ERIC Identifier: ED291017 Publication Date: 1987-12-00
Author: Benjamin, Libby Source: ERIC Clearinghouse on
Counseling and Personnel Services Ann Arbor MI.
Understanding and Managing Stress in the Academic World.
Highlights: An ERIC/CAPS Digest.
Stress is a necessary and unavoidable concomitant of daily
living--necessary because without some stress we would be listless and apathetic
creatures, and unavoidable because it relates to any external event, be it
pleasurable or anxiety-producing. Severe stress has been correlated with
coronary disease, respiratory problems, backaches, high blood pressure, and
other psychosomatic illnesses, to the extent that for most people stress is a
loaded term that connotes unhealthy or harmful conditions, i.e., a dis-ease or
illness. In truth, however, stress can also motivate and invigorate and enable
people to achieve far more than they thought themselves capable of doing.
GENERALIZATIONS REGARDING STRESS
--Stress is connected with life changes, personal and/or work-related; and
too many changes at one time, either positive or negative, can overload an
individual's capacity to adapt successfully and result in illness of one sort or
--What may be distressful to one person may be excitingly challenging
(positively stressful) to another.
--The same event can be distressful at one time and stimulating or
non-stressful at another.
--Whether an event causes distress depends upon the individual's perception
of the situation.
--How a person responds to stress depends upon the environment, the magnitude
of the stressor, what has gone before, the person's self-perceived ability to
handle the stressor, the person's physical condition, and just plain habit.
--Stress can be self-imposed--e.g., setting too high standards or having
unrealistic expectations regarding one's abilities; or situational--e.g., time
constraints, lack of resources, threats to emotional or physical well-being,
challenges beyond one's ability to respond, conflicts between one's personal
values and the values of others.
--Type A personalities (people who exhibit a high degree of such traits as
self-control, impatience, competitiveness, tenseness, inability to relax,
orientation to achievement, and denial of failure) appear to be more prone to
stressful reactions than those who are able to relax without guilt, who move and
talk more slowly, who are content to do one thing at a time, and who generally
take themselves less seriously than their counterparts.
In general, then, most stressors are in themselves neutral and do not
necessarily produce distressful reactions. Adverse physical and emotional
consequences are usually the result of the way an individual perceives
particular events or conditions.
In 1983, a major national study (Gmelch, Wilke, and Lovrich) revealed the
existence of a fairly diffuse problem of stress in university settings as
opposed to more discipline-specific problems. Of the three functions performed
by most faculty in higher education--teaching, research, and service
activities--teaching was designated as the most stressful. The ten most
troublesome areas for faculty, those that caused the most stress, appeared to be
the following: imposing excessively high self-expectations; securing financial
support for research; having insufficient time to keep abreast with current
events in the field; receiving low pay for work done; striving for publication
of individual research; feeling continually overloaded with work; interference
of job demands with personal activities; lack of progress in the individual's
career; interruptions from telephone and drop-in visitors; and meetings. The
majority of these ten top stressors, it will be noted, relate directly to time
and/or resource complaints.
Burnout is a distinctive kind of job-related stress that inhibits the
person's capacity to function effectively because the body's resources for
resisting stress have become exhausted. Research indicates that individuals
engaged in the helping professions or human services are especially susceptible
to burnout. Burnout is not just a temporary indisposition but an unhealthy
condition that makes once idealistic, productive, enthusiastic workers
detriments to their profession, their colleagues, and themselves. Strangely
enough, burnout usually affects the most able individuals--those who are the
most competent and committed, those who feel the most strongly about the value
of what they do and want to do their best. Academic institutions are now paying
increased attention to burnout because it diminishes the effective services of
the very best people in a given profession.
Students entering college can experience a reaction similar to shock as they
attempt to respond to the multiplicity of responsibilities facing them, such as
organizing their time, handling new social interactions, dealing with changes in
their relationships with home base, and adapting to life on a huge campus with
large numbers of students. Research on student stress is fairly recent, stemming
from not more than a decade ago, but evidence from several studies suggests that
academic performance is the most critical concern of students, especially
first-year students, and that the problems perceived to be the most intense
source of stress are examinations and grades, financial concerns, fear of
failure on specific assignments, and career decisions. Johnson's research (1978)
revealed nine major categories of student stress, and his findings are supported
by the results of several later studies. These categories are: instruction,
competition, organization of time, adjustment to college, administrative
problems, social adjustment, finances, housing, and transportation. An analysis
of the research involving student stress indicates that the most critical
stressors have to do with the instructional process itself--grades,
examinations, and studying.
