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Occupational stress in child care work

Karola Dillenburger

The debate as to whether stress enhances performance or infringes upon it has a long history (Jamal & Baba, 2001). Some have thought that in general "... there is nothing wrong with stress" (Blundell, 1990, p. 16), that the body is able to respond to temporarily stressful situations quickly – for example, to avoid threat or danger and that these situations actually ensure that people give their best. However, the recent upsurge in attention given to occupational stress in child care work indicates that things are not just as straightforward as that.

A number of questions have been raised. For example, one may ask why stress-related issues have received so much attention recently. Was it simply that people in the past were oblivious to stress or was the shift in perspective due to the "sources" of occupational stress; in other words, has the working environment in which child care workers find themselves changed in a way that makes child care work more stressful today than it has been in the past? Is increased attention due to the focus on the "effects" of stress; that is, do the effects of stress cause more problems today (Lu, Kao, Cooper, & Spector, 2000)? Is it that stress has become too expensive? For example, in the USA the cost of stress was estimated in the region of 3.5% of the gross national product (Gibson, McGrath, & Reid, 1989).

Furthermore, we have to see how the service delivery; in other words, the relationship between clients and workers is affected by the increasing levels of stress. How does coping with stress affect the worker? Do the coping and adjustment processes themselves pose inherent demands and cause additional stress (Mudrack & Naughton, 2001)? Finally we have to ask what we can do in order to reduce stress levels in child care work so that people who are dedicated to human service work can maintain satisfactory levels of professionalism and gain increasing levels of job satisfaction.

The effects of stress

The main reasons why occupational stress has been identified as a disruptive phenomenon can be found in its various manifestations. As the central measure in the assessment of stress has to be the behaviour of the worker in the context of his/her agency, distressed behavioural patterns have to be viewed as the key measures of stress (Kaplan, 1990).

Behavioural patterns such as low work morale, high number of bed-disability days and institutional confinement, high staff turnover, high absenteeism, and ineffective service delivery can easily be identified and assessed. When these patterns are given more detailed attention one may find that the individual worker experiences deficits on three levels: motor behaviour, emotional behaviour, and physical health.

An accumulation of these symptoms can lead to social isolation, marital/personal breakdown, insomnia, neuroses, and even heart disease. Kaplan (1990) and others (cf. Hobson & Delunas, 2001) argued that attention has to be given to these types of behavioural patterns of ill-health because the life expectancy of individuals exposed to stressful contingencies may be shortened, the quality of their life may be compromised, either now or at some time prior to death, or a combination of the two may be experienced. This has been recognised in Japan where relieving stress has become big business. The Japanese even have a word for death from overwork: "karoshi" (McGill, 1991). However, the Labour Ministry in Japan accepted only 29 out of 676 cases of death from overwork as eligible for compensation in one year.

These types of behaviour patterns have been labelled "burnout". "Burnout is generally defined as a stress syndrome characterised by emotional exhaustion, cynical or depersonalised attitudes to clients, and low self evaluation in terms of work accomplishment" (Reid, 1990, p. 31). Professionals in helping professions are primarily affected by burnout because they tend to experience themselves as contributing much more than they get back from their clients, supervisors, and colleagues (Gibson et al., 1989; Rafferty, Friend, & Landsbergis, 2001).

Although a label usually simplifies matters, the term burnout is problematic. Not only does it have connotations of finality, there are also problems in definition of the term. In the present context the term "stress" is preferred. The behaviour that can be observed when a person is said to experience stress is viewed as a process, which may, however, progress in time to cause chronic health outcomes.


Blundell, G. (1990). The art and science of biofeedback. Caduceus, 10, 35-40.

Gibson, F., McGrath, A., & Reid, N. (1989). Occupational stress in social work. British Journal of Social Work, 19, 1-16.

Hobson, C. J. & Delunas, L. (2001). National norms and life-event frequencies for the Revised Social Readjustment Rating Scale. International Journal of Stress Management, 8(4), 299-314.

Jamal, M. & Baba, V. V. (2001). Type-A behavior, job performance, and well-being in college teachers. International Journal of Stress Management, 8(3), 231-240.

Kaplan, R. M. (1990). Behavior as the central outcome in health care. American Psychologist, 45(11), 1211-1220.

Mudrack, P. E. & Naughton, T. J. (2001). The Assessment of workaholism as behavioral tendencies: Scale development and preliminary empirical testing. International Journal of Stress Management, 8(2), 93-111.

Lu, L., Kao, S. F., Cooper, C. L., & Spector, P. E. (2000). Managerial stress, locus of control, and job strain in Taiwan and UK: A comparative study. International Journal of Stress Management, 7(3), 209-226.

McGill, P. (1991, January 4). Working for the Japanese can kill you. The Irish Times, p. 3.

Rafferty, Y., Friend, R., & Landsbergis, P. A. (2001). The association between job skill discretion, decision authority and burnout. Work & Stress, 15, 73-85.

Reid H. (1990). Theoretical and emperical analysis of occupational stress: A study of residential social workers in child care. Unpublished Ph.D. thesis, University of Ulster, Coleraine.

Dillenburger, K. (2004). Causes and Alleviation of Occupational Stress in Child Care Work. Child Care in Practice, 10, 3. pp. 213-215.

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