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Occupational stress in different organizations: a Saudi Arabian survey.


Researchers' interest in job-related stress has increased dramatically in recent years [1,2]. This is because many researchers believe that stress is becoming a major contributor to absenteeism, low employee morale, high accident and turnover rates, decreased productivity and increased company medical expenses[3,4,5].

The cost of these stress consequences has become a huge burden on many organizations worldwide. Some researchers in the area of stress report that annual costs attributed to stress-related alcoholism, drug abuse, disease and low productivity are about US$142 billion[6]. Moreover, the United States Clearing House of Mental Health Information estimates that US industry suffers a loss of productivity of more than $17 billion annually because of stress-related mental dysfunctions.

The problem is not only the high costs of the negative mental stress-related consequences, for it seems that a lot of employees in today's organizations suffer physical ailments directly related to stress. For instance, it is estimated by the American Academy of Family Physicians that two-thirds of office visits to its members are attributable to stress-related symptoms[7]. Consistent with this, a Gallup Survey of medical and personnel directors of 200 small and large organizations showed that almost 25 per cent of their organizations' employees suffered from anxiety or other stress-related symptoms[8]. Furthermore, it has been reported that job-related stress is "a major contributor to the six leading causes of death in the United States: coronary heart disease, cancer, lung ailments, accidental injuries, cirrhosis of the liver and suicide"[4].

Although the high cost of stress-related consequences has increased researchers' awareness of stress as a legitimate and important area of organizational concern, most of the research, unfortunately, focuses on the following two main topics:

(1) its consequences on the individual and the organization in general; and

(2) its impact on mainly private organizations in the United States.

Very little research, however, addresses the concept of stress and its determinants in relation to different organizational types (public, semi-private and private), sizes (small, medium and large), diverse foreign workforce, and varied employee demographics in the developing world in general and Saudi Arabia in particular.

This article, then, attempts to contribute to the above much needed internationally-oriented research on stress. The following are the main objectives of this article:

* to measure stress levels among employees working in Saudi organizations;

* to measure stress levels among selected nationalities working in Saudi Arabia;

* to study and analyse stress in relation to individual differences in Saudi Arabia; and

* to determine the relative strength of several major job stressors as they are experienced by employees working in different types and sizes of Saudi organizations.



We utilized the instrument reported in Hellriegel and Slocum[9] to measure stress in various Saudi organizations. The stress measurement questionnaire consisted of nine items (see Table I) and used a seven-point Likert-type scale which ranges from 1 (never a problem) to 7 (always a problem). The first three items were designed to measure stress due to the physical environment. Stress caused by role conflict was measured using items four, five and six. The last three items were designed to measure stress resulting from role ambiguity. Also included were questions designed to gather information from respondents on the type of organization they work for, the size of their organization, [TABULAR DATA FOR TABLE I OMITTED] their educational background, monthly income, nationality, marital status, sex, experience (tenure) and age.

Sample and procedure

Since some of the respondents in this study spoke only Arabic, the questionnaire on stress was translated from English info Arabic, and was validated by translation-back-translation to ensure that both versions were equivalent [10]. Then, through personal contacts and referrals, 600 questionnaires were distributed in both languages to employees in various organizations in Saudi Arabia. This snowball, non-probability sampling is thought to be more effective[11] and culturally more acceptable in Saudi Arabia as compared to other surveying methods, such as by telephone or mail.

Respondent characteristics

Respondents from 23 organizations returned a total of 442 (73.67 per cent) usable questionnaires. Of these respondents, 22.7 per cent had a high-school education or less; 16.8 per cent had some college education but no degree; 44.0 per cent had a college degree; and 14.4 per cent held postgraduate degrees. Of the sample, 25.5 per cent were single; 74.5 per cent were married; 93.4 per cent were male; 61.3 per cent were Saudis; 16.9 per cent were Asians; 13.3 per cent were Arabs, and 8.5 per cent were Westerners.

In terms of organizational affiliation, 22.9 per cent of the respondents worked in private organizations; 36.7 per cent worked in public organizations; and 40.5 per cent worked in semi-private organizations (owned by the Government, but operated like private organizations). With regard to experience, 45.5 per cent of the sample had been with their organization between one and five years; 33.5 per cent between six and ten years; 13.4 per cent between 11 and 15 years; and 7.8 per cent had more than 15 years' tenure. In relation to the organizational size dimension, it was found that 26 per cent of the sample worked in small organizations; 33.5 per cent in medium-sized organizations, and 40.5 per cent in large organizations (number of employees was used as a measure of organization size).


Table I lists the overall mean and standard deviation for each of the nine variables that influence stress levels among the workforce in Saudi organizations. Lack of knowledge about performance evaluation results is reported to be the highest source of stress (4.16-7.00), with "receiving too many incompatible pressures from too many people" a strong second (3.97-7.00). Being forced to do unethical acts is reported to be the least source of stress (2.95-7.00).

The ranking of the events that affected employees' stress (1 = the highest and 9 = the lowest) is shown in Tables II and III. It was found that the unknown results of performance evaluation of the employees was the most stressful event for the following groups:

* employees working in private and semi-private organizations;

* employees working in small and large organizations;

* males;

* married and single employees; and

* employees with work experience between one and 15 years.


"Receiving too many incompatible pressures from too many people" ranked a strong second for all the categories except for workers having more than 15 year's experience and for females where it was ranked highest (the most stressful event).

Being forced to do unethical things is reported to be the least source of stress for the employees working in public organizations, employees working in medium-sized organizations, males, single and married employees, and all nationalities working in Saudi Arabia, except Arabs.

The overall stress average for employees with different educational levels, ages, experiences and nationalities is presented in Table IV. Employees with a high-school education or less are reported to have the highest levels of stress. Further, those less than 30 years of age experience more stress than do other age groups.

