Personality and Work Stress

Psychological research around work and meaning in life distinguishes how people perceive work. Those who perceive work as merely a “job” report lower levels of satisfaction with work and tend to approach work largely as a means of survival. The second category perceives work as a “career.” These people engage with work as a way of proving their worth, climbing the social ladder, and beating out the competition. The last category is those who experience work as a “vocation.” Now, vocation etymologically speaking means “to call.” They, therefore, see their work as a calling. The rationale for engaging with work is intrinsic. They are not motivated by the external rewards of their work but are motivated by engaging with the activity itself. Moreover, they don’t see their work as a path to proving themselves but as an enjoyable activity that makes the world better. Such persons have an autotelic personality.

Work largely occupies a large part of people’s lives. Therefore, it is important to carefully choose what one commits themselves to for it will largely affect their sense of meaning in life. In fact, enjoy one’s work heavily influences an individual’s sense of satisfaction with life. Burnout and stress have been shown to bring about lowered satisfaction with life, decrease one’s immune system and increase the risk of cardiovascular diseases.

However, it is important to note that even though some workplaces, if not many, are quite toxic, one’s personality and temperament do affect how much they perceive their work as stressful.

The most valid, reliable, and up-to-date personality model is the Five-Factor Model popularly known as the Big Five model of personality. It specifies personality dimensions the acronym of OCEAN or CANOE: Openness to experience, Conscientiousness, Extraversion, Agreeableness, and Neuroticism. There are two facets under each which helps to deepen the details of a personality type. In other new developments of the same model, each dimension has six traits that increase the thoroughness of the model. Let us explore briefly the five personality types:

Openness to experience: persons associated with originality, curiosity, dislike for routine, independence, and interest.

Conscientiousness: persons associated with reliability, love of order, perseverance, tenacity, discipline, reliable and well organized

Extraversion: persons who are sociable, prefer the company of others than being alone, warm, and outgoing.

Agreeableness: persons who are warm, caring, sympathetic, empathetic, conflict-averse, trusting, and forgiving.

Neuroticism: persons who tend to worry, feel anxious and nervous, and may experience higher levels of stress.

This model is quite comprehensive, cross-cultural, and relatively stable over time.

Where do work stress and burnout originate?

Stress at work usually originates when a worker (employee, employer) is unable to meet the demands of work, and their chances of controlling that situation are low. The demands are basically beyond one’s control. Control, in this case, means knowledge of the task (the what) and skills (the how). This is called the demand-control model. Job control, or decision latitude, is when one has control, both of the task performance and skill options or resources. Basically, the worker, when faced with the demands of work, knows what to do and how to do it with a variety of alternatives and resources at hand.

Within psychology, it is well understood that individual differences affect both the sensitivity and responses of individuals towards stress. Personality is one of those individual differences. It strongly influences our experiences of work whereas work may have a very minimal impact on our personality.

Extraverts will experience higher levels of work satisfaction if they have a chance to interact with people and have friends. Lonely jobs can decrease their performance. Their extraversion may come in handy in terms of seeking social support. Nonetheless, extraverts tend to be impulsive, blunt and may appear to bother others with their constant need to be with others. Introverts, who are on the other end of the pole, prefer quiet jobs and even though they may express extroverted behavior, they feel the need to refuel by withdrawing to the privacy of their room or space.

Individuals who are high in Openness may find themselves dying in jobs that do not allow for creativity and originality. They enjoy taking risks and finding alternatives. Their sense of independence and creativity may increase their sense of control over a task thus increasing job satisfaction. People with this personality are generally viewed as more intelligent and thus may be given jobs with greater demands and with that, more income.

Conscientious workers like to be organized and orderly. Even when met with high demands, their sense of grit or perseverance allows them to keep fighting and thus developing resilience and control over the job. They may not enjoy work that has no clear goals, not predictable, and changes too often. They make great managers due to their diligence and attention to detail. However, if not well balanced, conscientiousness can lead such individuals to perfectionism and incapacity to rest and relax leading to stress and burnout.

Agreeableness is the dimension from which emotional intelligence is largely built. It is associated with high work satisfaction and a low risk of distress and burnout. Since agreeable people are flexible and open to learning, they may end up gaining the skills they need to face the demands of work. Moreover, since they are warm and kind, they tend to attract and request support from others. On the other hand, being too agreeable can lead one to not assert themselves, accept too many demands which might lead to burnout and stress.

People who have a neurotic personality enjoy their work if and when their concerns and worries are met. They prize security. Whereas they may come off as difficult and with a tendency to throw a wet blanket on ideas, neurotic personalities are very helpful in risk assessment. However, high levels of neuroticism can lead them to remain stuck.

Social support is strongly associated with reduced stress at the workplace. Employers would do well to pay attention to individual differences in perception of stress at the workplace and adjust their responses with those differences in mind. Whereas some individual might enjoy their work more if the demands were increased, others might do so if their sense of control increased. It is important to remember, however, that even though most people have a dominant personality with the five, personality, in the end, includes a combination of all the five in different levels. Nonetheless, understanding one’s dominant personality could go a long way in increasing job satisfaction which leads to higher performance and consequences, more profits.

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