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Work & Stress, July Á/September 2006; 20(3): 191 Á/209

Understanding the experience of stressors: The use of sequential analysis for exploring the patterns between various work stressors and strain


School of Management, Birkbeck, University of London, UK; and 2Department of Organizational Psychology, Birkbeck, University of London, UK

Abstract The availability of traditional self-report instruments for measuring work stressors may have diverted attention from exploring the way in which different stressors relate to one another. In order to develop a better understanding of the nature of the stressor experience a study was undertaken to explore the stressor Á/strain relationship using sequential tree analysis, a stepwise procedure that provides a ‘‘visual display’’ of the patterns and associations between stressors and strains. The study employed a sample of 695 principals and deputy principal teachers of secondary schools in New Zealand, who received a questionnaire measuring stressors and strains. SPSS AnswerTree† (version 2.0.1) was used to identify the patterns of association. The patterns of stressors that emerge from this analysis were used in a didactic or illustrative way to identify issues of measurement that may need to be resolved in order to derive a better understanding of the stressor experience. Different stressor patterns were associated with different levels of strain, but lower levels of strain were not simply the obverse of those stressors that cause higher levels of strain. Two not mutually exclusive issues emerge from the results, suggesting that stressor measurement practices may need to be reviewed. The first includes structural level issues such as considering the number, type, and potency of different stressors. The second includes issues best described as conditions of association. These concern understanding why different stressor patterns form, the relationship between stressors in those patterns, and the potency of patterns.

Keywords: Sequential tree analysis, SPSS AnswerTree† , stepwise procedure, work-related stress, strain, teaching, non-linear relationships

Introduction Self-report instruments for measuring work stressors have long been available (Rizzo, House, & Lirtzman, 1970) yet, because these measures have been readily available and frequently used, they have slowed the need to develop ‘‘other, potentially better measures’’ (Beehr, 1995, p. 61) and ‘‘while there have been attempts to develop alternative methods this is not currently well advanced’’ (Rick, Briner, Daniels, Perryman, & Guppy, 2001, p. 77) overshadowing somewhat our understanding of the nature and character of different work stressors. More importantly, perhaps, they have helped to divert attention away from exploring the way different types of work stressors may relate to one another and towards a more focused understanding of the nature of the stressor experience. As a result, four not mutually exclusive areas have emerged when it comes to stressor measurement. These include: (a) expanding our
Correspondence: Linda Trenberth, School of Management, Birkbeck, University of London, Malet Street,, London WC1E 7HX UK. Tel: 0207 631 6778. E-mail: ISSN 0267-8373 print/ISSN 1464-5335 online # 2006 Taylor & Francis DOI: 10.1080/02678370600999944


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knowledge by using different theoretical and conceptual approaches to identify and categorize potential work stressors, (b) considering whether more traditionally measured events actually reflect the nature of the stressful experience, (c) examining more closely the nature of work stressors by exploring such characteristics as frequency, duration and intensity, and (d) exploring the patterns of association between stressors within the strain context. The research described in this paper explores the last of these issues. Sequential tree analysis (SPSS AnswerTree† ) is used to provide a visual display of the patterns and associations between stressors in relation to different strains. The ‘‘display’’ or ‘‘tree’’ shows how patterns formed from the stressors differentially predict the dependent (strain) variable (The Measurement Group, 2004). The advantage offered by sequential tree analysis lies in its system of hierarchical ordering. This sequential unfolding of predictor variables (stressors) provides a rich description of the way different stressors associate with one another in relation to a particular strain. The analysis is presented in much the same way as a map offers ‘‘guided paths for visiting various regions’’ (Li, Lue, & Chen, 2000, p. 598). The display acts as a device to aid our understanding of, and provide insights into, the stressor Á/strain relationship. More particularly, the technique provides an opportunity to consider whether, and the manner in which, different stressors may combine and form patterns and, if they do, offers a way of thinking about work stressors that further enhances their explanatory potential.

Work stressors The attention that researchers have given to such stressors as role ambiguity and role conflict may be explained by the notion that relevant measures have simply been readily available. This has resulted in continued emphasis on them, whereas there appears to be ‘‘little reason to focus on them other than [because they] were early arrivals’’ (Beehr, 1995, p. 55), yet ‘‘research clearly suggests an important role for other job stressors that have received inadequate attention’’ (Spector & Jex, 1998, p. 356). Researchers have, however, identified and classified a wider range of potential work stressors. Beehr and Newman (1978), for example, identified 37 potential work stressors, categorizing them under four headings. Such headings covered not just role demands and expectations but also job demands and task characteristics, organizational characteristics and conditions, and an organization’s external demands and conditions. Similarly Cartwright and Cooper (1997) identified six primary categories of work-related stressors that ranged from factors intrinsic to the job itself to career issues and the home Á/work interface. Other authors (Sulsky & Smith 2005) identify what they describe as micro-level work stressors and categorize them in terms of work roles, contemporary stressors covering issues such as career management, technology developments, workÁ/family conflicts, and organizational change, and transition stressors covering downsizing and job loss. Still others (Barling, Inness, & Gallagher 2002) point to changes in employment practices and draw attention to alternative forms of employment (e.g., parttime, job-sharing, outsourcing) as potential work stressors. At the same time as researchers have been identifying, classifying, and investigating a wide range of potential stressors they have also questioned whether the events used in more traditional measures accurately reflect the real nature of the stressful experience (Dewe & Brook 2000). That is, are the events being measured grounded in day-to-day work experiences (Di Salvo, Lubbers, Rossi, & Lewis, 1995), do they reflect the working lives of those being researched (Cooper, Dewe, & O’Driscoll, 2001), and are they ‘‘informed by a ‘bottom up’ approach that is able to capture local concerns and context’’ (Mackay, Clarke,

