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Psychology Review

The AAA (appraisals, attributions, adaptation) model of job stress: The critical role
of self-regulation
Jeremy D. Mackey and Pamela L. Perrew
Organizational Psychology Review 2014 4: 258 originally published online 14 March 2014
DOI: 10.1177/2041386614525072
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The AAA (appraisals,

attributions, adaptation)
model of job stress: The
critical role of self-regulation

Organizational Psychology Review

2014, Vol. 4(3) 258278
The Author(s) 2014
Reprints and permission:
DOI: 10.1177/2041386614525072

Jeremy D. Mackey and Pamela L. Perrewe

Florida State University, USA

The AAA model is presented as an integrative conceptualization of workplace stress that combines
research from multiple models and theories to account for the numerous complexities that
employees experience when cognitively evaluating organizational demands. The proposed model
examines the effects of employees organizational stressors on the cognitive appraisal process and
describes how employees emotions and self-regulation affect individual coping behaviors, adaptation, and learning from stressful experiences. Practitioner applications, theoretical contributions,
and directions for future research are presented.
Adapting, appraisals, attributions, coping, emotion, self-regulation

Employees encounter stressful events and

demands in the workplace on a daily basis.
Experienced job stress arises when there is a
disruption to the equilibrium of an individuals
cognitive-emotional-environmental system by
some external factor(s) (Lazarus & Folkman,
1984). This stress costs organizations billions
of dollars in employee absenteeism, employee

disability claims, and lost productivity (Perrewe

et al., 2005; Spector, Chen, & OConnell, 2000;
Xie & Schaubroeck, 2001). Understanding the
complexities of the organizational stress
process is critical if researchers want to develop
strategies to help employees manage experienced stress. Although job strain (i.e., the longterm repercussion and physical manifestation

Paper received 7 February 2013; revised version accepted 1 February 2014.

Corresponding author:
Jeremy D. Mackey, Department of Management, College of Business, Florida State University, 821 Academic Way, P.O. Box
3061110, Tallahassee, FL 32306, USA.

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Mackey and Perrewe


of job stress) can result if organizational

demands are not effectively managed by
employees, recent research has argued for the
positive and healthy outcomes associated with
job stress (e.g., LePine, LePine, & Saul, 2007;
Meurs & Perrewe, 2011).
In this paper, we explore the complex
cognitive process employees undergo when
evaluating perceived organizational demands.
We combine research from numerous stress
perspectives to develop a cohesive theoretical
model of employee stress that includes employees appraisals, attributions, emotions,
self-regulation, resources, and adaptation. The
primary contribution of this paper is to develop
and propose an integrative model of stress that
takes into account both the potentially destructive as well as positive and adaptive functions
of experienced job stress. Further, we introduce
self-regulation as a key mechanism in the stress
process that has been overlooked in occupational stress research.
Early stress researchers, such as Selye, argued
that stressful experiences did not necessarily
have detrimental effects on individuals. Selye
(1955) envisioned the stress experience as a
process of adaptation that he termed the general
adaptation syndrome. Selye (1976) argued that
some stressful experiences can be associated
with positive feelings and health, but stress
researchers and health professionals tend to
define health and well-being as the absence of
negative states rather than the presence of positive states (Meurs & Perrewe, 2011; Ryff &
Singer, 1998). Thus, one of our objectives is to
examine the negative as well as the positive and
adaptive aspects of managing job stressors.
Further, we examine the critical role of selfregulation in the study of occupational stress.

Theoretical foundation
We briefly describe several prominent theories
and models of stress that have substantially
influenced thinking in the study of job stress,
and we utilize these frameworks as we develop

the AAA (i.e., appraisals, attributions, and

adaptation) model of job stress. Our conceptual
model integrates these approaches and expands
upon them for a more comprehensive examination of the job stress process than previously available. Perhaps one of the most
popular approaches to understanding psychosocial stress is the transactional model (Folkman & Lazarus, 1990; Lazarus, 1993; Lazarus
& Folkman, 1984, 1987), which uses an
interactionist framework for assessing the
cognitive process employees undergo when
interpreting organizational demands. Lazaruss (1993) transactional model of stress posits
that two processes (i.e., cognitive appraisal
and coping) mediate the relationship between
environmental stressors and job strain.
According to the model, an event in the work
environment initiates the cognitive appraisal
process, which is a cognitive evaluation of
whether the demand is a threat to an employees
well-being. If employees perceive a threat or
potential threat to their well-being, the secondary appraisal process is engaged to determine if
anything can be done to cope with the situation.
In this secondary appraisal stage, individuals
are said to evaluate their available options for
coping with the stressor. Not all demands are
necessarily appraised as threatening, as some
work demands may be perceived as challenging
experiences that can promote growth. The
emphasis on appraisal and cognition is the heart
of the transactional model, and stress scholars
have continued to use Lazaruss (1993) transactional model and cognitive appraisal as their
theoretical foundation in empirical studies. Our
integrative conceptual model is designed to
articulate and summarize some of the intermediate linkages between the appraisal process
and coping behaviors.
Over 30 years ago, Karasek (1979)
introduced the demandscontrol model of job
stress, which has demonstrated a significant
impact on job stress research. Karaseks primary argument was that experienced job stress
was the result of the interactive effects of job

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Organizational Psychology Review 4(3)

demands and decision latitude (i.e., control).

