Lois E. Tetrick
Most of the articles in this chapter deal with aspects of the work environment that are proximal to the individual employee. The focus of this article, however, is to examine the impact of more distal, macrolevel characteristics of organizations as a whole that may affect employees’ health and well-being. That is, are there ways in which organizations structure their internal environments that promote health among the employees of that organization or, conversely, place employees at greater risk of experiencing stress? Most theoretical models of occupational or job stress incorporate organizational structural variables such as organizational size, lack of participation in decision making, and formalization (Beehr and Newman 1978; Kahn and Byosiere 1992).
Organizational structure refers to the formal distribution of work roles and functions within an organization coordinating the various functions or subsystems within the organization to efficiently attain the organization’s goals (Porras and Robertson 1992). As such, structure represents a coordinated set of subsystems to facilitate the accomplishment of the organization’s goals and mission and defines the division of labour, the authority relationships, formal lines of communication, the roles of each organizational subsystem and the interrelationships among these subsystems. Therefore, organizational structure can be viewed as a system of formal mechanisms to enhance the understandability of events, predictability of events and control over events within the organization which Sutton and Kahn (1987) proposed as the three work-relevant antidotes against the stress-strain effect in organizational life.
One of the earliest organizational characteristics examined as a potential risk factor was organizational size. Contrary to the literature on risk of exposure to hazardous agents in the work environment, which suggests that larger organizations or plants are safer, being less hazardous and better equipped to handle potential hazards (Emmett 1991), larger organizations originally were hypothesized to put employees at greater risk of occupational stress. It was proposed that larger organizations tend to adapt a bureaucratic organizational structure to coordinate the increased complexity. This bureaucratic structure would be characterized by a division of labour based on functional specialization, a well-defined hierarchy of authority, a system of rules covering the rights and duties of job incumbents, impersonal treatment of workers and a system of procedures for dealing with work situations (Bennis 1969). On the surface, it would appear that many of these dimensions of bureaucracy would actually improve or maintain the predictability and understandability of events in the work environment and thus serve to reduce stress within the work environment. However, it also appears that these dimensions can reduce employees’ control over events in the work environment through a rigid hierarchy of authority.
Given these characteristics of bureaucratic structure, it is not surprising that organizational size, per se, has received no consistent support as a macro-organization risk factor (Kahn and Byosiere 1992). Payne and Pugh’s (1976) review, however, provides some evidence that organizational size indirectly increases the risk of stress. They report that larger organizations suffered a reduction in the amount of communication, an increase in the amount of job and task specifications and a decrease in coordination. These effects could lead to less understanding and predictability of events in the work environment as well as a decrease in control over work events, thus increasing experienced stress (Tetrick and LaRocco 1987).
These findings on organizational size have led to the supposition that the two aspects of organizational structure that seem to pose the most risk for employees are formalization and centralization. Formalization refers to the written procedures and rules governing employees’ activities, and centralization refers to the extent to which the decision-making power in the organization is narrowly distributed to higher levels in the organization. Pines (1982) pointed out that it is not formalization within a bureaucracy that results in experienced stress or burnout but the unnecessary red tape, paperwork and communication problems that can result from formalization. Rules and regulations can be vague creating ambiguity or contradiction resulting in conflict or lack of understanding concerning appropriate actions to be taken in specific situations. If the rules and regulations are too detailed, employees may feel frustrated in their ability to achieve their goals especially in customer or client-oriented organizations. Inadequate communication can result in employees feeling isolated and alienated based on the lack of predictability and understanding of events in the work environment.