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Kelly, Kelly, & McCaig, 2004, p. 101)? With all the changes that have gone on since many traditional measures were first introduced, researchers (Glowinkowski & Cooper, 1985) question whether there is now an ‘‘inherent bias’’ in these measures because more contemporary events are overlooked while more traditional ones are overemphasized. With workplaces becoming increasingly complex and challenging, the ‘‘conceptualizing and measuring’’ of work stressors will, as Vagg and Spielberger (1998, p. 302) argue, become even more important ‘‘in the next millennium.’’ When measuring work stressors, researchers agree that the issue must be one of relevance (Dewe, 1991), where events reflect those work experiences that individuals find significant and demanding. However, most work stressor measures ‘‘have been devised to be generic, to be used in as many settings and across as many jobs as possible’’ (Beehr, 1995, p. 105). So, depending on research goals and the finding that ‘‘although many stressors are specific to certain occupations, many jobs share a common set of stressors’’ (Sulsky & Smith, 2005, p. 109), researchers must now consider, when confronted with the question of relevance, the level of specificity required, whether more generic stressors assume, in different jobs, more specific characteristics, and by clarifying the nature of stressors ‘‘might make stressor measures different for different settings’’ (Beehr, 1995, p. 105). Both generic and specific stressor measures have their place in work stress research. The issue that remains for researchers is whether, in terms of current goals, stress research would benefit from richer, more context-specific measures that capture the subtlety of different work places (Dewe, 1991). The issue of relevance, and the continuing debate about generic versus specific measures, continue to confronted researchers when considering the measurement of work stressors (Hurrell, Wilson, & Simmons, 1998). Researchers have extended the measurement debate to include the need to consider such issues as stressor frequency, intensity, and demand (De Frank, 1988; Dewe, 1991; Pratt & Barling, 1988). As part of this debate, Daniels (2006) has also raised the issue of what it is that the measure of job characteristics actually assesses; in pointing to the need to differentiate between latent, perceived, and enacted job characteristics, Daniels illustrates how this distinction provides a ‘‘theoretical richness’’ when considering how they differentially contribute directly or indirectly to strain. Notwithstanding these different developments reviewers have, however, continued to point to the inconsistent use of stressor measures (Rick et al., 2001; Williams & Cooper, 1998), the adoption of stressor scales without ‘‘much information about their psychometric properties’’ (Spector & Jex, 1998, p. 357), and measurement methodologies based more on their ‘‘usability rather than their usefulness’’ (Briner, 1999, p. 1006). One explanation for this inconsistency in stressor measurement may stem from a research agenda where the primary focus has been to use stressor scales as ‘‘effect indicators’’ (Spector & Jex, 1998). In this way, stressor scales have been used to explore the impact of differently identified work stressors organized into composite scales; however, researchers (Briner, 1999; Rick et al., 2001) have questioned this approach, asking what it is exactly that these composite scores tell us. As a consequence, the need for a better understanding and appreciation of the nature and character of the stressor experience has not always been empirically articulated into stressor measurement. Nevertheless the debate surrounding stressor measurement is not just about the way in which measures have been developed or the inconsistent way in which original measures have been adapted with, in many cases, ‘‘items added or deleted, or the response format changed’’ (Rick et al., 2001, p. 76). Another significant theme to emerge from the measurement debate is that reviewers acknowledge and agree that a ‘‘careful consideration of methods can enhance theoretical


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richness and suggest new avenues for research’’ (Daniels, 2006, p. 286) and that alternative methods should be considered that aim to ‘‘unpack how particular kinds of work events may lead to emotional and health outcomes’’ (Rick et al., 2001, p. 83). Much, argues Kasl, needs to be learned about the ‘‘underlying mechanisms’’ because stressors may be ‘‘exceedingly complex’’ and ‘‘learning about the intermediate steps may be crucial to a full understanding of the etiologic process’’ (Kasl, 1998, p. 391). Research should be designed that examines, in a detailed way, the nature of the stressor experience (Jones & Bright, 2001), and such research would add to our understanding of the stressor Á/strain relationship. Learning more about these underlying mechanisms means that stressor measures may now need to be viewed more as ‘‘casual indicators’’ (Spector & Jex, 1998), where different stressor items are viewed as variations on the same theme. They are classified as indicators of that theme but they are not equivalent, in the sense that all stressor items have to combine to produce an effect, disguising what Spector and Jex describe ‘‘as the underlying complexity’’ (1998, p. 358) of the measure. Measurement practices overlook the different patterns from which mean scores can be derived and ‘‘frequently overshadow the fact that absolute levels of work stressors may be no reason to believe that individuals are experiencing the same thing’’ (Dewe & Brook, 2000, p. 4). The focus of viewing stressor measures as casual indicators shifts attention towards developing a much richer appreciation of how stressor items combine to influence what is experienced at work. It requires what Rick and colleagues (2001) describe as finding ways to ‘‘unpack’’ how different stressors lead to outcomes. Similarly, as Daniels suggests, when ‘‘rethinking job characteristics in work stress research’’ then the ‘‘extent and reasons for interrelations between the different facets become interesting questions’’ (Daniels, 2006, p. 284). These authors are, via different perspectives, pointing research towards exploring the ways in which different stressors relate to one another and, by inference, the patterns and combinations that different stressors may form. In developing their arguments, some authors (Spector & Jex, 1998) provide a sense of how stressors may relate to one another by providing as an example how role conflict ‘‘might be conceptualized as a form of a constraint that gets in the way of performing the job well [work overload]’’ (p. 364). Similarly Daniels (2006), by describing an instance where latent role conflict may lead to perceived and then enacted role conflict, illustrates what may be a ‘‘mutual influence’’ between such characteristics, raising the issue of what kinds of method may need to be used that capture the ‘‘mapping of possible relations’’ (p. 281). Other researchers, in exploring how stressors may relate to one another, use sequential analysis to find patterns in data to provide a pathway reflecting different stages of incidents (Beale, Cox, Clarke, Lawrence, & Leather, 1998) or illustrate how fluctuations in time pressures may translate into more chronic responses (Teuchmann, Totterdell, & Parker, 1999). By emphasizing the need for alternative methods and the complex way in which stressors may relate to one another, the research focus is guided more towards the manner in which stressor scores are constructed when considered in relation to a particular outcome, than to the overall score itself. The research reported here is developed out of this theoretical context, with the aim of providing a richer description of the relationship between stressor items and strain.

