Home All Individual Differences at Work: Part 1, Handling Stress

Individual Differences at Work: Part 1, Handling Stress

written by Sarah Tottle 23 March 2016

Sarah Tottle is the co-founder of GSL Coaching, a leadership and research consultancy that specializes in organizational health and well-being. The consultancy offers a range of workshops centered on employee engagement, well-being, and resilience, as well as tailored research for organisations. Sarah is currently pursuing her doctoral studies, with a special interest in burnout and presenteeism. She is a co-author of Your Pocketful of 'Inspiration': 100 Ways to Happiness. Sarah's articles are here.

Author’s note: The issue of individual differences at work will be explored in a two-part series. Part 1 explores well-being at work and the role of personality difference in stress appraisal. Part 2 will focus on how both employees and organizations can make positive organizational changes that accommodate individual differences.

Being happy at work matters to both the organization and the employee. It matters to the longevity of the worker, but also to the health of the organization as a whole. While it has been demonstrated that happiness creates a more productive workplace, stress at work is on the rise. Rising stress at work is a global phenomenon that both the organization and the employee should take ownership for.

Organizations can be stressful places. They need not be so. Corporations can enhance their staff well-being by promoting better organizational cultures that harness their employees’ unique skill sets and thus help to reduce workplace stress at a structural level. It is particularly helpful when people leading organizations realize that each employee is a unique individual with a distinct composition of personality traits, life experiences, and characteristics. Individual differences can play a key role in workplace well-being.

While individual differences have been the focus of studies by psychologists for decades, their role in workplace dynamics and the link to positive organizational behavior has only recently emerged. No two people are the same and no two people will interact with their environment in the same way. That raises a challenge to organizations to tailor their approaches to meet individual needs.

Individual differences play a key role in how employees handle workplace stress and also heavily influence workplace dynamics and culture. Some personality traits have been linked to toxic working environments where scapegoating and bullying are rife. Personality traits also affect stress appraisal, the subjective experience of stress by an individual.

How do Individual Differences Impact Work Stress?

Stress is subjectively experienced. Individual differences influence how each employee interacts within their workplace and perceive and manage stress. Each individual sees stress through a different lens.

Sara and Kate are both HR advisors at a local charity. Budget cuts have occurred putting heavy demands on both of them, increasing their workloads.

Kate is finding it increasingly difficult to manage her workload. Having gone through a recent divorce, she is finding it difficult to cope with the demands from all sides of her life. She feels that there is a lack of support from her manager, and she has no one to turn to at home. Kate is feeling overwhelmed by her work situation and sinking further into despair. She is very afraid that stress will negatively affect her health.

Sara has also felt the negative consequences of her increasing workload, but she has more outside support. She has been able to talk things through with her partner at home, and because of this asked for some workplace assistance to manage her stress. Sara feels that the stress will pass in due course. Having someone to mentor her through the rough spots and help her prioritize her work has helped her build resilience to manage the dynamics of the modern workplace.

Both Sara and Kate face the same workplace stressors, yet have appraised their stressful situations in different ways. Many factors are at play here.

Kate experiences the pressure in the context of having her marriage end.

Sara has outside support. Having a good social network has shown to improve well-being, even in the face of stress.

While Kate continues to sink under the mounting pressure, Sara has been able to view the situation in a more positive light. Neither woman got much support from her own manager, but Sara was able to realize that he was under too much pressure himself. She decided to raise this with other senior members of the team and sought mentoring from a workplace assistance program. She feels that the lessons she has learned from this experience will be of assistance in helping her become a more resilient and adaptable employee in future.

When faced with a situation at work, employees have their own unique perceptions of what’s going on, appraising the situation in differing ways. The unique blend of personality traits, past and current experience, and characteristics will all play a role in this perception and appraisal process.

Some employees will thrive, while others may feel overwhelmed. When we look at the causes of stress through the lens of individual differences, we see its subjective nature. As Kelly McGonigal argues, it may be the appraisal of the stressor, the way we attach meaning to it, that causes harm from stress, perhaps much more than the stressor itself.

Subjective feelings of overload can give rise to harmful stress, especially if the stress surpasses what employees believe they can cope with or the stressor itself is perceived to be harmful. In contrast, placing more accepting meanings to a stressor can result in a more resilient outcome.

Organizations can aim not just to address the stressors themselves, but also help people deal with any potential negative emotional cycles associated with stressors. Sara reached out for help. But could management have reached out to Kate, helping her reduce her workload, or even connect her with a mentoring program that could help her deal more effectively with the workload that caused her to have such a negative experience of stress in the workplace?



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McGonigal, K. (2013). How to make stress your friend. TED Global.

Abrahams, R. & Tottle, S. (2015). Your Pocketful of ‘Inspiration’: 100 Ways to Happiness. TLC International Development.

Photo Credit: via Compfight with Creative Commons licenses
Celebrate differences courtesy of Celestine Chua
Each flower is different courtesy of kinshuksunil
Is the load too heavy? courtesy of Bhavishya Goel

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1 comment

Sandy Goodwick 25 March 2016 - 12:10 pm

Work places are not as benign as the article implies. The US is virtually the only Western country that has no workplace bullying laws. Examples of workplace bullying – an administrator fails to put your name on payroll – no paycheck. He fails to help you find out why you didn’t get paid. You go to payroll, then to HR where you learn he didn’t do his job. You do his work; then he “writes you up” for getting your paycheck. You request HR to investigate the paycheck. They ignore your request. You request again. Their response? Sign up for direct deposit, you can’t directly deposit a nonexistent check. You send evidence of retaliation (more than the paycheck) to the state department of education (and a copy to your employer) where even your employer admits the stuff is retaliation. The employer is required to train admin’s how to not retaliate. They fire you a week later. You get your job back. They say you resigned, so you have a new start date (tenure). They try to say you off because they tell the judge you resigned. The judge looks at a few papers and 3 minutes later, you’re seniority is reinstated. There’s much more than this…

Please, while all workspaces are human and have rough around the edges days, some places (especially education) are very abusive. My employer? Los Angeles County Office of Education finally started wondering why districts were unhappy. They hired Cross and Joftus to investigate in 2015. The results revealed a system rife with bureaucracy and culture so “stuck” that the nation’s largest education agency was told to take ONE year to either get its act together or quit special education entirely. Much to LACOE’s chagrin, the report went public recently.

Learn about workplace bullying. It’s legalized domestic violence. Learn about proposed laws to prevent it from being a reason teachers and others complete suicides. Positive psychology only works when we mutually hear one another’s world views with respect, and then find a mutually respected way to move forward.


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