Stress vs Strain: What’s the Difference and How They Interact

Work stress is all too familiar to anyone living in modern times, times which features a 24/7 business cycle and distractions on every corner. While there are certainly societal benefits to the high-tech, high-productivity environment that this creates, it has resulted in relatively high levels of work stress for workers. The go-go-go lifestyle associated with this high-productivity work culture – specifically the unhealthy eating and low sleep – adds to the work stress problem.

Everyone has a certain reserve of emotional energy and stamina. When you’ve been giving it 110% at work for the last 10 years with no self-care, things start to catch up with you. Your once star corporate-player persona becomes afflicted with persistent fatigue, mounting illness, poor health and an irritable emotional countenance. You may find yourself simultaneously unable to relax yet unable to be productive. It’s become a challenge to engage mentally and emotionally in things that you once took so much excitement and energy.

Along with these symptoms, your sense of meaning and accomplishment may decrease in all aspects of your life. Eventually, you may become cynical and detached from the world around you. This state is known as burnout.

Work stress affects the broader economy and society as well. Corporations in the United States lose over $8,000 per person annually due to absenteeism attributed to work stress. Work stress is considered world-wide as a major challenge to organizational health. When adding up the sick days, absenteeism, lost productivity, and health care costs, work stress ends up being a major drain on the national economy.

Anyone reading the Spire blog knows that stress is not a simple, single-faceted issue – the causes and roots of stress are myriad, as are its effects on health and wellness. This article will address one important cause of work stress: work strain.

There are multiple factors that contribute to work stress. Physical exertion and job insecurity can cause stress, but for many of us, with stable desk jobs, a major cause of work stress is work strain.

Understanding work strain and how it interacts with work stress is an important step to understanding and dealing with work stress in general. What is strain and how does it affect us? Can we prevent or mitigate strain? Let’s talk about it.

What is strain?

Strain is a sociological and psychological construct which helps to understand the mental and emotional demands on people in a certain job or workplace. The level of work strain of a particular job can be graphically represented in the a two-dimension chart called the “Psychological demand/decision latitude model”, as seen below:

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This chart shows us that there are two types of strains: psychological and demand.

The first type of strain comes in the form of psychological demands on the worker, and is divided between low and high. Low psychological demands are characterized by level of thinking and mental exertion associated with a line of work. Measuring psychological demands on workers quantifies the mental intensity of work: the complexity of skills required and the ability to keep up with work colleagues.

An example of a line of work with high psychological demands would include a variety of white-collar jobs, such as business analysts, managers, or salespeople. These people work hard to keep up with contending priorities and demands from multiple sides (high intensity), analyze complex data to make important decisions (complexity of skills), and work in multi-faceted teams to get there (keep up with colleagues).

Conversely, a job with low psychological demands might include some freelance writers, who can work at their own pace, may deal with simple writing subjects and interact with few clients at once.

This is not to say that high psychological demands are better or worse than low psychological demands. It is just to say that the amount of strain exerted by each differs, and thus their contribution to overall stress. Low psychological demands are associated with lower strain, whereas high psychological demands are associated with higher strain. But the way that strain is funneled into stress depends on the second factor, which is the demand dimension of strain.

The other dimension of strain is ‘demand.’ This type of strain goes beyond the purely intellectual and rational aspects of a job, and touches on the emotional and creative aspects. The demand dimension quantifies the degree of creativity in work versus its repetitive aspects. It also encompasses work autonomy: the extent of freedom and responsibility granted to workers to decide what to do, and when and how to do it.

An example of a job with a high score on the demand dimension would be something like a skilled contractor or tradesperson. These types of workers can set their own schedules, work with the clients they choose to work for, and decide how they are going to complete a job with little to no oversight. Because of this, they can exert a high amount of creativity on the job as they plan and execute their own solutions. Think of a self-employed plumber coming in to fix up your kitchen sink. They schedule the job according to their availability; they apply their brains to creatively address the problem you’ve hired them to fix, and they have little to no oversight – all that matters is that they did the job right.