Research focus None of the issues discussed above are, of course, mutually exclusive. The impact of a stressor is as much a matter of its type as it of its nature. The underlying message when it comes to stressor measurement is that attention should now be directed as much towards

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understanding the nature of the experience as it has been to identifying different types and categories of stressors and exploring their impact. Understanding the nature of the stressor experience requires thinking differently about the way stressors are measured and how creative methodologies may be used to help achieve this goal. To develop our knowledge about the nature of the stressor experience would be to begin by focusing on the way different stressor events potentially relate to one another, by looking for associations between the events themselves; the way in which they combine, and the patterns that they form in relation to a particular strain. This focus, combined with a statistical technique like sequential tree analysis that gives a map-like visual display of the combinations and patterns between different work stressor events in relation to a particular strain, provides this context. The generally held hypothesis when measuring stressors assumes that the importance of any stressor item lies less in itself and more in the fact that it is coherently linked to a shared stressor domain. With sequential tree analysis, each event assumes to a large extent its own level of importance in relation to a particular dependent variable. More particularly, using sequential tree analysis to explore the manner in which different stressors may combine and form patterns offers insights into the nature of the stressor experience and the association between different types of stressors. Two other considerations drive this particular research. The first builds on the work of Dewe and Brook (2000) who questioned traditional measurement approaches that have relied on means to express stressor scores, and suggested that such an approach obscures the influence of individual stressor items and continues to reinforce the belief that similar scores indicate that individuals are experiencing the same thing. The second consideration stems from the practice of using factor analytical techniques to establish different types of stressor events, setting up what can become an artificial barrier between them. This practice makes the typical research strategy one where the impact of each stressor is, more often than not, examined independently of others. The consequence of this for work stress research is that attempts to understand how different types of stressor may relate to one another gets pushed to one side. This is a point that has not been altogether overlooked by researchers (Beale et al., 1998; Daniels, 2006; Spector & Jex, 1998; Teuchmann et al., 1999). The current research, by using all stressor items as a pool of data, and by using sequential tree analysis to examine the patterns formed between them, allows for a more formal consideration of the ways in which different stressor events may associate with one another. The overall goal of this research is to use sequential tree analysis as a device to aid and instruct our understanding of the way in which different stressor events associate with one another in relation to particular strains. Such analysis provides a context for considering the nature of the stressor experience and the measurement issues that may need to be addressed.

Method Population The questionnaire was sent to all principals and deputy principals in secondary schools throughout New Zealand. The 695 returned questionnaires represented a response rate of 67%. The sample was made up of 250 principals and 445 deputy principals. Of those who responded, 65% were male and 35% female. The representativeness of the response group was gauged with reference to gender and position data from the Ministry of Education. The sample was closely representative for position and gender of the total New Zealand population of secondary school senior management. Most of the sample (57%) had been in their position for less than 6 years, were married (83%), were over 40 years old


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(87%), and worked in schools with more than 251 pupils. The catchment areas of the schools were described as inner city, urban, or suburban (53%), rural (34%), and mixed (13%). The majority (92%) of the sample reported working between 40 and 80 hours per week, with an average of 62 hours worked. Almost 90% of the sample indicted that their stress levels were high or very high. For 42% of the sample, their levels of job satisfaction had decreased or substantially decreased since educational reforms began some 10 years previously.

Measures All those surveyed received a 30 page questionnaire related to work stress, coping, and leisure. Those sections of the questionnaire used in this research are described below. Work stressors: Item development and scale. At the time of this research there were no work stressor scales specifically designed to capture the nature of school principal and deputy principal jobs. Work to produce a work stressor scale that was relevant to this group and reflected the sort of issues that made such jobs demanding began with data collection from a series of focus groups. Access was given to a group of seven principals and 20 deputy principals from one educational region in New Zealand. Two focus groups were used. The first was made up of all the principals, while the second included all the deputy principals attending their regular regional meeting. The focus groups were asked to identify the events that caused them to feel under pressure, tension, or strain at work, and to also identify the most significant change to their workload since the implementation of educational reforms. Content analysis was used to analyse the responses. Responses were organized into categories according to their nature. These categories were substance based, as they were grounded in what was said (Kaid & Wadsworth, 1989). This process allows for the richness of the data to be retained while enabling the grouping of items that possessed similar connotations, providing what Weber (1985) describes as semantic validity. From the content analysis of the responses it was possible to establish eight categories of stressor. These included workload issues (e.g., No matter what I do I never have time to schedule my day properly), and the increases in workload flowing from educational reforms (e.g., there is so much paperwork that I can never keep up to date with the reading I need to do, especially all the new legislation), the changing nature of the principal’s/deputy principal’s job, requiring them to become managers or executives with little or no training (e.g., we are expected to be educational leaders on the one hand and on the other be managers of increasingly scarce resources), the conflict between educational and economic values (e.g., conflict between educational values and economic drivers of education department), the sheer number of changes and pace of change (e.g., the changes and pace of change are making life intolerable), the community’s role in the life of the school and the perception of education held by the community (e.g., demands by board of trustees; heightened expectations of parents), having to deal with staff issues and conflicts (e.g., philosophical differences between principal and staff), and the range and complexity of student issues (e.g., dealing with disruptive students; dealing with a range of social problems) that had to be dealt with. From this content analysis a work stressor scale was created made up of 97 events. These items were relevant to and reflected the reality of those sampled. Respondents were asked to consider each of the events in relation to the following instructions: ‘‘the statements which follow are all concerned with the issues you may have to confront when carrying out your work. Could you please indicate by circling the appropriate number how often (1 0never to 5 0always) each issue is a source of stress to you.’’ All items were used in the sequential tree analysis.