Specifically, he argued that employees in jobs
with high control experience low strain if they
have low job demands, however, they become
active and challenged when they have high
demands. Employees who have low control are
passive if job demands are low, but they experience high job strain when low control is
coupled with high demands. Although there has
been some support for Karaseks demands
control model (e.g., Ganster, Fox, & Dwyer,
2001), the support for the original model has
not been strong and many have found little
evidence for the interactive effects of demands
and control (e.g., Daniels & Guppy, 1994).
Karasek and Theorell (1990) updated the
original model to reflect the demandscontrol
support model. Adding social support as an
important factor in determining employee
responses to job demands, both control and
social support can be considered resources for
employees; thus, perhaps a more encompassing approach is the job demandsresources
(JD-R) model (Demerouti & Bakker, 2011;
Demerouti, Bakker, Nachreiner, & Schaufeli,
2001), which is predicated on the assumption
that job strain develops when job demands are
high, and motivation is thought to result when
job resources are high. After identifying relevant job demands and job resources within a
given context, the overarching JD-R model
can be applied to various occupational settings, regardless of the specific demands and
resources at play.
In addition to the direct effects of demands and
resources, the JD-R model also predicts that job
resources will buffer the relationship between
demands and strain, and that employees who have
resources will be able to cope with work demands
(Bakker, Demerouti, & Euwema, 2005; Xanthopoulou, Bakker, Demerouti, & Schaufeli, 2007).
The JD-R model is driven theoretically by the
conservation of resources (COR) theory (Hobfoll, 1989, 2001), which is a resource-oriented
model based on the notion that individuals strive
to retain, protect, and build resources in order

to buffer against the threat of the potential or

actual loss of valued resources. Resources are
valuable themselves, or they serve as a means
for attaining other resources (Hobfoll, 1989).
Situational conditions, such as job status, enjoyable work environment, and job tenure, are
resources that are sought by employees. Personal
resources, such as job self-efficacy, allow
employees to fulfill job roles, while shielding
them from the strain that may be induced by such
roles. Resource loss is posited to be the primary
determinant of stress. Resource gain becomes critically important in the context of resource loss
because currently held resources can be used to
prevent resource loss. Thus, employees without
the appropriate type and amount of resources may
be susceptible to rapid and impactful loss spirals (Hobfoll, 2001, p. 338), and employees with
the appropriate type and amount of resources may
experience positive resource gains.
Although these various approaches to
understanding job stress emphasize different
key components of the stress process, the
transactional model of stress, job demands
control model, JD-R model, and COR theory all
acknowledge the important roles played by
individual cognition, appraisal, and resources.
We develop an integrative, comprehensive
model of job stress that acknowledges the contributions of prior theoretical approaches and
empirical research. This integrative model
helps to bring a plethora of stress research
together in a cohesive fashion that combines
findings from multiple theories and models of
stress into one informative framework. When
researchers operate from only one paradigm or
model of job stress, important explanatory constructs can be overlooked. By integrating numerous approaches to the job stress process, we
believe we have been able to take the best of
what each of these approaches have to offer and
integrate them into one cohesive job stress
model. Further, at the heart of our model is the
role of self-regulation as a key mechanism to
understanding why some individuals are able
to learn and adapt to stressors effectively, and

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Mackey and Perrewe


Learning and adapting gained from

earlier stressor experiences


resources and

Job resources
and liabilities

Self regulation
Challenge and

Primary appraisal
or irrelevant

Job strain




Health and


Figure 1. The AAA model of job stress and the role of self-regulation.

others are unable to do so effectively. Selfregulation may explain why behaviors in

response to specific events may vary across time
and contexts. Individuals action tendencies to
behave or cope with experienced emotions are
likely affected by their ability to self-regulate.
Although self-regulation has been a topic of
interest in the psychological sciences, it has not
been highlighted as an important mechanism in
the job stress process.

Toward an integrative and

comprehensive theory
of job stress
The AAA model developed in this paper, and
presented in Figure 1, is consistent with other
approaches to the study of job stress, but is most
closely tied to the transactional model of stress.
The traditional transactional model of stress
relies on an environmental demand initiating a
subjective cognitive appraisal process that
drives emotions, coping behaviors, and personal outcomes.

Organizational stressors, individual

characteristics, and cognitive appraisals
Organizational stressors are conceptualized as
perceived job demands that elicit a primary
appraisal. Job demands are the organizational,
physical, or social features of the job that
necessitate persistent mental or physical effort
(Demerouti et al., 2001). The proponents of the
JD-R model argue that job demands are those
aspects of the job associated with psychological and/or physiological costs for employees
(Bakker & Demerouti, 2007). One premise of
this model is that not all demands lead to
costs for employees. Although job demands
include organizational constraints, interpersonal conflict, and perceived injustice (Fox,
Spector, & Miles, 2001), they may also include
additional responsibility and accountability
that does not necessarily translate into a
cost for employees. The proposed model
is consistent with the transactional approach
of examining stress, and it focuses on how
employees subjectively interpret objective
environmental conditions.

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Organizational Psychology Review 4(3)

The primary appraisal stage of the transactional model of stress is important in determining
how individuals will respond to perceived
demands. Accordingly, an event in the work
environment engages the cognitive appraisal
process (i.e., primary appraisal). The appraisal
is an evaluation of whether the event is a threat
to the individuals well-being, whether it is challenging, or if it can be dismissed as benign. At this
stage of the process, individuals rely upon a subjective assessment of whether the organizational
demand is relevant or irrelevant to their
well-being (Peacock, Wong, & Reker, 1993). If
the demand is deemed irrelevant and there is no
personal significance to employees health and
well-being, the cognitive evaluation process will
discontinue. If a relevant encounter with a
demand (e.g., person, event, or situation) is
thought to be harmful, threatening, or challenging
(Lazarus, 1994), the cognitive evaluation process
continues with individuals making attributions
about the relevant demand.
Research on occupational stress has
acknowledged the positive, as well as negative,
effects of stressors on performance (e.g., Lepine,
Podsakoff, & LePine, 2005) and employee
attitudes (e.g., Boswell, Olson-Buchanan, &
LePine, 2004). Perhaps the most detailed
account of positive versus negative stressors can be attributed to earlier notions of
opportunity versus threat characterizations
of workplace stimuli (Sutton & Kahn, 1986),
which have been updated and more specifically
defined in the hindrancechallenge occupational
stressor model (Cavanaugh, Boswell, Roehling,
& Boudreau, 2000). Hindrance and challenge
stressors exist as realities of the workplace
(e.g., hindrance stressors include organizational
politics; challenge stressors include job overload). LePine et al. (2007) developed categories
of stressors they labeled hindrance and challenge; we include their typology in our model.
Hindrance stressors are those demands
generally appraised as threatening that trigger
negative emotions and constrain personal gain,
personal growth, personal development, and/

