stress

Employment is essential for people to function properly in a society and in return they spend considerable amount of their time at the workplace. The need to always be available for work is considered to be a distinct source of stress. The causes of organizational role stress have been the subject of various studies and are categorized into two main groups namely (i) job related stressors, and (ii) individual related stressors. Tab 1 gives the job related stressors.

Tab 1 Job related stressors
Environment specificOrganizational specificJob specific
Economic conditionsChanges within the organizationPoor fit between abilities and skills
Increased levels of competitionReorganizationsWork overload
Market changesDelayingWork place
Technological developmentLay-offsPressure to work longer hours
Changes in production and productsOrganizational structureJob characteristics
Drive for greater cost effectivenessOrganizational culture / climateConflicting job demands
NetworksMergers / acquisitions and similar issuesUnclear job expectations
Multi-nation company (MNC)Changes in organizational ownershipPressure of responsibilities
Workforce diversityTime pressure
General public concern for the environmentReward systemsLack of resources to perform job
Promotion policyLack of information
Job security

The Job related stressors are further divided into three sub-groups namely (i) environment specific, (ii) organizational specific, and (iii) job specific. The organizational and job specific stressors are focused on the actual work situations and include stressors such as lay-offs, changes within the organization, unclear job expectations, and time pressure.  The environment specific stressors are broader and include several factors not directly linked to the individual such as market changes, technological development, and general public concern for the environment. However, all the stressors in Tab 1 above have the potential to spur the perceived organizational role stress among employees.

Tab 2 shows the individual related stressors. The individual related stressors have been narrowed down into two categories namely (i) individual characteristics, and (ii) individual life circumstances. The individual related stressors are broader than the job specific stressors and include stressors such as demographic characteristics, family problems, and financial difficulties.

  Tab 2 Individual related stressors
Individual characteristicsIndividual life circumstances
Personality traitsDemographic characteristics
Coping skills, etc.Work / life conflict
Family issuesPersonal issues
Financial difficulties etc.

Role stressors are responsible for job stress and job dissatisfaction. There are various tools and techniques to measure and manage role stressors and among those, the role episode model (Fig 3) which is described later, is one of the classical tools to study and to manage role stressors at workplace.

Kahn and co-workers have conducted a series of studies in which they found that the role conflict and role ambiguity are source of job stress. Role overload or workload is the third form of role stress and it can be defined as a number of tasks assigned to perform more than individual’s capabilities, time pressures, as well as scarcity of resources to fulfill commitment. Role stress variables which consist of role conflict, role ambiguity, and role overload belong to organizational variables.  Some of the studies have identified role ambiguity and role conflict as a major source of stress and job tension. Other than these two stressors, work overload both quantitatively and qualitatively has been empirically linked to a variety of physiological, psychological, and behavioural strain symptoms.

A number of studies have found that role stressors are responsible for creating negative impacts such as job tension, job dissatisfaction, employee turnover, employee burnout, low organizational commitment, and performance. Hence, managers are to identify these variables to manage role stress at workplace conflict, role ambiguity, and role overload / work overload .Role conflict can be defined as when individuals simultaneously perform multiple roles and they conflict each other. Role conflict has been as ‘job roles which interfere with one another’ or ‘incompatible expectations associated with a position’.

Kahn and co-workers have defined role conflict as ‘existence of two or more roles such that to manage with one makes it difficult to manage with other’. They identified five major forms of role. First one is intra sender conflict which occurs when a role set member needs the focal person to perform contradictory tasks. For example, a role sender can request the role incumbent to perform task and task cannot be completed without disturbing rules. But role sender attempts to enforce the rule. Second is the inter sender conflict which occurs when the role behaviour demanded by one role set members is incompatible with the role behaviour demanded by another role set members. Third is inter role conflict which occurs when the focal person receives two or more roles at times which are incongruence in nature. Fourth is intra role conflict or person-role conflict which occurs when the role requirements are incongruent with the focal person’s attitudes, values, and professional behaviour. Fifth is role overload which occurs when the focal person is required to do number of tasks by different role set members.

Role ambiguity arises when individual do not have role clarity to perform the assigned job. Employees have unclear plans and objective, lack of clarity of their duty and uncertainty about the amount of authority to perform assignment. Employees are likely to experience two types of role ambiguity. One, concerning the task and the related activities and the other is concerning the feedback regarding their performance of the task. For example, in case of employees at work place, lack of regular feedback from their line manager is the highest source of stress. Regular and quality feedback enforces the work place employees to analyze their performance on the job, if they are going on right direction or not. Quality and positive feedback can result in high performance and low stress among the work place employees. It is seen that the employees who do not receive regular feedback can experience considerable uncertainty about their role performance. Regular feedback from a line manager can reduce role ambiguity.

Role overload is a complex form of role conflict. It occurs simply when employees have more task than they can handle. When a set role expectations are higher than the focal person’s capabilities, it results into role overload. It can be either qualitative or quantitative. Quantitative task can be defined as the person has too many tasks to perform or too little time to perform them and qualitative occurs when person lacks ability to perform task. For example, employees normally experience role overload when they face difficulty in completing their assigned tasks due to work overload especially in case of new employees. This is a significant predictor of strain.