Exploring the pattern of work stressors


Strain measures. The strain items were taken from a measure first used by House and Rizzo (1972). The scale was made up of 8 items and was designed to capture a range of emotions normally associated with stress at work. Respondents were asked to consider each item and indicate (1 0strongly disagree to 5 0strongly agree) how much they agreed that it reflected how their job left them feeling. The aim of this research was to present a more focused analysis of stressor patterns associated with discrete strains rather than to combine each item into a composite scale (thereby losing the differential explanatory potential that each different strain may provide). It was clear from an inspection across mean scores that four strains were common across the whole sample. These were: ‘‘Work under a great deal of tension,’’ ‘‘Job worries sometimes get me down,’’ ‘‘Problems associated with the job sometimes keep me awake at night,’’ and ‘‘Worried after making a decision whether I did the right thing.’’ These four were used in the analysis. Mean scores for each were 4.25, 3.51, 3.41, and 3.39, respectively.

Sequential tree analysis In order to identify stressor patterns associated with the four measures of strain, this research used sequential tree analysis (SPSS AnswerTree† ). Sequential tree analysis is an exploratory data analysis method used to study the relationship between a dependent variable (strain) and a series of predictor variables (work stressors) that may themselves interact. It produces a data-partitioning tree showing how patterns formed by the predictor variables differentially predict the dependent (strain) variable. Sequential tree analysis divides the sample sequentially into homogenous groups (nodes). It first uses the F statistic to identify the best predictor variable (work stressor) of the dependent variable (strain) to form the first branch of the tree. It then merges those scale values of the predictor variable that are judged to be homogenous into subgroups (nodes). It then, based on other significant predictor variables, splits each of these nodes into smaller nodes (subgroups). This sequential process of selecting the best predictor variable and the best grouping of scale values of that variable continues until no more significantly significant predictors can be found. Because sequential tree analysis works through partitioning scale values, individual stressor items become the metric of analysis. Techniques such as regression or factor analysis have been used to determine suitable linear combinations of the stressors to create scores. In these combinations the coefficients are mean values from the total sample and the assumption is that all respondents fit this model. Tree analysis, however, searches for the best variable and more importantly the best split (partitioning) of that variable, thereby revealing the interrelationships between variables and groups of respondents. This analysis extends earlier work because it uses all stressor events to develop patterns. It overcomes the difficulties involved in interpreting stressor data when stressor events are, normally through factor analysis, aggregated into composite stressor categories and mean scores are used as the focus of analysis, somewhat masking the nature of the experience. Factor analysis can also be accused of creating artificial barriers between the different types of stressor categories leading, more often than not, to the impact of each stressor category being considered independently of others. The visual display offered by sequential tree analysis is used as a device to aid and instruct our understanding of the nature of the stressor experience. The sequential unfolding of stressors and the patterns formed in relation to particular strains provides a richer context for exploring the way in which different stressors may associate with one another, the difficulties involved in classifying different stressors when viewed in combination with


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others, and whether some stressors appear to be more powerful in their effect or whether that effect is more dependent on the way in which they combine. While sequential tree analysis is essentially a stepwise method, it is nevertheless an effective way to search heuristically through large numbers of variables in order to identify, via the partitioning of scale values, significant sub-group relationships that are used to control the structure of the tree diagram. In order to ensure that tree branches were not over specified a conservative approach was adopted; where appropriate, statistical stopping rules were put in place so that strong patterns emerged that did not over capitalize on chance. Two user-defined values were used to determine the size of the tree and the sample size within a node. In this case where the significance of F was less than the user-defined value (which was set at the 5% level) and where the sample size of a node was less than 50, then no further splits were made in that branch of the tree. The tree can be read downwards, highlighting, in this case, the pattern of work stressors (predictors) associated with the strain (dependent variable).

Results Sequential tree analysis was used to explore the stressor patterns across the four different strains. The sequential trees (stressor patterns) for each strain are present in Figures 1Á/4. The initial node at the top of each figure shows, for the whole sample, the summary statistics for the strain being measured. The numbers 1 to 5 above the nodes that follow (1 0 never to 5 0 always) represent the grouping of stressor scale points into homogenous nodes. Each node represents how often each stressor is perceived as a source of stress. The values in each node that follow the initial node represent the mean strain score, standard deviation, and number of respondents in that node. The results are outlined below. Turning first to Figure 1 (Working under a great deal of tension) as an example, tension scores increase as the tree is read from left to right. A heavy workload is the first stressor that discriminates between low and high tension. However, it is clear from the tree that different levels of tension are associated with different patterns of stressors. Looking first at the right hand branch of the tree, then higher levels of tension are associated with a heavy workload (4.63) and demands from staff (4.93). However, turning to the left hand branch of the tree where the stressor pattern is made up of a heavy workload and staff who lack commonsense; the mean level of tension for this node, while increasing, only increases to 4.05. The third pattern in Figure 1 is represented by the middle branch of the tree. Here the pattern is more involved and the final split of this branch, where the mean tension score is 4.77, appears to result from a combination of overload (heavy workload) and conflicts (conflicting demands between teaching and non-teaching staff, dealing with difficult parents, and conflicts between teaching and administration). The results in Figure 2 (Job worries sometimes get me down) and the results from Figures 3 and 4 illustrate that different types of stressors are associated with different strains. These results raise the issue of whether the relationship between stressors and strain is more specific than generally acknowledged, requiring researchers to more carefully consider, in relation to different stressors, the type of strain to be measured. Returning to Figure 2 and reading the figure from left to right, then it is the pace of change that first discriminates those who sometimes let job worries get then down from those less likely to let them do so. A further examination of the right hand side of the tree suggests that participants are more likely to agree that job worries sometimes get then down when the pace of change combines with uncertainty about the future (4.08) and a heavy workload (4.37). However, the left hand branch of the tree suggests that combining the pace of change with conflict between teaching