or work-related accomplishment; hindrance

stressors may trigger negative emotional forms
of coping (LePine et al., 2007). Challenge
stressors are generally appraised as demands
that likely trigger positive emotions and
promote learning performance, personal gain,
personal development, personal growth, and/
or work-related accomplishment; challenge
stressors may be motivational and trigger
problem-solving coping (LePine et al., 2005;
LePine et al., 2007).
Although hindrance and challenge stressors
may generally lead to various negative or
positive outcomes, research has shown that even
challenge stressors do not always lead to positive
behaviors, demonstrating that these good
stressors have been linked to counterproductive
work behaviors through the mediating role of
emotion (Rodell & Judge, 2009). Further, challenge stressors are also considered strain-provoking (Webster, Beehr, & Love, 2011);
however, they may offer opportunities that, if
met, result in high performance and a strong
sense of accomplishment.
Organizational demands may reflect both
challenging and threatening aspects; it is the
appraisal of the demands that really matters.
Recently, research has shown that stressors can
be simultaneously appraised as both a threat
and an opportunity, or a challenge and a
hindrance (Webster et al., 2011). Thus, it is
important to recognize that it is the individuals
appraisal of the challenge or hindrance that
ultimately determines the response (e.g., Giancola, Grawitch, & Borchert, 2009).
Appraisals are based on mental models that
represent both the self and the environment, and
individuals make appraisals through either a
controlled or an automatic mechanism of processing information (Power & Dalgleish, 1997).
It is important to note that even traditionally
regarded challenge stressors or demands
(e.g., workload) may be appraised as threatening depending upon dispositional characteristics (e.g., negative affectivity). Further,
traditionally regarded hindrance stressors or

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demands (e.g., organizational politics) may be

appraised as challenging depending upon individual characteristics (e.g., political skill).
Thus, stable individual characteristics are
argued to affect the primary cognitive appraisal
of an organizational demand.
There are hundreds of individual differences
that may affect individual appraisals of
situations, and a comprehensive discussion is
well beyond the scope of this paper. Instead, we
offer a couple of examples of how some wellresearched traits might affect the primary
appraisal. Specifically, we mention positive and
negative affectivity, as well as general selfefficacy. Negative affectivity (NA) is the tendency to experience negative emotions across
time and situations, whereas positive affectivity
(PA) is the tendency to experience positive
emotions across time and situations (Watson
& Clark, 1984). Trait NA represents an individuals predisposition to experience aversive
emotional states. Those high on NA focus on
the negative, and are less satisfied with themselves and their lives than those low in NA.
High NA people tend to view the world in a
negative way and view their environment as
threatening, whereas those high in PA tend to
view their environment as positive and challenging (Perrewe & Spector, 2002). General selfefficacy (GSE) represents individuals beliefs
about their general self-competence (Eden &
Kinnar, 1991; Eden & Zuk, 1995). Individuals
high in GSE believe they can overcome the
demands and struggles they face. Thus, the
same job demand (e.g., additional responsibility) might be appraised as threatening or costly
to individuals high in NA and challenging to
individuals high in PA and/or high in GSE.
Thus, primary appraisals are based on
mental models that represent both the self (i.e.,
personal resources and liabilities) and the
organization. This differs from the JD-R model
because it takes appraisals into account when
defining whether demands are costly or challenging. According to the JD-R model, job
demands are defined as those physical, social,

or organizational aspects of the job that require

sustained physical and/or psychological effort
and are, therefore, associated with physiological and/or psychological costs (Xanthopoulou
et al., 2007, p. 122). The JD-R model definition
of job demands is circular because job
demands, by definition, are costly. Based
on a substantial amount of research (e.g.,
Giancola et al., 2009; Lazarus, 1994; Peacock
et al., 1993), job demands are not inherently
threatening/costly or challenging; it depends
upon the appraisal.

Appraisals, attributions, and emotions

Appraisals of situations, whether perceived as
threatening or challenging, will elicit some
emotional response. Although emotions in the
workplace have been argued to be a result of a
cognitive appraisal (Perrewe & Zellars, 1999),
not all cognitive appraisals elicit an emotional
response because some appraisals may deem
the stimulus to be irrelevant or unimportant.
Emotional responses are the result of the
appraisal or interpretation of the personenvironment relationship, not of an objective stimulus. Emotions have a major impact on
individual health and well-being, and can
express individuals appraisal of the person
environment relationship (Smith & Lazarus,
Research suggests that the appraisal process
affects emotions when individuals make
attributions for the demands they experience
(Perrewe & Zellars, 1999). Attributions are subjective, perceptual assessments and represent
individuals causal explanations for their outcomes (Heider, 1958; Weiner, 1985). Typically,
individuals make attributions when an important,
surprising, and/or unexpected outcome occurs,
especially if the outcome is negative. For example, if employees are required to work overtime
without pay because their work has not been
completed, they may feel angry if they attribute
this to the supervisor making unreasonable
demands. However, if employees believe the

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Organizational Psychology Review 4(3)

supervisor had no control over the situation, anger

is less likely to occur. Further, if employees
attribute overtime to their lack of effort, they may
feel guilty for not working harder. Individuals are
more likely to experience anger or anxiety when
they blame others for their misfortune and guilt
when they blame themselves. Thus, appraisals
will elicit emotions, but the specific emotions
experienced are largely due to the attributions
made to the situation.
The different attributions made by employees for falling behind or for workplace demands
likely will lead to different emotional responses
(Weiner, 1985). Prior research provides strong
evidence for the importance of attributions in
determining emotions (Weiner, 1985, 1986,
1995, 2010). Further, as we examine later, the
emotions individuals experience are linked to
specific workplace outcomes (Weiner, 1985).
Employees affective responses are generated
from the different attributed causes of stress, as
well as the type of cognitive evaluation (i.e.,
threat or opportunity).
Weiner (1985) argued that the perceived
causes of success and failure are analyzed
along three dimensions: locus (i.e., whether or
not the cause of the outcome is perceived to be
located within the individual, such as ability or
effort, or outside the individual, such as the
task or luck), stability (i.e., the individuals
perception that the cause will or will not continue over time), and controllability (i.e.,
whether a cause is under the volitional control
of an individual). If employees believe the
threat demand is due to a lack of effort, the
likely response will be a sense of guilt for
failure to fulfill an obligation. Research
examining students appraisals of their emotions found guilt to be strongly associated with
attributions of self-responsibility and control
in a situation (Smith & Ellsworth, 1985). Guilt
is evoked by a self-judgment of responsibility
following a violation of a norm (Wicker,
Payne, & Morgan, 1983), and is caused by
behavior (Roseman, Antoniou, & Jose,
1996). Guilt is an emotion that brings up