With regard to the experience category, it was found that employees with between six and ten years of experience are suffering the most from stress. In terms of nationality, Saudis recorded the highest levels of stress. Among the foreign workforce, Arabs were second, Asians third, while Westerners (Europeans and North Americans) registered the lowest levels of stress (2.98-7.00).




This study examined nine sources of stress among employees working in different Saudi organizations. Some of the findings in this research article require further discussion.

Results indicate that a lack of knowledge about performance evaluation ranked much higher as a source of stress in private and semi-private organizations than it did in public organizations. This might be explained by two factors. First, performance evaluation in private and semi-private organizations has a major impact on employees' compensation, promotion and job security. Second, performance evaluation in these organizations is possibly not administered properly. Our subjective evaluation and the anecdotal evidence available to us indicate that these organizations emphasize the judgemental aspects of the evaluation and ignore its development aspects. There is little communication, insufficient feedback, no appraisal interviews and little, if any, employee participation in the design or implementation of evaluation systems.

In contrast, in Saudi public organizations, the impact of performance evaluation is minimal since job security is guaranteed and annual increases and compensation adjustments are not performance-related. Therefore, even if there is a lack of knowledge about the performance evaluation, it is not considered important enough to cause stress levels similar to those found in private organizations.

There is a need for further study on performance evaluation in Saudi organizations and its relationship to stress and other organizational outcomes. Managers of organizations should be aware that performance evaluation, while an essential tool of control and development, could lead to stress and its negative consequences when misapplied.

Another revealing finding of this study is related to stress and employees' educational level. Using analysis of variance, it was found that there is a significant inverse relationship between educational level and stress (F= 4.09, P-value = 0.007). This gives support to the proposition offered by Ivancevich and Matteson, that education can help moderate or control the negative effects of stressors[4].

Among the different age groups in the sample, it was found that employees who are less than 30 years of age experience the highest levels of stress. One possible explanation for this is that people under this age category are "entering their first career stage in which they are expected to perform well and keep their noses to the grindstone"[12]. Therefore, organizations are well advised to pay attention to their younger employees by monitoring their orientation and socialization processes, with the objective of minimizing potential sources of stress.

Also, the results show that Saudi employees in our sample have the highest levels of stress as compared to other nationalities. Furthermore, using analysis of variance, it was found that there is a significant difference in the stress level between Saudi and non-Saudi employees working in different Saudi organizations (F = 18.0 and P-value = 0.0001). This conceivably is explained by Saudi Arabia's attempt to bring its society from the nineteenth to the twenty-first century in less than one generation, an attempt which has put enormous social and psychological pressures on the population. The speed and amount of change involved in the move from a rural and nomadic society to an industrial one have put enormous social and psychological pressures on the Saudi workforce.

Some researchers have indicated that Saudis are accustomed to a society based on an extended family system, and now, as a result of the rapid industrialization, are forced to adjust to a community based on the nuclear family [13]. This adjustment may require an evolution through periods where social demands and industrial demands on the individual are not compatible and, consequently, are stress producing. These possibilities require further studies because of their importance to individual wellbeing as well as to organizational effectiveness.

The sources of stress explored in this study are limited. Other potential sources should be considered in future research. Also, because of the special circumstances of Saudi Arabia's culture, wealth, ambitious developmental plans, social history, and the speed by which changes have taken and are still taking place, there may exist sources of stress that are relatively "unique" to the Saudi work environment. Future studies may want to explore these possibilities.


1 Gibson, J.L., Ivancevich, J.M. and Donnelly, J.H., Organizations: Behavior, Structure and Processes, 6th ed., Irwin, Homewood, IL, 1988.

2 Stoner, C. and Fry, F., "Developing a corporate policy for managing stress", Personnel, May-June 1983, pp. 66-76.

3 Whetten, D.A. and Cameron, K.S., Developing Management Skills, 2nd ed., Harper Collins, New York, NY, 1991.

4 Jordan, F., Management World, June-August 1987, pp. 13-5.

5 Steers, R.M., Introduction to Organizational Behavior, 4th ed., Harper Collins, New York, NY, 1991.

6 Ivancevich, J. and Matteson, M.T., Stress and Work: A Managerial Perspective, Scott Foresman, Glenview, IL, 1980.

7 Wallic, C. "Stress: can we cope?", Time, 6 June 1983.

8 Steward, T.A., "Do you push your people too hard?", Fortune, 22 October 1990, p. 121.

9 Hellriegel, D. and Slocum, J.W., Management, Addison-Wesley, New York, NY, 1992.

10 Brislin, R., "Back translation for cross-cultural research", Journal of Cross-cultural Psychology, Vol. 1, 1970, pp. 185-216.

11 Emory, C.W. and Cooper, D.R., Business Research Methods, 4th ed., Irwin, Homewood, IL, 1991.

12 Hodgets, R.M., Organizational Behavior, Macmillan, New York, NY, 1991.

13 Shaw, J.A., "Saudi Arabia comes of age", The Washington Quarterly, Spring 1982, pp. 151-6.

Khaled A. Ben-Bakr is Chairman of the Department of Management and Marketing at the King Fahd University of Petroleum and Minerals, Dhahran, Saudi Arabia.

Id S. Al-Shammari is Assistant Professor of Management at the King Fahd University of Petroleum and Minerals, Dhahran, Saudi Arabia.

Omar A. Jefri is Assistant Professor of Marketing at the King Fahd University of Petroleum and Minerals, Dhahran, Saudi Arabia.
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Author:Ben-Bakr, Khaled A.; Al-Shammari, Id S.; Jefri, Omar A.
Publication:Journal of Managerial Psychology
Date:May 1, 1995
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