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Talking About Work Stress: Discourse Analysis And Implications For Stress Interventions

Avril M. B. Harkness, B. Long, Nicole Bermbach, K. Patterson, Sharalyn R. Jordan, H. Kahn
Published 2005 · Psychology

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Abstract This study used discourse analysis to explore the way in which employees understand work stress. Twenty-two female clerical workers in a Canadian city participated in focus group meetings where they talked about and made sense of their experiences of work stress. The women's accounts were analysed using discourse analysis methods (i.e. an examination of how talk is constructed). The findings revealed that talking about being stressed provides a socially acceptable way of expressing discomfort and regaining a sense of importance that is lost through feeling under-valued and under-appreciated in the organization. In contrast, admitting to being unable to cope with stress was considered to be ‘abnormal’. The stress discourse fosters a sense of helplessness and ambiguity by not acknowledging external influences on clerical workers’ experiences, such as their place within the power structure of the organization, and by limiting their sense of agency and control over problems experienced at work. The implications of these findings for organizational culture and interventions are discussed. For example, employers are encouraged to be conscious of the messages being sent to employees about how negative emotions or distressing experiences at work are to be addressed (i.e. how ‘stress’ is to be managed). Recommendations are made for future research using discourse analysis, such as the examination of alternative discourses that aim to improve conditions at work.
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