Theories of Psychological Stress at Work

  • Philip J. Dewe
  • Michael P. O’Driscoll
  • Cary L. Cooper
Part of the Handbooks in Health, Work, and Disability book series (SHHDW)


This chapter is about theories of work-related stress. Of course, throughout this Handbook, stress-related topics are discussed. However, in order to understand different theories and to give them a sense of time, place, and meaning, we attempt to explore them against the changes in how stress has come to be defined. The importance of exploring stress theories in this way lies in the way it gives a sense of history: of why different theories prevailed (Cooper, Dewe, & O’Driscoll, 2001), whether they are “worthy of the intellectual resources focused on them” (Kaplan, 1996, p. 374), whether they adequately express the nature of the experience itself (Newton, 1995) and, despite the knowledge and understanding they have provided, whether they are still capable of expressing “the stress of the stress process” (Lazarus, 1990, p. 4). We also explore whether we can distil from them what should now become the organizing concept of the future around which such theories should focus. Liddle (1994) describes an organizing concept as one with “sufficient logic and emotional resonance to yield systematic theoretical and research enquiry that will make a lasting solution” (p. 167). Finally, we explore the different theories in terms of how they have influenced our measurement strategies, where our current methodologies are taking us, what this means for understanding the richness of the stress experience, and the type of evidence they provide in terms of work stress and well-being. However, this chapter does not review all the different theories of stress. In order to explore how they have evolved, we have selected a number that best express this evolutionary process, although all theories have an evolutionary element to them. A comprehensive review of stress theories can be found in Cooper (2000). This book is as “a compendium of theory rich in diversity and range” (p. 4) emphasising not just the need for theories to capture the essence of the work experience itself, but also help us as researchers fulfil our moral responsibility to those whose working lives we study. This chapter begins by first exploring the evolutionary milestones in the way stress has been defined. It then uses this as the context for exploring the development of selected stress theories. The chapter concludes by exploring what this means in terms of our understanding of work stress, those elements that should now be reflected in our theories of stress and the issues we now need to consider as researchers and practitioners.


Work Stress Work Engagement Turnover Intention Stress Process Work Colleague 
These keywords were added by machine and not by the authors. This process is experimental and the keywords may be updated as the learning algorithm improves.