‘I Work Under a Great Deal of Tension’ Mean n 4.25 490 (100%)

Heavy Workload (p = .001; F=28.41; df=2,487)

1; 2; 3 Mean n 3.69 118 (24%) Mean n

4 4.31 237 (48%) Mean n

5 4.63 135 (28%)

Staff who lack Common-sense (p = .003 ; F=12.08; df=1,116)

Conflict Between Staff and Non-teaching Staff (p = .001; F=26.22; df=1,235)

Demands of Staff (p = .006; F=10.59; df=1,133)

1; 2 Mean n 3.33 60 (12%) Mean n

3; 4; 5 4.05 58 (12%) Mean n

1; 2 3.73 51 (10%) Mean n

3; 4; 5 4.47 186 (38%) Mea n n

1; 2; 3 4.42 80 (16%) Mean n

3; 4 4.93 55 (11%)

Exploring the pattern of work stressors

Dealing with Difficult Parents (p = .007; F=10.15; df=1,184) 1; 2 Mean n 4.21 57 (12%) Mean n 3; 4; 5 4.59 129 (26%)

Conflict Between Teaching and Administration (p = .034; F=7.16; df=1,127)

1; 2; 3 Mean n 4.45 73 (15%) Mea n n

3; 4 4.77 56 (11%)


Figure 1. Sequential tree analysis the association between ‘I work under a great deal of tension’ and work stressors


‘Job Worries Sometimes Get me Down’ Mean n 3.51 493 (100%)

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Pace of Change (p = .001; F=59.88; df=1,491)

Mean n 2.95 170 (34%) Mean n

3.80 323 (66%)

Conflict Between Teaching and Administration (p = .001; F=20.62; df=1,168)

Uncertainty About the Future (p = .001; F=14.11; df=2,320)

Mean n 2.44 71 (14%) Mean n

3.31 99 (20%) Mean n

3.29 62 (13%) Mean n

3.68 106 (22%) Mea n n

4.08 155 (31%)

Heavy Workload (p = .001; F=10.50; df=1,153)

Mean n 3.88 90 (18%) Mean n

4.37 65 (13%)

Figure 2. Sequential tree analysis the association between ‘Job worries sometimes get me down’ and work stressors

‘Problems Associated with the Job Sometimes Keep me Awake at Night’ Mean n 3.41 493 (100%)

Uncertainty About the Future (p = .001; F=23.56; df=1,491)

Mean n 3.19 313 (63%) Mean n

3.80 180 (37%)

Lack of Training for Changes Brought in (p = .002; F=12.44; df=1,311)

Lack of Contact with Board (p = .004; F=11.01; df=1,178)

Exploring the pattern of work stressors

Mean n 2.67 70(14%) Mean n

3.33 243 (49%) M ean n

3.35 55 (11%) Mean n

4.00 125 (25%)

Endless Paperwork (p = .009; F=9.04; df=1,241)

Not Being Able to Schedule Time (p = .001; F=14.08; df=1,123)

Mean n 2.98 82 (17%) Mean n

3.52 161 (33%) Mean n

3.61 54 (11%) Mean n

4.30 71 (14%)


Figure 3. Sequential tree analysis the association between ‘Problems with job sometimes keep me awake at night’ and work stressors


‘I Have Worried After Making a Decision Whether I Did the Right Thing’ Mean n 3.39 492 (100%)

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Lack of Training for Changes (p = .001; F=25.26; df=2,489)

Mean n 2.59 76 (15%) Mea n n

3.45 309 (63%) Mean n

3.79 107 (22%)

Dealing with Difficult Parents (p = .001; F=20.05; df=1,307)

Mean n 3.04 96 (20%) Mean n

3.63 213 (43%)

Having to Deal with Conflict Between Student and Student (p = .011; F=9.14; df=1,211)

Mean n 3.31 64 (13%) Mean n

3.77 149 (30%)

Dealing with Conflict Between Staff and Principal/Deputy Principal (p = .012; F=9.08; df=1,147)

Mean n 3.52 67 (14%) Mean n

3.98 82 (17%)

Figure 4. Sequential tree analysis the association between ‘I worried after making a decision whether I did the right thing’ and work stressors