Causes of organizational role stress

The workplace is a potentially important source of stress mainly because of the amount of time which is spent by the employees in this setting. Seven categories of stresses have been identified, which include six external stresses and one individual stress. External stresses are (i) factors intrinsic to job (too much or too little work, poor working conditions, work overload, and time pressure etc.), (ii) role in organization (role ambiguity, role conflict, and responsibility of peoples etc.), (iii) career development (under or over promotion, and job insecurity etc.), (iv) organizational interface (organizational versus family demands, and organizational versus own interests etc.), (v) organizational structure (restriction on behaviour, and work place politics etc.), and (vi) relationship with the organization (poor relationship with line manager, and co-employees etc.). The individual stress consists of the stressors due to individual differences (personality, coping capability, and behavioural pattern etc.).

Five groups of stressors have been identified in a study. These include (i) organizational practices (performance reward systems, supervisory practices, and promotion opportunities etc.), (ii) job / task features (work load, work pace, and autonomy etc.), (iii) organizational culture / climate (employee value, personal growth, and integrity etc.), (iv) interpersonal relationships (line managers, co-workers, and customers etc.), and (v) employee personal characteristics (personality traits, family relationships, and coping skills etc.). In another study, job stressors have been classified into the six categories namely (i)  physical environment, (ii) role stressors, (iii) organizational structure and job characteristics, (iv) relationships with others, (v) career development, and (vi) work-family conflict.

On the basis of complexity and present day organizational environment and organizational life, altogether, causes of organizational stress can be grouped into two main groups namely (i) job related stressors, with three major subgroups of stressors which are environment specific, organization specific, and job specific stressors (Tab 1), and individual-related stressors, which can be either a consequence of individual characteristics or a consequence of individual life circumstances (Tab 2).

There is evidence that job stress affects job satisfaction negatively and there is a considerable relation between job stress and job satisfaction. Job stress affects job satisfaction and career satisfaction negatively. It is seen that there exists a positive relationship between role stressors and job stress. It has been found that anxiety is directly related to role conflict, role ambiguity, and role overload. A number of studies have also demonstrated that role conflict is associated with low job involvement and organizational commitment, tension, anxiety and intention to leave the organization. Role ambiguity is also responsible for job stress and job dissatisfaction.

A study has identified that both the role conflict and role ambiguity are responsible for job tension, job dissatisfaction, employee turnover, and employee burnout. A positive relationship between tension and role overload has been found. It has also been reported that role overload results in poor job satisfaction. But there are exceptions in a study of relationship between role conflict and role ambiguity with job satisfaction. One of the studies among a sample of managers has reported no relationship between role conflict and job satisfaction. However, a positive correlation between role conflict and job threat has been reported.  Another study has found a negative relationship between role conflict and job related threat and anxiety.

One study has observed negative relationship between role conflict and job satisfaction among certain category of employees but no such negative relationship among another employees’ category. These observations suggest that the effects of role conflict vary with various occupations. Studies have shown a difference in the impact of role ambiguity across occupations. It has also been found in one of the studies that the role ambiguity is positively associated with job dissatisfaction.

Managers can play a vital role in identifying and tackling role stressors .They are also required to investigate the consequences experienced by the employees. For example, employees experience role overload when they are assigned a number of tasks more than their capabilities from different managers. In this case, role overload can be managed by assigning optimal workload from their managers.

Management of role stress variables

In highly competitive environment, organizational management and the employees are required to be aware of role stress variables and they are to find ways to reduce or manage the variables. This is necessary for the organizations to survive and grow. Further, actions are needed for the measurement of role stress variables, identification of sources of stress, and reduction of the stress variables. For example, role ambiguity, role conflict, or role overload can be a source of stress. Management or role senders or mentors can play an important role in reducing sources of role stress variables.

There are different tools and techniques which are available to measure role stress variables such as RHL scale, organization role stress (ORS) scale, quantitative workload inventory (QWI), and the role ambiguity scale (RAS). RHL scale was the first scale developed by Rizzo and co-workers to measure role conflict and role ambiguity and has been widely used. In majority of the studies (around 85 %), the 6 items to 12 items RHL scale has been used. This scale captures one dimensional ambiguity perceptions about the overall or global ambiguity associated with one’s role.

Mentoring – Mentoring is one of the effective tool to manage role stress at the work place .Mentors are normally highly experienced people in the organization who are interested in guiding and promoting the employee’s career and also members of that role set. Kahn and coworkers  have stated in their study that role incumbent experiences (i) low job satisfaction, (ii) lower confidence in the organization, (iii) high degree of tension, and (iv) intention to quit organization because of the role expectations are not clear to the focal employee or focal employee’s perceived role not matches with expected role. Here mentors can provide role clarifying information to the focal employee and alternatives for dealing with role demands including role expectation which can create conflict.