STRESS-COPING STRATEGIES FOR FACULTY AND COUNSELORS
Faculty methods of coping with stress may be classified into two major
categories: primarily preventive strategies and primarily combative strategies
("Stress Counseling," 1986). Preventive strategies include the following:
1. Avoiding stressors through appropriate life adjustments-- developing more
nurturing relationships, finding a more suitable job, attempting to create a
working environment and/or style that is more rewarding. 2. Managing the
expectations and demands made upon oneself-- keeping tasks in perspective,
maintaining realistic self-expectations. 3. Changing stress-inducing ways of
behaving and responding--recognizing unproductive behaviors, finding alternate
ways of behaving. 4. Augmenting personal coping resources--assessing personal
assets, knowing personal strengths, bringing them to bear on difficult
Combative Strategies include the following:
1. Stress monitoring--being aware of stress-related symptoms within oneself.
2. Marshalling personal resources--reflecting on past successes in dealing with
strong stressors, focusing on the positive. 3. Taking action to reduce the
stressor--being assertive, confronting issues, refusing inappropriate requests
for additional responsibilities. 4. Developing tolerance for unavoidable
stress--cognitively restructuring the situation, looking for potential positive
outcomes. 5. Lowering stress arousal--trying to avoid thinking about a
troublesome stressor, blocking it out of one's consciousness.
FACULTY/COUNSELOR AIDS TO REDUCING STRESS IN STUDENTS
Faculty and counselors should attempt to challenge students, but not so much
that they lose their motivation, spontaneity, and initiative. The following
suggestions for those who work with students can help minimize sources of
1. Be explicit and extremely clear on all expectations and responsibilities
for students and communicate in such a way that students feel free to question
and discuss. 2. Develop a positive interactive relationship with students. 3.
Adopt a distinct and defensible reward structure. 4. Allow students to have at
least a modicum sense of control over their student roles. 5. Treat students as
individuals rather than as a generalized whole. 6. Assist students to learn
Faculty and counselors who are distressed will be less effective in what they
do. The self-absorption that often accompanies negative stress can obstruct
stimulating teaching and empathic listening. Tension and ill health can
undermine job performance. Disappointment and frustration are inevitable
occupational hazards in either teaching or counseling, and those who work with
students should keep a realistic perspective toward the goals and limitations of
what they can achieve. Most of all, faculty and counselors should not only have
a thorough understanding of stress but should also demonstrate the ability to
implement appropriate practices in their own lives, thus modeling positive
stress management for their students and clients. Those who help students deal
effectively with stress are performing a service of lasting value, as healthy
stress management is one of the most important life-long learning skills that an
individual may acquire.
FOR MORE INFORMATION
Benjamin, L., and G. R. Walz. COUNSELING STUDENTS AND FACULTY FOR STRESS
MANAGEMENT. Ann Arbor, MI: The University of Michigan, ERIC Clearinghouse on
Counseling and Personal Services, l987. ED 279 917.
Coping With Faculty Stress (Special Issue). NEW DIRECTIONS FOR TEACHING AND
LEARNING 29 (l987).
Freudenberger, H. J. "Counseling and Dynamics: Treating the End-Stage
Person." In W. S. Paine (Ed.), JOB STRESS AND BURNOUT: RESEARCH THEORY, AND
INTERVENTION PERSPECTIVES. Beverly Hills, CA: Sage Publications, l982.
Gmelch, W. H., P. K. Wilke, and N. Lovrich. SOURCES OF STRESS IN ACADEME: A
NATIONAL PERSPECTIVE. Paper presented at the annual meeting of the American
Educational Research Association, Montreal, Canada, April l983. ED 232 518.
Johnson, E. E. STUDENT-IDENTIFIED STRESSES THAT RELATE TO COLLEGE LIFE. Paper
presented at the annual conference of the American Psychological Association,
Toronto, Canada, August l978. ED 170 630.
Stress Counseling (Special Issue). THE COUNSELING PSYCHOLOGIST 14, l986.