A quintessential job with a relatively low score on the demand dimension would be that of a telemarketer. Telemarketers are often told precisely what to do, how to do it, and when to do it. They are given a script to read and numbers to dial. It’s a tough job for lots of reason, and the low amounts of creativity and independence afforded to telemarketers doesn’t help (so be nice next time one of them calls you).

Contrary to psychological strain, having a high demand score is considered lower work strain. This makes sense – having work where you have much creative agency and control over your own results in less straining than a job where you need to perform mind-numbing repetitive tasks under the iron rule of management.

Researches decide where different jobs lie on the chart above based on survey questions asked of workers. They ask workers to mark the statements below on a scale of 1 to 5. They compare the scores against industry-wide averages to understand where the job lies on the Psychological Demand/Decision Model. You can try it for yourself while thinking about your own job:

Psychological Dimension:

1.     Your job requires that you learn new things.

2.     Your job requires a high level of skill.

3.     Your job allows you freedom to decide how you do your job.

4.     Your job requires that you do things over and over.

5.     You have a lot to say about what happens in your job.

Demand Dimension:

6.     Your job is very hectic.

7.     You are free from conflicting demands that others make.

Depending on where the score lies, a job may be: high-strain, active, low-strain (relaxed), or passive. Here is the chart again for easy reference:

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Low strain work is challenging to the mind while giving the worker a higher degree of creativity and autonomy. These jobs are located  in the “low-strain” quadrant (top-right hand corner).

Interestingly, if a higher degree of psychological demand (that is, more complex work with greater demands) is accompanied by a higher degree of autonomy and creativity on the job, you’ve got yourself a recipe for high-growth and motivating work. Strain is higher in these jobs, but instead of feeding into stress, strain is funneled into effective problem solving and creative energy.

On the other side of the spectrum, jobs with low amounts of autonomy and psychological demands are considered “passive.” Job strain is low, but workers are unmotivated and experience little to no personal or professional growth. Finally, if you are in a work environment that, in addition to giving you a low amount of control and creativity over your work, is also complex and mentally challenging, you’ve found yourself in a high-strain work situation. In this job, you are in danger of experiencing high stress, with all the negative outcomes associated with it.

How Strain Feeds into Stress

Job strain is an important source of job stress that workers experience, but it interacts and co-exists with multiple other stressors. These can include low job satisfaction, a high degree of physical work, and job insecurity. For example, you may be usually happy in a job that lands in the “active” category – high autonomy and creative agency, as well as an intellectually stimulating work environment. However, due to an economic downturn, that jobs becomes unstable and you start fearing for your job safety. In this case, despite where the job lies in the strain spectrum, you’re still going to experience stress. On the other hand, some people are very satisfied with “passive” but secure jobs, and find themselves with little to no work stress in their lives.

The way that strain affects your stress levels is complex, and can vary according to the individual characteristics. Many of us have a workaholic, endless-energy, A-type person in their lives who seem to thrive under pressure and only crave more. Lots of CEOs seem to operate under that model – just think of Elon Musk.

Sometimes, the relationship between strain and stress is completely reversed. White-collar workers were more likely to have low job strain and high job satisfaction, yet they also had higher levels of work stress.

So how do you approach this situation in a way that makes sense? A good way to do it is to assess your job using the information from this blog post to get an idea of how much strain it may be adding to your life. Then, use Spire to understand if your job strain is in fact translating into stress and affecting your breathing and emotional level. Since the ways in which strain affects your stress levels may be unique, Spire is the best way to get a personalized picture of how strain is affecting your psyche.

What’s more, Spire can then help you deal with that stress by prompting you to pay attention to your emotional state throughout the day, and track your general emotional state overtime. In a way, the stress you feel can be controlled to some degree by paying attention to these states and taking personal steps to improve the situation.

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