recurring thoughts about past transgressions,

and guilt has been linked to contemplation of
undoing actions, retribution, self-punishment,
and seeking forgiveness (Roseman, Weist, &
Swartz, 1994; Tangney, 1990). Guilt is usually
experienced as some combination of anxiety,
regret, remorse, and/or tension (Baumeister,
Stillwell, & Heatherton, 1994).
Employees attributions also have been
linked to the emotions of self-esteem (Weiner,
1985) and pride (Hareli & Weiner, 2002; Weiner, 2010). Positive self-esteem and pride are
both self-reflective emotions experienced
when employees attribute a positive outcome
to the self (Weiner, 1985; Weiner, Russell, &
Lerman, 1978, 1979). Interpreting demands
as positive challenges and attributing these
challenges to internal, controllable causes is
proposed to be associated with feelings of
esteem and pride. Self-esteem reflects affectionate feelings toward oneself (Brown & Dutton, 1995), whereas pride is a self-conscious
emotion stemming from positive stimuli that
are attributed to employees abilities or efforts
(Williams & DeSteno, 2008).
When employees appraise the threat demand
as arising from their own failure due to a lack of
ability (i.e., a stable, internal, and uncontrollable attribution), the emotional response to
such an attribution for employees is likely to be
shame, an emotion described as feeling selfconscious (Roseman et al., 1994). Shame is
often thought of as the opposite of pride, and
occurs when failure is attributed to oneself
(Pekrun & Frese, 1992). Shame occurs due to
severe scrutiny and negative evaluations of the
entire self, and can be extremely painful
(Tangney, 1990). The key to shame is that it is
caused by a personal characteristic that is not
under volitional control and has been made
public. Thus, shame results from a self-caused
outcome (Roseman et al., 1996), and manifests
as self-consciousness and feelings of being
small (Roseman et al., 1994). Humiliation is
described as a partial or full loss of dignity (Dillon, 1997), which Weiner (2010) identified as

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another emotional reaction to internal, stable,

and uncontrollable attributions.
Research has indicated that anger is influenced by causal ascriptions concerning why a
social contract has not been fulfilled by another
party, indicating that employees perceiving
organizations to be the responsible parties for
threats are likely to react with anger (Hareli &
Weiner, 2002; Perrewe & Zellars, 1999; Weiner, 1985). Anger makes people feel like yelling, saying something negative, wanting to
physically or psychologically hurt somebody or
something, and/or experiencing physiological
symptoms, such as feeling blood rushing
through the body (Roseman et al., 1994).
Finally, appraised challenges linked to
external and organizationally controllable causes
have been linked to gratitude (Hareli & Weiner,
2002; Weiner, 1985) and excitement (Weiner
et al., 1979). Gratitude serves as the moral
memory of employees, and as a means for social
cohesion (Hareli & Weiner, 2002). As an emotion, gratitude depends on recognizing the
experience of gain or benefit and judging that an
external source was responsible for the positive
outcome (Emmons & McCullough, 2003).
These are some examples of the interplay
between primary appraisals, attributions, and
emotions. The message drawn from prior
research and theory is that emotions are not only
the result of individuals primary appraisals as to
whether the demand is a relevant threat or
challenge, but also of the attributions made
regarding the source of the threat or challenge.
After the primary appraisal, attributions, and felt
emotion, employees engage in a secondary
appraisal to determine whether they have the
resources to effectively cope with the stressor.
The secondary appraisal leads to an action tendency that is based on not only the felt emotion,
but also the perceived personal and job
resources, as well as personal liabilities and job
constraints. In the next section, we examine
individual behavioral tendencies associated with
experienced emotions, as well as the central role
of self-regulation.

Emotion, action tendencies, and

Emotions will affect the perceived coping
options available (i.e., secondary appraisal), as
well as individual action tendencies (Smith &
Lazarus, 1990). Action tendencies are urges to
behave in a certain manner when experiencing
positive or negative emotions. For example,
individuals may have a tendency to behave
aggressively toward someone when angry,
they may have a tendency to cry when feeling
sad, and they may have an action tendency to
flee or retreat when scared. However, it is
important to note that individuals have the
ability to suppress or self-regulate these action
tendencies and select from a number of different coping behaviors. Interestingly, research in
occupational stress has, to a large extent,
ignored the important role of self-regulation.
Individuals have the ability to control and
regulate impulses, performance, and other
behaviors. The ability to manage internal states
and alter behavioral responses is commonly
known as self-regulation (Muraven & Baumeister, 2000), which allows individuals to meet
deadlines, persevere through adversity, resist
temptations, and be kind to others even when
others are difficult. Self-regulation is the capacity for altering actions to conform to morals,
ideals, values, and social expectations in order
to pursue long-term goals (Baumeister, Vohs,
& Tice, 2007). It enables individuals to restrain
from inappropriate behaviors, such as aggressive
acts toward a supervisor when angered. Selfregulation implies an inner strength or energy
available to manage demands and bring about
positive outcomes. On the constructive side,
self-regulation has been associated with good
adjustment and positive psychological states
(Tangney, Baumeister, & Boone, 2004). On the
destructive side, poor self-regulation has been
associated with increased vulnerability,
substance-abuse, and eating disorders (Tangney
et al., 2004). Much of the research on selfregulation has focused on well-adjusted versus