  1. Aldwin, C. M. (2000). Stress, coping, and development: An integrative perspective. New York: The Guilford Press.Google Scholar
  2. Beehr, T. A., Glaser, K. M., Canali, K. G., & Wallwey, D. A. (2001). Back to basics: Re-examination of the demand-control theory of occupational stress. Work and Stress, 15(115–130).Google Scholar
  3. Brief, A. P., & George, J. M. (1991). Psychological stress and the workplace: A brief comment on Lazarus’ outlook. In P. L. Perrewé (Ed.). Handbook on job stress [Special Issue]. Journal of Social Behaviour and Personality, 6, 15–20.Google Scholar
  4. Cavanaugh, M. A., Boswell, W. R., Roehling, M. V., & Boudreau, J. W. (2000). An empirical examination of ­self-reported work stress among U.S. managers. Journal of Applied Psychology, 85, 65–74.PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  5. Cooper, C. L. (Ed.). (2000). Theories of stress. Oxford: Oxford University Press.Google Scholar
  6. Cooper, C. L., Dewe, P., & O’Driscoll, M. (2001). Organizational Stress: A review and critique of theory, research, and applications. Thousand Oaks: Sage.Google Scholar
  7. Coyne, J. C. (1997). Improving coping research: Raze the slum before any more building! Journal of Health Psychology, 2, 153–155.PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  8. Coyne, J. C., & Gottlieb, B. H. (1996). The mismeasure of coping by checklist. Journal of Personality, 64, 959–991.PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  9. Cranford, J. A. (2004). Stress-buffering or stress-exacerbation? Social support and social undermining as moderators of the relationship between perceived stress and depressive symptoms among married people. Personal Relationships, 11(1), 23–40.PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  10. Cummings, T. G., & Cooper, C. L. (1979). Cybernetic framework for studying occupational stress. Minneapolis: Minnesota Press.Google Scholar
  11. Cummings, T. G., & Cooper, C. L. (2000). A cybernetic theory of organizational stress. In C. L. Cooper (Ed.), Theories of stress (pp. 101–121). Oxford: Oxford University Press.Google Scholar
  12. Daniels, K., Beesley, N., Cheyne, A., & Wimalasiri, V. (2008). Coping processes linking the demands-control-support model, affect and risky decisions at work. Human Relations, 61(6), 845–874.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  13. Dawis, R. V., & Lofquist, L. H. (1984). A psychological theory of work adjustment. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.Google Scholar
  14. Dewe, P. (2001). Work stress, coping and well-being: implementing strategies to better understand the relationship. In P. Perrewe & D. Ganster (Eds.), Research in occupational stress and well-being: Exploring theoretical mechanisms and perspectives 1 (pp. 63–96). Amsterdam: JAI Press.Google Scholar
  15. Dewe, P. (2003). A closer examination of the patterns when coping with work-related stress: Implications for measurement. Journal of Occupational and Organizational Psychology, 76, 517–524.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  16. Dewe, P., & Ng, A. (1999). Exploring the relationship between primary appraisal and coping using a work setting. Journal of Social Behavior and Personality, 14, 397–418.Google Scholar
  17. Dewe, P., O’Driscoll, M., & Cooper, C. (2010). Coping with work stress: A review and critique. Chichester: Wiley-Blackwell.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  18. Edwards, J. R. (1995). Alternatives to difference scores as dependent variables in the study of congruence in organizational research. Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes, 64, 307–324.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  19. Edwards, J. R. (2000). Cybernetic theory of stress, coping and well-being. In C. L. Cooper (Ed.), Theories of stress (pp. 122–152). Oxford: Oxford University Press.Google Scholar
  20. Folkman, S. (2011). Stress, health, and coping: Synthesis, commentary, and future directions. In S. Folkman (Ed.), The Oxford handbook of stress, health, and coping (pp. 453–462). Oxford: Oxford University Press.Google Scholar
  21. Folkman, S., & Lazarus, R. S. (1980). An analysis of coping in a middle-aged community sample. Journal of Health and Social Behaviour, 21, 219–239.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  22. Folkman, S., & Moskowitz, J. T. (2004). Coping: Pitfalls and promise. Annual Review of Psychology, 55, 745–774.PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  23. Frese, M., & Zapf, D. (1999). On the importance of the objective environment in stress and attribution theory. Counterpoint to Perrewe and Zellars. Journal of Organizational Behavior, 20, 761–765.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  24. Hakanen, J. J., Perhoniemi, R., & Toppinen-Tanner, S. (2008). Positive gain spirals at work: From job resources to work engagement, personal initiative and work-unit innovativeness. Journal of Vocational Behavior, 73(1), 78–91.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  25. Halbesleben, J. R. B. (2006). Sources of social support and burnout: A meta-analytic test of the conservation of resources model. Journal of Applied Psychology, 91(5), 1134–1145.PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  26. Hobfoll, S. E. (2001). The influence of culture, community and the nested-self in the stress process: Advancing conservation of resources theory. Applied Psychology: An International Review, 50, 337–421.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  27. Holroyd, K., & Lazarus, R. (1982). Stress, coping and somatic adaptation. In L. Goldberger & S. Breznitz (Eds.), Handbook of stress: Theoretical and clinical aspects (pp. 21–35). New York: Free Press.Google Scholar
  28. Johnson, J., & Hall, E. (1988). Job strain, work place social support and cardiovascular disease: A cross-sectional study of a random sample of the working population. American Journal of Public Health, 78, 1336–1342.PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  29. Kaplan, H. (1996). Themes, lacunae and directions in research on psychological stress. In H. Kaplan (Ed.), Psychosocial stress: Perspectives on structure, theory, life courses and methods (pp. 369–401). New York: Academic.Google Scholar
  30. Karasek, R. A. (1979). Job demands, job decision latitude and mental strain: Implications for job redesign. Administrative Science Quarterly, 24, 285–308.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  31. Karasek, R. A., & Theorell, T. (1990). Healthy work: Stress, productivity and the reconstruction of working life. New York: Basic Books.Google Scholar