The role ambiguity occurs since the employees are not clear about their role or there is no proper communication between role set members and the focal employee. In a study, it has been found that quality feedback from role set members or immediate managers and co-workers is responsible to minimize role ambiguity. For example, employees experience role ambiguity due to lack of regular feedback which is highest source of stress.  As per one study, the intentions to leave organization can be minimized by high quality exchange between the employees and their managers. In another meta-analytical study, it has been found that the role conflict and role ambiguity affect employees’ satisfaction in negative way. But, on the other hand, mentoring can result in higher job satisfaction.

Stress models

Stress models such as the ISR model (Institute of Social Research) or the Role Stress Approach model, Cooper and co-worker stress model, and Cooper and Marshall’s stress model have found that role stressors are major source of job stress and job stress negatively affects job satisfaction.

Role episode model – Role episode model is known as interactional management tool between the role set members and role incumbent. The model was given by Katz and Kahn. In order to examine and integrate the study on role conflict and role ambiguity, the role episode model is very useful. The model depicts transactional relationship between the role senders and the focal person.

Focal person or role incumbent occupies a particular position (social location) within the organization. Individuals are the people who send role expectation to the focal persons regarding their activities in the role compromise role set. They are called role senders or role set members. The role set members communicate their expectations which are called sent role and it carries role pressure. A role incumbent or focal person receives from role set members the set of expectations. The role episode model consists of a cyclic series of communications between role set member and the role incumbent. This process continues until the role episode finishes, creates shared expectations or postpone negotiations. Fig 3 shows the role episode model.

Fig 3 Role episode model

Fig 3 suggests that there are organizational, personal, and interpersonal factors which affect the role episode model. The organizational factors consist of structure, level in the organization, role requirements, task characteristics, physical setting, and organizational practices. The personal factors (which can be applied to both the role senders and focal person) refer to such variables as age, education, status, needs, and tenure in the organization. The interpersonal factors is the relationship between role senders and focal person and include frequency of their interactions, mode of communication, importance of sender to focal person, physical location, visibility, feedback, and participation. The role sender can be the focal person’s manager, customer, co-worker, or subordinate in the organization.

Role sender – focal person relationship is normally investigated by gathering perceptual data on role conflict and role ambiguity from the objective responses. Kahn and co-workers have found lower levels of job satisfaction for those employees with high role conflict and role ambiguity. Rizzo and co-workers found the same thing and supported the theory of Kahn and co-workers. Role episode model is used in various studies to identify predictors associated with role stress in order to reduce stress which can increase job satisfaction among employees.

For better understanding the effects of stress to performance, P Nixon created a graph of the stress performance curve explaining how stress affects performance in theoretical terms. Fig 4 shows this graph.

Fig 4 Effect of stress on performance

Role is the position one occupies in the system, and is defined by the functions one performs in response to the expectations of the significant members of a social system, and one’s own expectations from that position or level in the organization. A role is not defined without the expectations of the role senders, including the role occupant. For example, the position of human resource managers can be created in an organization, but their role is defined by the expectations (stated or unstated) which different employees have from the human resource managers, and the expectations that they, in turn, have from the role. In this sense, the role gets defined in each system by the role senders, including the role occupant. The concept of role and the two role systems (role Space and role set) have built-in potential for conflict and stress.

It can be summarized that role episode model is one of the most suitable model to manage role stress variables. Rationale for choosing this model are (i) role episode model is based on role theory and is most suitable model to explain variables related to role conflict and role ambiguity, (ii) it is widely used to study role stress variables among employees, (iii) it is efficient tool to identify predictors involved in role stress variables, (iv) the role conflict and role ambiguity measurement has captured somewhat global perception of role stress and can be used with any job, (v) it is management interactional tool, (vi) it offers a way to focus on manager’s communication uniquely in the workplace, and (vii) It captures role dynamics and easily integrates into managerial work, jobs, and behavioural perspective.

In 2009, The European Agency for Safety and Health at Work published a study about work related stress in the European Union including all member states. The European Agency conducts a study every fifth year and employees from all member states of the European Union participate. The purpose of the study is to obtain information about the psychological as well as physical working conditions and to identify upcoming threats. The study of 2009 has indicated that the core countries of the European Union are working less hours per day compared to the new member states in which employees’ working hours are exceeding eight hours per day. The study has emphasized that reduced working hours among employees create a more intensive work environment with more stress because of working closer to deadlines. This study also revealed that perceived work-related stress is different among age groups with middle-aged employees experience higher levels of stress than their older and younger colleagues. Differences between genders were also found with males described to experience higher levels of stress than females. Also, there are some sectors which experience higher levels of stress and anxiety than other sectors.

The study conducted by the European Agency for Safety and Health at Work emphasize that 50 % to 60 % of all work absence is related to organizational role stress. The study also shows that the organizational role stress has serious implications both for the employees and for the organizations, hence the organizational role stress is important to prevent unnecessary costs to the society.

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