Psychosocial health implications of organizational stress for high-level athletes

As with research on stress in general, the physical health consequences of organizational stress are well documented, and include illness (Wang et al., 2014), cardiovascular complications (Theorell & Karasek, 1996), and obesity (Brunner, Chandola, & Marmot, 2007). In terms of psychosocial health, organizational stress has been linked to an increased risk for a variety of depressive disorders in the general population (e.g., Burns, Butterworth, & Antsey, 2016; Wang, Schmitz, Dewa, & Stansfeld, 2009). A meta-analysis of 11 studies conducted between 1994 and 2005 showed associations between elements of organizational stress (e.g., high demands with low autonomy, high effort with low rewards) and common psychological disorders (Stansfeld & Candy, 2006). Recognizing organizational stress as a threat to worker health and well-being, researchers at the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH; 1999) proposed a theoretical model of job stress and health to guide further research and practice (Hurrell & Sauter, 2012). In the model, the researchers posit that work stress in the form of task demands, organizational factors, and physical conditions, and as moderated by individual, non-work, and buffer factors such as social support, lead to acute psychological (e.g., changes in affect), physiological (e.g., cardiovascular complications), and behavioral (e.g., changes in sleep) reactions, which can over time result in cardiovascular disease, clinical psychological disorders, and/or long-term physical impairment (Hurrell & Sauter, 2012).

Of interest for the current text are the psychological and behavioral consequences of organizational stress. Although the NIOSH model has not been employed when studying high-level athletes, it offers a useful framework for doing so. When considered in the context of extant research on organizational stress in high-level athletes, the model can easily be modified to guide research and practice with this population. For example, imagine an elite track athlete who competes for her country’s national team. Research on organizational stress in athletes suggests that this athlete may experience organizational stress in the form of financial constraints, team selection, conflict with coaches, and/or issues related to team cohesion. Perhaps she comes from an unstable family environment and has insufficient tools with which to cope with the organizational stressors. The combination of high organizational stress and difficult non-sport circumstances may in turn lead to feelings of depression and perhaps the adoption of unhealthy behaviors such as excessive alcohol consumption and/or poor sleep hygiene. Without intervention, she risks long-term psychosocial health consequences such as clinical depression, substance dependence, and social isolation.

The previous scenario suggests how the process of organizational stress from onset to long-term outcome may occur for high-level athletes. However, a notable absence from the NIOSH model is the underlying mechanisms by which organizational stress leads to adverse psychosocial health outcomes. Diminished self-esteem and low perceived mastery over the working environment are two psychological constructs implicated as mediating the relationship between work stress and negative emotional health outcomes in non-athletes (Cole, Ibrahim, Shannon, Scott, & Eyles, 2002). Conceptually, perceived mastery over one’s environment is much like Ryan and Deci’s (1999) notion of autonomy, or individuals’ need for personal choice in a given situation. Autonomy is, along with competence and relatedness, one of three basic psychosocial needs identified by Deci and Ryan in their self-determination theory (SDT) of motivation. Based on a eudaimonic approach to human motivation and well-being, SDT postulates that satisfaction of the three needs promotes motivation grounded in the intrinsic values of learning, stimulation, and accomplishment (Deci & Ryan, 2000; Ryan, Huta, & Deci, 2013). Although basic psychosocial need satisfaction is important for motivation, the needs are, in and of themselves, indicators of well-being (Deci & Ryan, 2000).

Guided by principles of SDT and Lazarus and Folkman’s (1984) transactional model of stress and coping, Bartholomew, Arnold, Hampson, and Fletcher (2017) examined the links between organizational stressors, cognitive appraisals, and need satisfaction/thwarting in over 300 high-level British athletes from a variety of sports. The researchers found that when athletes perceived the frequency and intensity of organizational stressors as posing a threat to their future well-being (i.e., threat appraisal), they were more likely to report psychosocial need frustration (e.g., feeling overly controlled, feeling rejected). By contrast, when athletes appraised the duration of organizational stressors as an opportunity for growth (i.e., challenge appraisal), they were more likely to experience need satisfaction. Moreover, challenge appraisals predicted perceptions of control over the stressor, which in turn positively predicted need satisfaction and negatively predicted need frustration. Appraisals of threat predicted perceived lack of control, and subsequent need frustration. These findings support the notion that athletes’ perceptions of stressors in the sport environment play an important role in determining the effect of these stressors on psychosocial health.

Another adverse psychosocial health outcome that may be linked to organizational stress in high-level sport, is burnout. As originally defined by Maslach and Jackson (1984), and later adapted for sport by Raedeke (1997), burnout refers to “a syndrome of physical/emotional exhaustion, sport devaluation, and reduced athletic accomplishment among athletes” (p. 398). Originally observed and studied in professionals who worked in helping professions, not only is burnout a concerning phenomenon in its own right, but also because of links with heart disease (Toker, Melamed, Berliner, Zeltser, & Shapira, 2012), depression (Bianchia, Schonfeld, & Laurent, 2015), and poorer cognitive health (Sandstrom, Rhodin, Lundberg, Olsson, & Nyberg, 2005).