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destructive behaviors. Research regarding the

role of self-regulation in occupational stress is
very limited.
Research in psychology (Hagger, Wood,
Stiff, & Chatzisarantis, 2010) and neuroscience
(Heatherton, 2011) has provided evidence that
self-regulation consumes a limited personal
resource. When individuals engage in selfregulation (e.g., resisting the temptation to
aggress against a supervisor), the amount of this
personal resource available is reduced. The state
of being low in self-regulatory resources due to
previous self-regulation is termed ego depletion (Baumeister et al., 2007). Thus, if organizational stressors and subsequent emotions are
managed successfully using self-regulation
initially, self-regulation may be depleted over
time if the stressors are not removed.
Being low in self-regulation has been shown
to have a number of negative consequences for
individuals. For example, low self-regulation
has been associated with passivity (Baumeister,
Bratslavsky, Muraven, & Tice, 1998), less stamina (Muraven, Tice, & Baumeister, 1998), the
likelihood of being persuaded by weak arguments (Wheeler, Brinol, & Hermann, 2007),
declines in social competence (Muraven, Collins, Morsheimer, Shiffman, & Paty, 2005), and
aggression (DeWall, Baumeister, Stillman, &
Gailliot, 2007).
Coping with stressors requires individuals to
continually monitor their environment for
harmful or threatening stimuli (Lazarus &
Folkman, 1984), and monitoring requires
self-regulation in the form of attention control.
We argue that coping with stressors requires
individuals to utilize self-regulatory resources
in order to stop or buffer inappropriate coping
behaviors such that good self-regulation will
buffer poor action tendencies and actual behaviors (e.g., yelling at a coworker when angry).
However, self-regulation, if used frequently,
can deplete a limited resource. Fortunately,
depletion in self-regulation is not permanent.
In fact, self-regulation can be restored and even
enhanced through practice and repeated

exercise (Muraven, Baumeister, & Tice,

1999). We will examine how to enhance and
replenish self-regulation later in this paper.
Although self-regulation has been noted as
important for managing emotions (Lazarus &
Folkman, 1987), the occupational stress
literature has not developed the role of selfregulation regarding the relationship between
action tendencies and coping behaviors. In the
next section, we discuss several coping behaviors that are typically examined in organizational stress research, as well as the role of
self-regulation in influencing coping behaviors.

Coping behaviors
Coping reflects employees ever-changing cognitive and behavioral efforts to handle organizational demands that tax or exceed their
resources (Lazarus & Folkman, 1984). Coping
is process oriented, contextual, and there are no
assumptions about what represents inherently
good or bad coping. This means that coping
focuses on what employees think and do when
responding to and managing organizational
demands. Coping has two primary functions:
alter the employeeenvironment interaction
(i.e., problem-solving coping) and/or regulate
stressful emotions (i.e., emotion-focused coping).
Both require self-regulation.
Problem-solving forms of coping have been
shown to be used more often in situations where
individuals appraise that something can be done
to alter or change a negative and/or stressful
situation than when individuals appraise that
they cannot alter or change the negative and/
or stressful situation (Folkman & Lazarus,
1980, 1985). Specifically, when individuals
perceive some control over the situation, they
likely will engage in problem-solving coping.
Seeking information about what needs to be
done, changing ones own behavior, and taking
action on the environment are examples of
problem-solving coping efforts.
Emotion-focused coping typically is used when
individuals determine they have no means to

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change the situation or if they do not have the ability or resources to effectively alter a situation (i.e.,
the stressor must simply be accepted; Folkman &
Lazarus, 1980). Emotion-focused coping efforts
include distancing and escape/avoidance of the
stressor, and emphasizing the positive (Folkman
& Lazarus, 1985). Such efforts allow the person
to avoid focusing on the troubling situation. If
individuals can use self-regulation and reappraise
stressors as nonthreatening (either through distancing or withdrawal), the cognitive basis of the
threat likely is removed (Lazarus, 1993).
Although problem-solving efforts attempt to
alter the situation in a positive way, emotionfocused coping alters only the way the individual interprets the situation. It is too simple to
argue that certain coping behaviors necessarily
are adaptive or maladaptive because the
response to the stressor is determined by expectations of whether a positive outcome will occur
(Eriksen, Murison, Pensgaard, & Ursin, 2005).
Next, we discuss aggression, effort, and withdrawal as three examples of typical behavioral
reactions to stressors at work.
Aggression. Workplace aggression has been
broadly conceptualized as any verbal or
physical behavior that is performed with the
intention to harm someone either physically or
psychologically (Baron & Richardson, 1994).
Although the determinants of aggression
sometimes are ambiguous and major acts of
workplace violence (e.g., attacks with weapons)
are uncommon, it is clear that the psychological
impact of workplace aggression is profound for
employees (Griffin & OLeary-Kelly, 2004).
Workplace aggression involves an externally
focused, negative affective reaction and includes
forms of nonviolent behaviors (e.g., stealing,
intentional work slowdowns, spreading rumors,
refusing to provide needed resources), as well as
hostile behaviors (e.g., attacks with weapons,
physical assault, threats of violence, vandalism;
Harvey, Summers, & Martinko, 2010). Individuals who experience a lot of negative emotions
(e.g., anger) will be likely to have an action

tendency toward aggression. Individuals with

good self-regulation, even when experiencing
negative emotions, are more likely to refrain from
angry outbursts or aggressive acts than individuals with poor self-regulation who are more likely
to engage in reactionary, aggressive acts (Baumeister, Heatherton, & Tice, 1994).
Effort. Work effort (Brown & Leigh, 1996;
Campbell & Pritchard, 1976) consists of
direction, duration (i.e., time commitment),
and intensity (i.e., force). Employees can
devote time and energy to organizations,
which typically is how work effort is operationalized. Individuals are thought to possess
a great degree of volitional control over their
level of effort, which may be sensitive to
heightened environmental demands. Weiner
(2010) presented an attribution-based theory
of intrapersonal motivation that accounted for
individuals attributions and emotions in influencing the intensity, latency, and persistence
of intrapersonal motivation. Emotions such
as pride, shame, and guilt all are thought to
influence levels of intrapersonal motivation
through secondary appraisal processes and
action tendencies. We argue that when work
demands increase/decrease, for example,
action tendencies may be more/less likely to
lead to increased effort as a coping behavior
when self-regulation is high/low.
Withdrawal. In contrast to motivational
effects, attribution research (Weiner, 1985,
1986) suggests that perceptions of failure due
to low ability and emotions (e.g., shame)
inhibit motivation and lead to withdrawal.
Accordingly, the cognitive basis of the threat
(i.e., demand) can be removed if employees
can reappraise demands as nonthreatening
(i.e., either through distancing or withdrawal;
Lazarus, 1993). The coping behavior of
reappraisal uses self-regulation in the form of
attention control. Aggression, effort, and
withdrawal are important examples of workplace coping behaviors that are all related

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Organizational Psychology Review 4(3)

to some level of self-regulation. The outcomes of coping behaviors can and usually
will influence employees job strain, health,
and well-being, as well as future cognitive
appraisals. Specifically, the results of outcomes will influence employees reevaluations of the quality, quantity, and salience
of their personal and job resources.