  32. Kickul, J., & Posig, M. (2001). Supervisory social support and burnout: An explanation of reverse buffering effects. Journal of Managerial Issues, 13, 328–344.Google Scholar
  33. King, D. W., King, L. A., Foy, D. W., Keane, T. M., & Fairbank, J. A. (1999). Post-traumatic stress disorder in a national sample of male and female Vietnam veterans: Risk factors, war-zone stressors and resilience-recovery variables. Journal of Abnormal Psychology, 108, 164–170.PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  34. Lazarus, R. S. (1990). Theory based stress measurement. Psychological Inquiry, 1, 3–12.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  35. Lazarus, R. S. (1999). Stress and emotion: a new synthesis. London: Free Association.Google Scholar
  36. Lazarus, R. S. (2000). Toward better research on stress and coping. American Psychologist, 55, 665–673.PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  37. Lazarus, R. S. (2001). Relational meaning and discrete emotions. In K. Scherer, A. Schorr, & T. Johnstone (Eds.), Appraisal processes in emotion: Theory, methods, research (pp. 37–67). New York: Oxford University Press.Google Scholar
  38. Lazarus, R. S., & Cohen-Charash, Y. (2001). Discrete emotions in organizational life. In R. Payne & C. Cooper (Eds.), Emotions at work: theory, research and applications for management (pp. 45–81). Chichester: John Wiley.Google Scholar
  39. Liddle, H. A. (1994). Contextualizing resiliency. In M. C. Wong & E. W. Gordon (Eds.), Educational resilience in inner-city America (pp. 167–177). Hillsdale, N.Y.: Earlbaum.Google Scholar
  40. Lowe, R., & Bennett, P. (2003). Exploring coping reactions to work stress: application of an appraisal theory. Journal of Occupational and Organizational Psychology, 676, 393–400.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  41. Luszczynska, A., & Cieslak, R. (2005). Protective, promotive, and buffering effects of perceived social support in ­managerial stress: The moderating role of personality. Anxiety, Stress and Coping, 18(3), 227–244.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  42. Murray, H. (1938). Explorations in personality. Boston, MA: Houghton Mifflin.Google Scholar
  43. Nelson, D. L., & Simmons, B. L. (2003). Health psychology and work stress: A more positive approach. In J. C. Quick & L. E. Tetrick (Eds.), Handbook of occupational psychology (pp. 97–119). Washington, DC: American Psychological Society.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  44. Nelson, D. L., & Simmons, B. L. (2004). Eustress: An elusive construct, an engaging pursuit. In P. L. Perrewe & D. C. Ganster (Eds.), Research in occupational stress and well being (Vol. 3, pp. 265–322). Amsterdam: Elsevier JAL.Google Scholar
  45. Newton, T. (1995). Managing’ stress: Emotion and power at work. London: Sage.Google Scholar
  46. Panatik, S. A., O’Driscoll, M. P., & Anderson, M. H. (2011). Job demands and employee work-related psychological responses among Malaysian technical workers: The moderating effects of self-efficacy. Work and Stress, 25(4), 355–371.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  47. Schaufeli, W. B., Bakker, A. B., & Salanova, M. (2006). The measurement of work engagement with a short questionnaire: A cross-national study. Educational and Psychological Measurement, 66(4), 701–716.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  48. Shirom, A., Toker, S., Berliner, S., & Shapira, I. (2008). The job demand-control-support model and stress-related low-grade inflammatory responses among healthy employees: A longitudinal study. Work and Stress, 22(2), 138–152.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  49. Shupe, E. I., & McGrath, J. E. (2000). Stress and the sojourner. In C. L. Cooper (Ed.), Theories of stress (pp. 86–100). Oxford: Oxford University Press.Google Scholar
  50. Siegrist, J. (2009). Job control and reward: Effects on well-being. In S. Cartwright & C. L. Cooper (Eds.), The Oxford handbook of organizational well-being (pp. 109–132). Oxford: Oxford University Press.Google Scholar
  51. Simmons, B. L., & Nelson, D. L. (2007). Eustress at work: Extending the holistic stress model. In D. L. Nelson & C. L. Cooper (Eds.), Positive organizational behaviour (pp. 40–53). London: Sage.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  52. Somerfield, M., & McCrae, R. (2000). Stress and coping research: Methodological challenges, theoretical advances. American Psychologist, 55, 620–625.PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  53. Tennen, H., Affleck, G., Armeli, S., & Carney, M. (2000). A daily process approach to coping. American Psychologist, 55, 626–636.PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  54. Wall, T., Jackson, P., Mullarkey, S., & Parker, S. (1996). The demands-control model of job strain: A more specific test. Journal of Occupational and Organizational Psychology, 69, 153–166.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  55. Warr, P. B. (2007). Work, happiness and unhappiness. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum.Google Scholar
  56. Warr, P. B., & Clapperton, G. (2010). The joy of work: Jobs, happiness, and you. London: Routledge.Google Scholar
  57. Wethington, E. (2000). Theories of organizational stress: Book review. Administrative Science Quarterly, 45, 640–642.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  58. Xanthopoulou, D., Bakker, A. B., Demerouti, E., & Schaufeli, W. B. (2009). Reciprocal relationships between job resources, personal resources, and work engagement. Journal of Vocational Behavior, 74(3), 235.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  59. Yang, L.-Q., Hongsheng, C., & Spector, P. E. (2008). Job stress and well-being: An examination from the view of ­person-environment fit. Journal of Occupational and Organizational Psychology, 81(3), 567–587.CrossRefGoogle Scholar

Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media New York 2012

Authors and Affiliations

  • Philip J. Dewe
    • 1
  • Michael P. O’Driscoll
    • 2
  • Cary L. Cooper
    • 3
  1. 1.Department of Organizational Psychology, BirkbeckUniversity of LondonLondonUK
  2. 2.Department of PsychologyUniversity of WaikatoHamiltonNew Zealand
  3. 3.Management School OfficeLancaster University Management School, Lancaster UniversityLancasterUK

Personalised recommendations