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and administration (3.31) tends to be a less potent combination in determining whether job worries sometimes get you down. Such a result raises the issue of whether some stressors are more potent than others or whether the potency of a stressor is dependent on its combination with others. These are conditions that are not, of course, mutually exclusive. Figure 3 presents the results for the dependent variable Problems associated with the job sometimes keep me awake at night. Uncertainty about the future first discriminates those who are less likely to agree that work problems keep them awake at night from those more likely to agree. However, reading the figure from left to right produces two different patterns. The right hand pattern shows that the likelihood of job problems keeping respondents awake at night increases when uncertainly about the future (3.80) combines with a lack of contact with the school board (4.00) and not being able to schedule time (4.30), reflecting an interesting combination of ambiguity and workload stressors. On the other hand, the left hand of the tree shows that where there may be less uncertainty about the future (3.19) the potential for problems associated with work to keep one awake at night increases when combined with lack of training for changes brought in (3.33) and endless paperwork (3.52). This combination of stressors appears to be less potent in terms of the strain produced when compared with the combination of stressors reflecting the right hand branch of the tree. Figures 2 and 3 are also interesting in that they identify pathways that lead to lower levels of strain. This finding suggests that intervention strategies may need to be more innovative, as lower levels of strain are not simply the obverse of those that cause higher levels of strain. Finally, Figure 4 sets out the results for the dependent variable I have worried after making a decision whether I did the right thing. It is the stressor lack of training for changes brought in that first discriminates those likely to agree that they worry after making a decision whether they did the right thing from those who are less likely to worry. When the only branch of this tree is examined then it appears that where a lack of training combines with dealing with difficult parents (3.63), having to deal with conflict between student and student (3.77), and dealing with conflict between staff and principal (3.98) then this combination of stressors increases the likelihood that participants in those nodes will, having made a decision, worry about whether they have done the right thing. This branch and these nodes again illustrate how different types of stressors, in this case issues of self-development/ change and conflict, combine to increase the intensity of the strain. This figure also indicates that at times the level of strain can, it seems, be dependent either on a single stressor or a more complicated combination of different stressors.

Discussion Despite researchers continuing to point to the inconsistent way in which stressor measures are used, two themes emerge from this debate that have set the context for this research. The first is the generally accepted belief that in order to better understand the stressor experience we need to learn more about the ‘‘underlying mechanisms’’ between stressors. The second theme acknowledges that to achieve this ‘‘unpacking’’ of how stressor items may relate to one another requires the consideration of alternative measures that provide an added ‘‘theoretical richness’’ that suggests new pathways for research (Daniels, 2006; Dewe & Brook, 2000; Kasl, 1998; Rick et al., 2001). Researchers, in discussing these two themes, offer examples of how different stressors may possibly relate to one another. In doing so, they are guiding work more towards exploring how stressor scores may be constructed, not just with the aim of providing a richer description of the stressor experience, but also as a way of illustrating the difficulties that surround the interpretation of mean stressor scores.


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Two further points are important. The first is that this research explores stressors experienced by teaching professionals and must be considered within that context. The second is that sequential tree analysis is used here as a means of instruction. In this sense its role is to act as a guide, identifying for future investigations those issues surrounding stressor measurement that need more intensive research. In this way it is breaking new ground by explicitly exploring for patterns of association between stressors. It uses the results in a limited but descriptive way to suggest possible avenues for further research, building on and embedding these in a significant but relatively recent theoretical and empirical literature. A number of issues emerge from these analyses that warrant discussion. These can be discussed under two not mutually exclusive headings. The first heading concerns what can be described as structural issues. Structural issues include the number and range of stressors across the trees, the nature of the stressor patterns, the potency of different stressor patterns, and whether the relationship between stressor and strain should be viewed in more specific terms. The second heading covers the implications for intervention strategies and explores the practical benefits that may accrue from this type of analysis. All 97 stressor events were used in the analysis. Only 14 however reached a level of significance to be included as part of a tree. On a cautious note, the low number of items in the tree analysis could be due to a lack of variability in the stressor and strain measures. Nevertheless one way to explain this finding may be to go back to the discussion surrounding the design of stressor measures and the use of specific versus more general stressor items. Although these scales were developed to capture the uniqueness of the teaching environment, some items may have been phrased in such a way that their more global nature made them somewhat distant from actual work experiences and so, as a consequence, as Hurrell, Nelson, and Simmons point out, they simply refer the respondent to ‘‘general characteristics of the job environment, which may or may not be pertinent’’ (Hurrell et al., 1998, p. 373). In this way it is important when developing stressor measures ‘‘to consider more carefully what we are measuring, and why and how we are measuring it’’ (Rick et al., 2001, p. 83). In addition the meanings given to stressor items and how they are assessed (Daniels, 2006) should not be ignored as a contributing factor that may help to explain the number of events appearing in the analysis; this is a point that will be taken up in more depth later in this paper. It may also be possible to explain this finding within the context of the stressor patterns by arguing that in relation to levels of strain it is not the absolute number of stressors that is important. Rather it is the particular combination of stressors that becomes crucial, making it even more important to explore the question of why that particular combination is important, and what the association between the different stressors may be. It is also interesting to note that four of the stressors (heavy workload, dealing with difficult parents, uncertainty about the future, and lack of training for changes) appeared in trees relating to different strains. While this finding may lend some support for the notion of ‘‘core’’ or ‘‘common’’ stressors, the issue may be somewhat more complex than simply labelling them as such. The notion that they are common to different strains is correct. What seems to make the issue more complex is not so much their commonality but that in relation to a particular strain their association with the other stressors in the pattern is different. For example, in Figure 1 (Working under a great deal of tension) a heavy workload is the first stressor to discriminate low from high tension scores. However, although a heavy workload is also common to the strain Job worries sometimes get me down (Figure 2), its impact here appears to be in association with two other stressors, the pace of change and uncertainty about the future. Identifying stressors as core or common is one thing, but to better