Learning and adapting gained from

earlier stressor experiences
Employees reassessments of the types,
amounts, and salience of their resources will
almost assuredly alter how their personal
resources bias their future cognitive processes.
When employees alter their subjective assessments of the quantity, quality, and salience of
their personal resources, they will ultimately
accentuate or attenuate their perceptions of the
severity and salience of their stressors. Thus,
employees who adapt during this stage of the
process may be able to reduce the negative
effects of stressors over time (Folkman &
Lazarus, 1988).
After coping with or responding to a stressor,
individuals receive feedback regarding the
results of their response; this feedback can
influence their experienced stress. If coping
attempts prove to be effective in alleviating the
stressful experience, this will be reflected in
subsequent appraisals, such that when faced with
similar organizational demands, the emotion
elicited will be positive rather than negative
(Folkman & Lazarus, 1988). Of course, ineffective attempts to cope with stressors may lead
to more negative appraisals of job demands. The
individual can alter the perception of the stressor
and/or the outcome expectancies regarding
future experiences based upon this feedback
(i.e., learning). Central to this discussion is the
implied role of expectations, which are judgments about the relationship between a given
level of effort and an outcome.
According to cognitive activation theory
(Ursin & Eriksen, 2004), individuals develop

expectancies that can be positive (i.e.,

expectations that they can successfully cope),
negative (i.e., expectations that anything they
do will result in a negative outcome; hopelessness), or neutral (i.e., expectations that
there is no relationship between what they do
and a particular outcome; helplessness). These
expectations are based on the attributions
made about the source of the demand and they
drive the resulting emotions and behavioral
responses (e.g., withdrawal, effort or
The feedback from individuals behavioral
responses can elicit learning and adaptation.
According to Meurs and Perrewe (2011),
behavioral responses to stressful events can
have either training effects or straining effects.
Specifically, Meurs and Perrewe (2011, pp.
10561057) argued that the experience of the
stress itself has both positive (i.e., training
effects) and negative (i.e., straining effects)
ramifications for the individual, as driven by
expectancies. Learning (i.e., training effects)
is the most important reason individuals have a
decrease in their stress response (Ursin, 1998).
Learning provides the means for reducing the
uncertainty regarding the expectations of future
outcomes of stressful demands (Meurs &
Perrewe, 2011).
As discussed in Meurs and Perrewe (2011),
individuals learn from stressful experiences at
work, which is particularly true when it is
believed that these demanding or stressful
situations will occur again. Unfortunately, not
everyone experiences learning or training
effects from the feedback to their responses to a
demand. When individuals experience low
self-regulation, and are unable to cope with
stressors, or they ruminate over stressors, this
prolongs physiological activation and recovery
(i.e., straining effects), which have been linked
to poor health and well-being (Harris, Ursin,
Murison, & Eriksen, 2007; Meurs & Perrewe,
2011). When individuals learn from their
responses to stressful experiences, this can
reduce uncertainty, enhance personal resources

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Mackey and Perrewe


(e.g., reinforces individual self-efficacy), and

help with individuals self-regulation. Of
course, rumination and a lack of recovery from
stressors may create straining effects that
further deplete personal resources and individuals self-regulation. Given the importance of
self-regulation, the question becomes how best
to ensure self-regulation can be enhanced and

Enhancing self-regulation
The least well understood aspect of selfregulation is how individuals replenish their
resource when self-regulation has depleted it.
There is some evidence that suggests rest is one
way to replenish the resource, as individuals
exhibit better self-control after a good nights
sleep (Baumeister & Tierney, 2011). Further,
asking people to think and write about the
things that are truly important to them appears
to offer some protection from ego depletion.
Experimental research has found that
self-affirmation prior to or immediately after
initial self-regulatory behaviors seems to prevent impaired performance on subsequent tasks
(Schmeichel, Vohs, & Baumeister, 2003).
Although there are some experimental studies
examining ways to replenish self-regulation,
we argue that there are personal and organizational resources that may help to either prevent
ego depletion or to enhance self-regulation
once depleted.
According to researchers in this area (e.g.,
Baumeister et al., 2007; Muraven et al., 1999),
self-regulation is similar to a muscle. Just as muscles tire from exertion and exercise, exercise also
will make muscles stronger. Regular exertions of
self-regulation actually can improve individuals
self-regulation over time and make them more
resistant to self-regulation depletion. Further,
efforts to control behaviors in one area, such as
exercising regularly, lead to improvements in
unrelated areas, such as studying and working
to meet deadlines (Baumeister et al., 2007). Thus,
although individuals may have to use self-

regulation to manage their behavioral tendencies

and emotions after an appraised threatening stressor, the use of self-regulation actually may be
adaptive in helping to restore and enhance selfregulation. Further, self-regulation is an important mechanism for successful coping behaviors.
Although self-regulation has been discussed as a muscle that, when used, may
make self-regulation stronger, less is known
about the boundary conditions under which
self-regulation may be replenished or enhanced.
In other words, are there conditions under which
using self-regulation leads to continued depletion
versus strengthening self-regulation? We argue
that both job and personal resources may affect
the depletion or strengthening of self-regulation.
We limit our discussion to mentioning some of
the more well-researched resources in the organizational stress literature; thus, the discussion is
more illustrative than exhaustive.
Researchers have incorporated both job and
personal resources into models of job stress
(Demerouti & Bakker, 2011). Although job
resources typically are provided by the organization and/or those within the organization,
employees bring their own personal resources
(e.g., stable individual characteristics) with
them into the workplace. Job resources are the
social, psychological, physical, or organizational features of jobs that have the potential to
be functional in achieving workplace goals,
reducing job demands, and/or stimulating
personal growth, learning, and development
(Demerouti et al., 2001). Job resources can
come from various levels of an organization,
including the macro, organizational level (e.g.,
career advancement opportunities, compensation, and job security), the interpersonal level
(e.g., support from coworkers and management), the job position level (e.g., input in
decision making and role clarity), the task level
(e.g., autonomy, performance feedback, and
task significance), and even perceived success
at work (Grebner, Elfering, & Semmer, 2010).
Frequently, social support is examined as an
important job resource in the workplace (Beehr

