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Between evolutionary biology and resource theory – a scientific perspective on stress and burn-out

by Prof. Dr. Petra Buchwald

Stress is today a word on everyone’s lips, most often in the context of overwork, time pressure, or an overly hectic schedule. To speak of stress conveys a sense of inability to master the tasks at hand, and these tasks often seem unattainable by normal efforts. Stress and its correlative, overload, go hand in hand with the loss of a sense of wellbeing and quality of life.

Not all stress, however, causes illness. The positive stress of a challenge can bring the strength and motivation to master it. Hans Selye (1907–1982), the founder of stress research, already distinguished between eustress, vital to an active life, and damaging distress.

The European Agency for Safety and Health at Work ascribes 60% of workplace absenteeism to work-associated stress, and estimates its annual costs Europe-wide as some EUR 20 billion. But an EU study suggests that although almost all employers consider the reduction of stress important, only a few take systematic steps against it.

Stress – rooted in evolutionary biology

The phenomenon of stress is present in almost every area of life: at work, at school, at home, and even in our free time. Rooted in evolutionary biology, it is a natural reaction of the body to challenges. Early humans were far more often confronted with situations of danger than we are, and it was crucial for survival that the body assume a state of enhanced alertness for fight or flight. In such stress situations hormones are released to make more energy available: blood pressure rises, perceptions are more acute, and the rate of breathing is increased to improve oxygenation throughout the body. At the same time the blood supply to the skin (cutaneous perfusion) is reduced and coagulation heightened as a precaution against wounding. The muscles tense, and physical functions like the immune system, which are not immediately needed, are run down to a level that is in itself inadequate. Once the danger passes, the body returns to normal. Then as now, this perfectly developed set of biological reactions enabled human beings to survive in many dangerous situations, from ancient combat to modern street traffic, and even outside those situations it supported them in the performance of arduous physical and mental tasks.

However, if stress gets the upper hand and becomes a permanent condition, it is itself a situation that has to be survived. Normally, people can tap latent abilities and develop strategies to cope with it. It is when these fail that stress symptoms arise in the form of pathological conditions like headaches, stomach upsets, loss of sleep, dietary disorders, irritability, depression, heightened consumption of alcohol, nicotine or medicines, weakening of the immune system, coronary heart disease, concentration deficiency, apathy, aggression, and burn-out.

Stress – a national-cultural disease?

Burn-out is a facet of psychological illness describing a condition of exhaustion arising from unrelieved stress in the workplace. According to Germany’s Federal Statistics Office, as a co-cause of the illnesses listed in the previous paragraph, it cost the country EUR 29 billion in 2013 alone. Another statistical aspect is that it affects women more frequently than men. A 2008 study by the “Techniker Krankenkasse” (one of Germany’s major health insurance providers) established that German employees lost almost ten million working days p.a. from stress-related burn-out. The most frequently cited causes were tight deadlines with an associated hectic workload, permanent availability via mobile phone, e-mail etc., and flooding with information. The employees affected were mostly from the better educated segment (university or high-school graduates). Another interesting aspect was that despite multiple causes of stress, respondents generally (88%) declared themselves happy with their work, and 53% saw stress as a positively spur to achievement.

Conservation of resources (COR) theory

Alongside the outstanding pioneering work of Richard Lazarus, Stevan E. Hobfoll’s conservation of resources (COR) theory has gained wide acceptance over the past 20 years. It recognizes that each individual evaluates the world in her or his own way, but at the same time it emphasizes the objectivity of stress-associated threats and losses, and the common cultural aspects of evaluatory and coping processes. The resource-oriented model is based on the assumption that human beings tend to protect their existing resources and to seek new ones. Stress results from the actual or threatened loss of resources, or from the threat of loss through poorly invested resources. Both major critical events and minor cumulative hindrances can have a central impact on the cultivation and protection of resources.

Hobfoll sees the exchange of resources and the related interaction between individuals and social systems (family, workplace, school) as playing an important role in communal coping with stressful situations. His theory highlights the interpersonal processes through which resources are transferred, catalyzed, or lost. His classification of resources distinguishes between objects (e.g. clothing, books, automobile), states (e.g. age, professional position, power structures), individual resources (e.g. self-efficacy, social competencies, optimism), and energy resources (e.g. money, time, knowledge). Stress management is the ability to conserve resources, and Hobfoll sees the strategies concerned as not only individual but also ‒ and essentially ‒ communal: stress is something you cope with together.

On the conservation of resources

To conserve their resources, people use above all their key individual resources such as health, sense of well-being, positive self-image, and social capital. These key resources are universal and cross-cultural. Your self-image, for example, is the general picture you have of yourself, a composite of sub-images reflecting how you see yourself at work, in the family, at play etc.; social capital is more the way you are seen by others, and can provide important self-confirmation.

The theory of the conservation of resources works on the assumption that resources are not static: they change and develop in typically spiral forms (see Fig. 1). Loss of resources is an important stress factor, and the fact that resources must be invested in order to gain new ones and prevent further losses means that people with ample resources are less vulnerable to loss because they can invest their remaining resources profitably to counteract any depletion. Conversely, individuals with fewer resources are more vulnerable to loss and less able to compensate it by gaining new resources. They are rarely in a position to establish a gain spiral; on the contrary, they are far more likely to fall into a spiral of loss, one deprivation triggering the next and making them more vulnerable at every step. This is especially the case with persons under sustained stress.

Hobfoll’s theory sheds light on human development in its context of social and individual circumstances and describes the variation in resources over a human lifespan. Resources are socially organized for the survival of individuals, groups, and cultures; individuals organize their lives to safeguard their own integrity of life and limb and that of their families and groups. The individual cannot, therefore, be regarded in isolation from his or her social background, with its key constituents of gender, class, culture etc. It is in accordance with these parameters that people behave – among other things in their definition, evaluation, and protection of their resources.

Fig. 1: Loss and gain spirals (see Buchwald & Hobfoll, 2004)

How we react to stress

Stress can have many different effects, and a fundamental distinction is made between physical and psychological stress reactions. Among the former are automatic reactions of the body like heavy sweating or accelerated breathing and heartbeat. Psychological stress reactions are, for example, emotions like fear or rage, denial of the threat, irritability, and depression. But if a stressful situation is perceived as a challenge, positive reactions can arise, like hope and pleasurable anticipation of success. Stress also affects the cognitive processes, impairing concentration and short-term memory, hindering the creative thinking that might bring a solution closer, and reducing mental performance all-round. Finally, stress can have negative social effects, causing aggressive behavior and passivity, disturbing communicative abilities, and leading to social isolation.

As mentioned at the beginning of this article, people need a certain measure of stress as a stimulus to keep their physical and mental resources alert and ready to rise to a higher level to face a major challenge. The optimum stimulus to top performance is somewhere between the extremes of under- and over-taxing your resources. Stress in this measure is healthy, vitalizing the body’s systems, inducing positive change, and promoting mental and emotional flexibility. It can be a source of happiness, even to the point of ecstatic bliss. Situations in which feelings of this order can be released are, for example, looking forward to a party or holiday trip overseas, preparing for an important sports event or business interview, or anticipating a win in the lottery.

Stress is rooted in evolutionary biology: when threatened, the body raises its alertness in preparation for fight or flight.
Foto Fotolia/Hugo de Wolf/36Clicks