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understand the concept of communality may require, as these results suggest, a closer examination of the association between the common stressor and other stressors when it comes to different strains. Then there is the question of whether these results point towards an association between stressors and strain that is more specific than generally assumed. Is it that the small number of stressors associated with the different strains reflects much more of a sense of ‘‘goodness of fit’’ between stressors and strain? If this were to be the case then researchers may wish to give more care to selecting the strain to be measured, thereby attending to the issue of stressor Á/strain specificity. This idea of a more specific relationship between stressor and strain is certainly supported by Spector and Jex (1998). After reviewing the differential relationship between measures of work stressors and strain these authors suggest that such a finding ‘‘could mean that these different stressors may evoke qualitatively different emotional responses’’ (p. 364). The test here is for work stress researchers to pay more attention to what may be a more specific relationship and, as Spector and Jex (1998) suggest, search for ways of providing more ‘‘convincing evidence for this possibility’’ (p. 364). The relationship between stressors and strain in this research may need to be viewed in the light that all reflect a measure of negative affectivity. Nevertheless what is clear from these results is that it is possible, whether strain or negative affectivity is being measured, to show how stressors inter-relate with important outcome variables. The issue of the number and range of stressors may become clearer as we examine in more detail the stressor patterns themselves. The aim here is to use the patterns in a didactic, or instructional sense to reflect on the reasons for different stressor combinations. In doing so the possible explanations that emerge should provide a context that aids our understanding of the nature of the stressor experience and identifies implications for measurement. Such an approach may prompt researchers to consider alternative approaches when researching work stressors rather than to assign causality to relationships that are best discussed in terms of possible associations. The results first point to associations between different types of stressor. Using Figure 1 as an example, stressor patterns emerge that suggest associations between quantitative workload (heavy workload), role conflict (conflict demands between staff and non- teaching staff as well as teaching and administration) and interpersonal conflicts (dealing with difficult parents). Similarly in Figure 2 the association is between quantitative overload (the pace of change and heavy workload) and role ambiguity (uncertainty about the future). These results and those expressed in the remaining figures raise the question of what is the nature of the relationship between the stressors that make up each pattern. Spector and Jex (1998), for example, talk about role conflict as acting as a form of constraint that makes performing the job more difficult. In the results cited above, for example, does work overload operate as some sort of vulnerability or constraining factor leading to the greater likelihood of conflict or ambiguity? When considering stressor items, should consideration be given not just to the demands they place on individuals but also to how constraining or vulnerable they may make individuals to other stressors? Or is the relationship more complex? In this case, is the relationship much better expressed in terms of ‘‘causal indicators’’ (Spector & Jex, 1998) so that when stressors combine they are something more complex than just simply a pattern of stressors individually described as overload, conflict, or ambiguity? Does viewing the stressor pattern from a causal perspective change the nature of the individual stressors so that they assume, in relation to one another, a role that is more difficult to define or describe, losing their separate identities? Future research may need to accept that in order to understand the stressor experience researchers may need to focus as


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much on understanding the patterns formed by different stressors as they have on exploring the independent effect of a particular stressor. Thinking about the nature of different stressors also draws attention to the explanatory potential when work stressors are, for example, considered in terms of their latent, perceived, or enacted characteristics (Daniels, 2006). Of the three, it is the idea that ‘‘people are active in interpreting their jobs [and] are likely to enact those characteristics that they perceive are part of their job’’ (Daniels, 2006, p. 274) that is important here. The manner in which individuals enact out their jobs, Daniels argues, reflects the dynamics of the job itself and so is at the heart of the individual’s experience of strain. Exploring how jobs are enacted out, the collegial and organizational policies, procedures, and norms that influence job enactment and performance ‘‘serves to strengthen the construct and ecological validity of research, because assessments reflect the on-going and dynamic causal processes that influence strain’’ (Daniels, 2006, p. 285). Turning to the findings of the present study, it would be interesting to speculate on whether and in what way different stressor items reflect how individuals act out their jobs, the issues that influence that enactment and the extent, and reasons as to why different associations and patterns are found. Notwithstanding the ‘‘mutual influence’’ between perceived and enacted job stressors, it is interesting when viewing the results through an ‘‘enacted framework’’ how the focus shifts to thinking in terms of how aspects of overload, conflict, and ambiguity are enacted and the consequences of that enactment for both well-being and intervention. The different patterns that emerge also raise a number of issues around whether some combination of stressors or some stressors are more potent than others. For example, in Figure 1 the association between a heavy workload and staff who lack common sense produces a mean tension score of 4.05 compared with the association between a heavy workload and demands of staff, where the mean tension score reaches 4.93. When the left and right hand branches of the trees in the other figures are compared, similar results are found in relation to the potency of different stressor combinations. Two issues seem important here. The first is that lower levels of strain appear to have resulted from stressors that are generally different from those stressors that cause high levels of strain. The second issue raises, but cannot answer, the question of whether, when responding to stressor scales, individuals ‘‘evaluate their work environments not simply in terms of the existence of certain types of demands but also on the basis of the frequency, duration, and severity of occurrence of those demands’’ (Hurrell et al., 1998, p. 373). The potency issue can also be explored by considering the structure of the different stressor combinations. While researchers have long been aware of the accumulative nature of stressors, these results suggest that at times a more complex picture emerges that requires rethinking the idea of a simple linear-additive model. Each tree does, of course, suggest a cumulative affect where the more likely each stressor is perceived as a source of stress then there is a corresponding increase in strain (see Dewe & Brook, 2000). However, the results also point to two others scenarios. The first is where only one stressor appears necessary to discriminate low from high strain (Figure 4 and the first branch, lack of training for changes, of the tree). The second suggests some sort of threshold effect where once a stressor reaches a certain level then this discriminates one level of strain from another. This idea of a threshold is entirely consistent with the linear-additive model. However a closer inspection of the figures suggests that the idea of a threshold level may depend not only on how a stressor is scored but also on its combination/association with other stressors. Taking as an example the last split in Figure 3, the difference in impact between endless paperwork (left hand branch) and not being able to schedule time (right hand branch) appears to illustrate