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Organizational Psychology Review 4(3)

& Glazer, 2001), and may come from a variety

of sources (e.g., coworkers, supervisors, subordinates). In general, social support in the
workplace has been found to positively affect
individuals health and well-being (Viswesvaran, Sanchez, & Fisher, 1999). Research on
job resources has found positive effects on
outcomes, such as job strain, health and wellbeing, and performance. However, we argue
that job resources are likely to affect these
outcomes at least partially through constructive
coping behaviors and, hence, self-regulation.
Personal resources may include employees
individual characteristics and personal support.
Previous research (e.g., Avey, Luthans, &
Jensen, 2009; Xanthopoulou, Bakker, Demerouti, & Schaufeli, 2009) has identified several
personal resources, including resiliency (Zellars,
Justice, & Beck, 2011), self-efficacy (Chen,
Gully, & Eden, 2001), family social support
(Thompson, Poelmans, Allen, & Andreassi,
2007), and political skill (Ferris et al., 2007; Perrewe et al., 2004; Perrewe et al., 2005) that have
beneficial effects for employees. Although some
personal resources (e.g., employee traits) can
directly affect employees cognitive appraisals
and evaluations of organizational demands
(Folkman & Lazarus, 1990), we also argue that
they can affect self-regulation.
Self-regulation depends on three main
components: a commitment to standards,
monitoring of the self, and the capacity to
change the selfs responses (Baumeister &
Tierney, 2011). All are necessary for effective
self-regulation. A problem with any one of
these can produce failure in self-regulation.
Self-regulation cannot proceed without a commitment to standards because self-regulation
is the effortful attempt to alter ones behavior
so as to meet a standard. Standards include
ideals, expectations, goals, and values. There
is some evidence that problems with standards
can contribute to a failure to self-regulate. In
particular, vague, ambiguous, or conflicting
standards can undermine self-regulation. For
example, if two supervisors disagree as to how

employees should perform the job, or employees are simply unsure of their role in the workplace, employees will not have a solid
performance standard. Conflicting standards is
one important source of self-regulatory breakdown (Baumeister et al., 1994). Thus,
resources, such as role clarity, should have a
positive association with self-regulation.
The second component of self-regulation is
the monitoring of ones behavior, which is an
essential component of self-regulation. Carver
and Scheier (1981) argued that the main
purpose of self-awareness was to facilitate
self-regulation; thus, the ability to accurately
assess and monitor behavior is critical for
self-regulation. Resources such as political skill
and self-monitoring should be directly associated with self-regulation. Further, success in
self-regulation is more likely when individuals
observe their own behavior, such as attention
to situations that might induce tension, so as
to anticipate them or avoid them in the future
(Baumeister et al., 1994).
The third component of self-regulation is
the capacity to regulate and make changes
to behaviors. As mentioned earlier, selfregulatory operations consume a limited
resource that operates like strength or energy
(Baumeister et al., 1994; Baumeister &
Heatherton, 1996). This provides an important
explanation for a number of empirical findings
and anecdotal observations that suggest that
after people exert self-control to regulate
some behavior, they seem vulnerable to selfregulatory breakdowns in other, and seemingly
unrelated, spheres.
For example, if employees are working
overtime and they are exhausted, they might
exhibit a number of behaviors indicative of poor
self-regulation (e.g., eating badly, becoming
angry easily, or neglecting personal grooming).
Simply arguing that stressors (i.e., working overtime) caused these behaviors is not precise
enough. Employees working overtime might be
utilizing most of their limited self-regulation
resource, leaving less left over for other

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behaviors (e.g., eating well, being kind, and

grooming). Resources, such as resiliency and
social support (e.g., talking with coworkers in
the same situation), may have a direct impact
on lessening ego depletion or replenishing the
self-regulation resource. Based on these arguments, we suggest that both job and personal
resources directly impact employee selfregulation by helping to replenish selfregulation resources and limiting resource

Identical demands may evoke quite different
affective and behavioral responses from individuals attributing different meanings to the
same demand (Dewe, 1989). Employees with
differing amounts of personal resources may
make different appraisals, different attributions,
experience different emotions, and experience
contrasting levels of attitudinal and behavioral
responses and adaptations to the same demands.
We emphasize the role of self-regulation in the
stress process, and argue that self-regulation has
been an overlooked explanatory variable that
should be integrated into a cohesive theory of
occupational stress. The AAA model of job
stress combines research from multiple models
and theories to account for the numerous
complexities that employees experience when
cognitively evaluating organizational demands.
We examine how self-regulation may be the key
to understanding how and why employees
engage in positive and negative coping behaviors, as well as the impact these behaviors have
on job strain, health, learning, and adapting.

Implications for theory and research

Perhaps the most significant theoretical contribution of the current proposed model is the
inclusion of self-regulation as a key mechanism
for understanding why individuals choose constructive or destructive coping behaviors.
Although research on self-regulation has been

popular in the psychological sciences for

decades, the organizational science literature
has not fully utilized this important stream of
research. Interestingly, research on emotional
labor and emotion regulation seem to run parallel to much of the work on self-regulation.
Research on emotion regulation originated
in developmental psychology in the early 1980s
(Gaensbauer, 1982), and considerable attention
has been given to the examination of emotion
regulation strategies. Perhaps the most popular
categorization of emotion regulation strategies
is seen in Grosss (1998) model of emotion regulation. Gross proposed an emotion regulation
theory that distinguished between antecedentfocused and response-focused emotion regulation. Regulatory efforts attempting to influence
the emotional response tendencies are termed
antecedent-focused regulation. This type of strategy is intended to change individuals felt emotions. Examples of such strategies include
cognitive reappraisal of situations, selective
exposure to situations, and selective attention to
events. Regulatory efforts attempting to influence
emotional responses are termed responsefocused regulation. This type of strategy targets
ones expressed emotions, rather than inner feelings. An example of such strategies is the suppression of expressions. These strategies imply
use of a form of self-regulation.
The concept of emotional labor originated in
Hochschilds (1983) work on emotional management, examining individuals regulation of
emotional experiences at work in accordance
with the job requirements and norms. Hochschild (1983) coined the term emotional labor to
highlight the exchange nature of such effort,
and the economic value of emotional display in
the service setting. At the heart of the emotional
labor construct, as proposed by Hochschild, is
individuals self-regulation of emotions with
the purpose of adhering to organizational
expectations in terms of emotional display.
According to Hochschild (1983), it takes
personal energy to contain emotions. Over
time, the effort expended containing emotions