Within sport, perceived stress has emerged as the most consistent predictor of athlete burnout (Eklund & DeFreese, 2015; Goodger, Gorely, Lavallee, & Harwood, 2007), and Smith’s (1986) cognitive-affective model emphasizes the role of chronic stress in contributing to physiological and behavioral outcomes associated with burnout. Tabei, Fletcher, and Goodger (2012) argued that, in addition to personal stress, explanations for burnout should account for the role of organizational stressors. Coakley (1992) was the first to propose that high-level adolescent athletes burn out not only because they lack the personal resources to cope with stress, but because of a sport structure that robs athletes of personal control and makes excessive time demands which prohibit them from expanding their identity beyond sport.

Partially guided by Coakley’s (1992) Unidimensional Identity and External Control Model of burnout, Tabei (et al.) undertook a mixed-methods investigation of organizational stress and burnout in 98 English and Japanese university soccer players. Following completion of Raedeke and Smith’s (2001) Athlete Burnout Questionnaire, the authors interviewed nine athletes who scored above the threshold for burnout for all three dimensions (i.e., physical and emotional exhaustion, sport devaluation, and reduced sense of accomplishment) for their perceptions on the link between organizational stressors and dimensions of burnout. Ten types of organizational stressors were identified by the players as contributing to at least one dimension of burnout each. For example, the stressor training and competition load (e.g., hard training, insufficient rest) was mentioned by players as contributing to both sport devaluation and physical and emotional exhaustion. In addition, leadership style (e.g., authoritarian coaching style, insufficient coach knowledge) was reported by players as influencing all three dimensions of burnout.

Of further interest was the higher prevalence of burnout in the Japanese players, which, partially based on the follow-up interviews, the authors attributed to the common practice of especially harsh physical conditioning prescribed by Japanese coaches. An emphasis on a hierarchical structure within Japanese sport, in which more junior players are often ignored, and even abused by more experienced players, also seemed to be a factor differentiating the Japanese from the English players. In sum, the lone study of organizational stress and burnout showed that these athletes perceived a link between aspects of their sporting environment and feelings of exhaustion, sport devaluation, and a reduced sense of accomplishment. Unfortunately, researchers have yet to follow up on this study to gain a further understanding of the psychosocial health consequences of organizational stress. In the following section, I offer some possibilities for expanding this line of research.

Future research directions for organizational stress and athlete psychosocial health

At this point, common sources of organizational stress in high-level sport, and subsequent coping process adopted by athletes, are quite well known. Lagging far behind is an understanding of the cognitive, emotional, social, and spiritual health consequences of organizational stress in this population. Although the aforementioned study by Tabei et al. (2012) established organizational stressors as a factor in one psychosocial health outcome of interest, namely burnout, other possible outcomes remain unexplored. For example, as has been found in nonathletes (e.g., Burns et al., 2016) it seems possible that prolonged organizational stress may trigger common psychological disorders such as anxiety, depression, substance abuse, and eating disorders. And given that teammates and coaches are often considered as elements of organizational stress, it behooves researchers to consider the social health ramifications, perhaps via measures of social adjustment (e.g., Weissman & Bothwell, 1976).

Regardless of the chosen outcome, a longitudinal and multivariate approach should be adopted to account for the dynamic nature of organizational stress. Such an approach will allow researchers to understand whether organizational stress does indeed predict future adverse psychosocial outcomes, the relative influence of different sources of organizational stress, and the role of stressor frequency, duration, and intensity (Arnold & Fletcher, 2012). It may also be interesting to examine the transient versus persistent nature of any such outcomes. That is, under what circumstances does stress from the sport environment lead to psychosocial consequences from which athletes recover in a relatively brief time period, rather than a more chronic condition? The answers to such questions will inform attempts to minimize potentially harmful and unnecessary organizational stress, and/or arm athletes with tools to effectively cope.

Perhaps because the majority of organizational stress in sport research has occurred in the United Kingdom, there is a gap in knowledge regarding the nature of organizational stress for American student-athletes competing at NCAA-sponsored institutions. The NCAA has come under scrutiny for failing to fairly compensate student-athletes, and particularly those who play American football and men’s basketball at major universities, who spend upwards of20 hoursper week on their sport, and whose S23.000 average annual scholarship represent just a fraction of their estimated value on the open market (Huma & Staurowsky, 2012). Recent efforts by current NCAA athletes to unionize, and by former athletes to sue the NCAA over the unauthorized use of their names and images in merchandise and video games underscore the level of discontent by these individuals (Farrey, 2015; Ganim, 2014). Huma and Staurowsky offer several reasons why student-athletes may experience organizational stress, including (a) denial of athletes to independently profit on their own image, (b) restricting compensation, (c) failing to provide health insurance, (d) placing extreme demands on time and energy, and (e) limiting access to due process. Based on the aforementioned conditions, research examining perceptions of organizational stress and psychosocial health of collegiate American football and men’s basketball players at major universities seems warranted.

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