While these aspects of the work environment appear to be accepted as potential risk factors, the empirical literature on formalization and centralization are far from consistent. The lack of consistent evidence may stem from at least two sources. First, in many of the studies, there is an assumption of a single organizational structure having a consistent level of formalization and centralization throughout the entire organization. Hall (1969) concluded that organizations can be meaningfully studied as totalities; however, he demonstrated that the degree of formalization as well as decision-making authority can differ within organizational units. Therefore, if one is looking at an individual level phenomenon such as occupational stress, it may be more meaningful to look at the structure of smaller organizational units than that of the whole organization. Secondly, there is some evidence suggesting that there are individual differences in response to structural variables. For example, Marino and White (1985) found that formalization was positively related to job stress among individuals with an internal locus of control and negatively related to stress among individuals who generally believe that they have little control over their environments. Lack of participation, on the other hand, was not moderated by locus of control and resulted in increased levels of job stress. There also appear to be some cultural differences affecting individual responses to structural variables, which would be important for multinational organizations having to operate across national boundaries (Peterson et al. 1995). These cultural differences also may explain the difficulty in adopting organizational structures and procedures from other nations.
Despite the rather limited empirical evidence implicating structural variables as psychosocial risk factors, it has been recommended that organizations should change their structures to be flatter with fewer levels of hierarchy or number of communication channels, more decentralized with more decision- making authority at lower levels in the organization and more integrated with less job specialization (Newman and Beehr 1979). These recommendations are consistent with organizational theorists who have suggested that traditional bureaucratic structure may not be the most efficient or healthiest form of organizational structure (Bennis 1969). This may be especially true in light of technological advances in production and communication that characterize the postindustrial workplace (Hirschhorn 1991).
The past two decades have seen considerable interest in the redesign of organizations to deal with external environmental threats resulting from increased globalization and international competition in North America and Western Europe (Whitaker 1991). Straw, Sandelands and Dutton (1988) proposed that organizations react to environmental threats by restricting information and constricting control. This can be expected to reduce the predictability, understandability and control of work events thereby increasing the stress experienced by the employees of the organization. Therefore, structural changes that prevent these threat-ridigity effects would appear to be beneficial to both the organization’s and employees’ health and well-being.
The use of a matrix organizational structure is one approach for organizations to structure their internal environments in response to greater environmental instability. Baber (1983) describes the ideal type of matrix organization as one in which there are two or more intersecting lines of authority, organizational goals are achieved through the use of task-oriented work groups which are cross-functional and temporary, and functional departments continue to exist as mechanisms for routine personnel functions and professional development. Therefore, the matrix organization provides the organization with the needed flexibility to be responsive to environmental instability if the personnel have sufficient flexibility gained from the diversification of their skills and an ability to learn quickly.
While empirical research has yet to establish the effects of this organizational structure, several authors have suggested that the matrix organization may increase the stress experienced by employees. For example, Quick and Quick (1984) point out that the multiple lines of authority (task and functional supervisors) found in matrix organizations increase the potential for role conflict. Also, Hirschhorn (1991) suggests that with postindustrial work organizations, workers frequently face new challenges requiring them to take a learning role. This results in employees having to acknowledge their own temporary incompetencies and loss of control which can lead to increased stress. Therefore, it appears that new organizational structures such as the matrix organization also have potential risk factors associated with them.
Attempts to change or redesign organizations, regardless of the particular structure that an organization chooses to adopt, can have stress-inducing properties by disrupting security and stability, generating uncertainty for people’s position, role and status, and exposing conflict which must be confronted and resolved (Golembiewski 1982). These stress-inducing properties can be offset, however, by the stress-reducing properties of organizational development which incorporate greater empowerment and decision making across all levels in the organization, enhanced openness in communication, collaboration and training in team building and conflict resolution (Golembiewski 1982; Porras and Robertson 1992).
While the literature suggests that there are occupational risk factors associated with various organizational structures, the impact of these macrolevel aspects of organizations appear to be indirect. Organizational structure can provide a framework to enhance the predictability, understandability and control of events in the work environment; however, the effect of structure on employees’ health and well-being is mediated by more proximal work-environment characteristics such as role characteristics and interpersonal relations. Structuring organizations for healthy employees as well as healthy organizations requires organizational flexibility, worker flexibility and attention to the sociotechnical systems that coordinate the technological demands and the social structure within the organization.