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Organizational Psychology Review 4(3)

can adversely affect individuals physical and

psychological health.
Emotion regulation refers to individuals
abilities to understand their emotional experiences, and to engage in healthy coping strategies to manage these emotions. Individuals with
good emotion regulation skills are able to
control their urges to behave impulsively, such
as reckless behavior or physical aggression. It
appears that emotion regulation might be a
specific type of self-regulation. Further,
Grandey (2000) argued that emotions bring
with them corresponding response tendencies
that often need to be inhibited. Inhibition is a
process that requires personal energy and
energy is not available for other tasks, such as
the immune system (Grandey, 2000, p. 100).
Emotion regulation is an effortful process, and
it competes for ones limited cognitive resources
with other self-regulatory tasks. The work of
Muraven and Baumeister (2000) focused on
self-regulation, and suggested that emotion regulation might be a specific type of self-regulation
(Cropanzano, Weiss, & Elias, 2004). The work
of Baumeister and his colleagues has tremendous
implications for the study of emotional labor and
emotion regulation. Research on emotion regulation in the organizational sciences and research
on self-regulation in the psychological sciences
both support the idea that when individuals
engage in regulatory behavior, personal resources
will be depleted. However, if Muraven and Baumeister (2000) are correct, regulatory resources
are akin to a muscle and, with exercise, these
resources can be strengthened; thus, the longterm effects of regulation may lead to learning
and adapting.
Research on self-regulation is sorely needed in
the organizational sciences. The work of Baumeister and his colleagues, although insightful, primarily has focused on experimental, short-term
consequences of depletion (e.g., persistence on
a task, eating a cookie). As researchers, we have
much to learn from bringing self-regulation theory into the organizational sciences, and we
believe, much to gain. The implications for job

stress research have been examined in this

paper. However, self-regulation has implications for research in many areas such as
leadership, ethical decision making, counterproductive work behaviors, deviance, and
organizational politics and influence, to name
a few.

Implications for practice

Organizations use a great deal of resources in
an effort to manage employees stress (Cooper,
Dewe, & ODriscoll, 2001). The AAA model of
job stress provides a framework from which
organizations can determine how to stage
interventions to smooth the stress management
process for employees. Although interventions
may occur at a number of stages in the conceptual model, interventions occurring during
the attribution-making process and when
employees evaluate their levels and qualities
of their personal and job resources may be
particularly helpful.
Interventions designed to address the types
of attributions employees make can focus on
encouraging employees to make realistic attributions. Internal and controllable attributions
are preferable when possible because these
attributions are more likely to lead to positive
outcomes than attributions reflecting a lack of
perceived control or purposeful harm inflicted
by the organization or coworkers. There are
numerous cognitive biases employees have that
can complicate making realistic attributions.
For example, the self-serving bias (Bradley,
1978) suggests that employees have the tendency to take credit for positive outcomes and
blame others for negative outcomes. Thus,
employees may overestimate the role and intent
of the organization regarding threatening stressors. Ultimately, this blame may result in negative emotions that can lead to dysfunctional
coping behaviors (e.g., aggression). To counteract this potential problem, organizations can
use attributional retraining techniques to help

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Mackey and Perrewe


employees focus on making realistic and objective attributions (Harvey et al., 2010).
Further, interventions designed to enhance
personal and job resources may be particularly
powerful given the impact of resources on selfregulation. For example, ensuring employees
have the proper training may help their task
self-efficacy, which affects not only their
appraisal of organizational stressors, but also
their self-regulation. Making sure employees
have control over important aspects of their
work and have high-quality relationships with
others in the workplace are resources that
should affect self-regulation, which, in turn,
leads to positive coping behaviors. We argue
that job and personal resources are critical
for replenishing self-regulation, as well as
limiting self-regulation depletion. Through
self-regulation, these resources should help
employees to choose positive coping behaviors, which leads to less job strain and better
health and well-being.

We developed a comprehensive model depicting
the job stress process that illustrates how and why
responses to stressors can lead to negative as well
as positive outcomes for individuals. Further, we
examine the role of appraisals, attributions,
emotions, and resources as precursors to coping
behaviors. Most important, we emphasize the
role of self-regulation as a key explanatory
mechanism that has been overlooked in the organizational sciences, and we discuss some important next steps for theory and research on job
stress. We hope these ideas stimulate increased
interest in this important area of inquiry.
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Author biographies
Jeremy D. Mackey is a PhD candidate in Organizational Behavior and Human Resource Management at Florida State University. His current
research interests include interpersonal mistreatment, abusive supervision, job stress, and
attribution theory. Some of his research has
been published in the Journal of Organizational
Behavior, Journal of Business and Psychology,
Journal of Managerial Psychology, Journal of
Leadership & Organizational Studies, and The
Leadership Quarterly.

Pamela L. Perrewe, PhD, is the Haywood and

Betty Taylor Eminent Scholar of Business
Administration and Distinguished Research
Professor at Florida State University. She
received her Bachelor degree in Psychology
from Purdue University and her Masters and
PhD degrees in Management from the University of Nebraska. Dr. Perrewe primarily teaches courses in Organizational Behavior and
Human Resource Management and has taught
at the undergraduate, masters, and PhD levels.
Dr. Perrewe has focused her research interests
in the areas of job stress, coping, organizational politics, emotion, and personality. Dr.
Perrewe has published over 30 book chapters
and over 100 journal articles in journals such
as Academy of Management Journal, Journal
of Management, Journal of Applied Psychology, Organizational Behavior and Human
Decision Processes, Journal of Organizational Behavior, Human Relations, and Personnel Psychology. She serves as a member
of the Editorial Review Board for Academy
of Management Journal, Journal of Occupational Health Psychology, Human Resource
Management Review, and Leadership and
Organizational Studies. She has fellow status
with Southern Management Association, the
Society for Industrial and Organizational Psychology, and the American Psychological
Association. Finally, she is the coeditor of an
annual series entitled, Research in Occupational Stress and Well Being published by

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