Exploring the pattern of work stressors


this more complex arrangement. It is important when considering these different scenarios to remember that they are not independent of each other and that their presence is determined by working downwards in sequential steps as the tree unfolds. However, what does emerge from this analysis is that similar means scores do not mean similar experiences. If researchers are to understand the stressor experience they must now turn their attention to examining the combination of events that make up particular scores. Researchers may also wish to take this idea one step further and begin to explore why different stressors combine, what is the nature of the association between them, and whether and how in a particular combination the potency and threshold effect of one stressor is influenced by other stressor(s) in that combination. Using sequential tree analysis to explore the association between stressors and different strains raises a number of issues around the measurement of stressors and the nature of the stressor experience. In order to better understand the nature of the stressor experience the results of the present study suggest that measurement strategies may now need to be reviewed to take into account a level of complexity that extends beyond mean scores and simple linear-additive models. When considering stressor measurement researchers are, based on these results, faced with two issues in respect of measurement. The first can best be described as structural and include what the measures are being used for, the number of stressors, the type of stressor (including the consequences of treating different types of stressor independently of each other), and the value of interpretation using mean scores. The second set of issues describes conditions of association. They are not independent of structural issues and provide the context for better understanding them. Such issues would include identifying the patterns of association formed between stressors and then, considering the nature and character of that association, whether the presence of one stressor leads to another, whether the potency of a particular stressor is influenced by its association with others, and whether the associations that emerge are reflective of some form of goodness of fit between stressor and strain, making the stressor Á/strain relationship more specific that generally assumed. Structural issues reflect, in the main, the inconsistent development of stressor measures and the call for a more ‘‘serious reappraisal’’ of how measures are used (Rick et al., 2001). Conditions of association, on the other hand, emerge when alternative techniques are used to ‘‘peer inside the black box’’ to explore the ‘‘exceedingly complex’’ nature of stressors (Kasl, 1998, p. 391). Patterns and associations resulting from such analysis suggest a more complex relationship between stressors than has been captured by traditional measurement practices. Developing an understanding of the nature and character of these patterns and identifying avenues for future investigation requires researchers to draw on new and innovative empirical and theoretical approaches to studying stressors. Two theoretical initiatives aid in better understanding the stressor Á/strain relationship. Setting things within a context where the explanatory emphasis shifts towards viewing stressors as causal indicators (Spector & Jex, 1998) legitimizes investigating stressors as a pattern of items that express the construct rather than assuming that for any stressor all items are equal and equivalent and are associated in some linear additive fashion. Understanding of the nature of stressor patterns will also be enhanced by researchers rethinking the assessment of stressors and considering them in terms of their latent, perceived, and enacted qualities (Daniels, 2006). Finally, these results point to a number of intervention issues. The first flows from the findings produced by the current sequential tree analysis and concerns what sort of information is necessary to develop focused intervention strategies. These findings suggest


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that intervention strategies based around mean scores from composite stressor scales would be less effective than those developed from a more comprehensive understanding of the structure of those scores. In fact, when considering what information is required to design intervention strategies, then sequential tree analysis, or a technique like it, may need to become part of the intervention management process itself. Data mining techniques like this provide a mechanism for reviewing not just the potency of different stressors but the way in which they combine and form patterns, allowing a more complete picture to emerge as to what may need to be done. At the very least, using these techniques would enable practitioners to consider the consequences of their actions if they were left to rely on more traditional information. These results also point to the fact that although different levels of strain may well have a common ‘‘trigger event,’’ different strain levels are associated with different patterns of stressors. This makes it incorrect to assume that intervening to reduce one level of strain will have a universal beneficial effect across all levels. Finally, when different stressors are considered in terms of their ‘‘enacted’’ qualities (Daniels, 2006), then this qualitative knowledge is also fundamental to designing intervention strategies. It provides fertile ground for investigating how individuals act out their jobs, as against more institutionalized data on ‘‘objective’’ job requirements. It provides insights into how individuals appraise what is going on and indeed how interacting and coping are linked. It offers a more focused opportunity to consider stressors within the context of organizational policies and procedures; a context that is frequently ignored because of the type of data available and the generally adopted practice of viewing stressors in isolation. This point has not been lost on policy makers (Mackay et al., 2004). When considering the use of a method like sequential tree analysis, since the method is essentially a stepwise procedure, the question that confronts the researcher is how to ensure that meaningful patterns emerge. While using a measuring device like a single item scale may contribute to potential measurement error, the results reflect patterns of association that do not appear to suggest unreliability. Nevertheless this research used a cautious approach and set stopping rules that were conservative but allowed strong patterns to emerge without over capitalizing on chance. One way to validate the results of the present study would have been to go back to the participants and to discuss with them the nature of the findings and how well they reflect their experiences. The patterns that were achieved were, however, deliberately used in a didactic, or illustrative, sense to draw attention to a range of potential measurement issues that need further exploration if research is to capture the nature of the stressor experience. Although they have been discussed here in specific terms, the emphasis has been to generate structural and association issues that need further investigation. The idea is not to argue for generalizing the ‘‘specifics’’ of the findings but to use these findings to draw attention to what could be described as the architecture of stressor patterns and the measurement issues that flow from such structures. By drawing attention to these issues future research may be directed towards exploring the nature and characteristics of work stressors and the explanatory potential that may reside in such constructs. In this way we will be not only developing our knowledge of the stress process but also fulfilling our moral obligation to those who’s working lives we research.

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