Stress Across Borders: How Culture Shapes Our Reactions
By Stavy Papasotiriou, Organisational Psychologist and founder of Work Unlocked.
Culture is a dynamic force that shapes our values, behaviours, and beliefs, defining the way we perceive the world around us. It influences our daily interactions, our work, and even our responses to stress. Understanding the interplay between culture and stress is essential as it provides us with insights into how diverse societies and workplaces handle and experience this pervasive aspect of life.
In this blog, we will delve into the intricate relationship between culture and stress, drawing upon the seminal work of Hofstede and other researchers to shed light on how our cultural backgrounds impact our stress responses and work-related experiences.
DEFINING CULTURE: A SHARED MENTAL FRAMEWORK
Researchers such as Hobfoll, Halbesleben, Neveu, and Westman have emphasised that cultural beliefs play a significant role in shaping an individual's response to stress. People from different cultural backgrounds may have distinct coping mechanisms, support systems, and perceptions of stressors. This diversity in responses highlights the importance of considering cultural factors when addressing and managing stress at both individual and organisational levels.
In 1994, Geert Hofstede introduced the concept of culture as "the collective programming of the mind which distinguishes the members of one category of people from another." This programming encompasses values, norms, and assumptions that guide our behaviour and interactions, often unconsciously. It is within this framework that we navigate the challenges of life, including stress.
HOFSTEDE'S FIVE CULTURAL DIMENSIONS
To understand the connection between culture and stress, we can turn to Hofstede's comprehensive framework of cultural dimensions, which includes five key aspects:
- Power Distance (PD): Power distance reflects the degree to which a society accepts and expects unequal power distribution. In low PD cultures, individuals may have stronger relationships with perceived organisational support, job satisfaction, and work outcomes. Understanding these power dynamics is crucial in comprehending the stress experienced within hierarchies.
- Individualism/Collectivism (IND/COL): This dimension explores the extent to which individuals prioritise their immediate families (IND) or cohesive in-groups (COL). Employees from highly COL cultures may emphasise group goals, teamwork, and group-level engagement, factors linked to workplace health. These differences can lead to variations in job commitment and tenure.
- Masculinity/Femininity (MAS/FEM): MAS represents a preference for achievement, assertiveness, and material rewards, while FEM values cooperation, modesty, and quality of life. In MAS cultures, employees may be more susceptible to stress, burnout, and job dissatisfaction. These differences stem from varying cultural expectations and values.
- Uncertainty Avoidance (UA): UA focuses on how societies handle uncertainty and ambiguity. Cultures high in UA tend to emphasise rules and structured activities, which can impact stress levels and job stability. High UA cultures may seek greater security, leading to longer job tenure and lower turnover intentions.
- Long-Term/Short-Term Orientation (LTO/STO): LTO cultures value perseverance, patience, and future rewards, while STO cultures prioritise immediate outcomes. These differences affect how employees perceive demands and engage in their work, ultimately influencing their stress levels.
KEY TAKEAWAYS ON CULTURE AND STRESS
Understanding the impact of culture on stress is crucial for both individuals and organisations. Here are some key takeaways from the research and Hofstede's cultural dimensions:
- High job demands have particularly negative effects in countries with a masculine (MAS) culture and/or tightly knit culture.
- Being free of demands is more important in masculine or tightly knit cultures, while jobs with few demands are better suited to masculine or tightly knit cultures.
- In societies characterised by high power distance (PD), collectivism (COL), and long-term orientation (LTO), the motivating effects of job resources appear to be somewhat muted compared to societies with low power distance (PD), short-term orientation (STO), and individualism (IND).
- Masculine cultures place a high value on aspects of success in the work role, while feminine cultures prioritise social aspects and values not directly connected to work.
- Resources are more useful for engagement and avoiding burnout in individualistic (IND), low power distance (PD), and short-term orientation (STO) cultures.
In workplaces, culture plays a significant role in shaping employees' stress levels. In high power distance cultures, workers may perceive managers as autocratic, affecting the availability of resources at work. Lack of open communication with superiors can hinder the successful use of resources, impacting employees' stress levels and well-being.
In conclusion, culture is a critical factor that influences how individuals and organisations experience and manage stress. Recognising these cultural nuances can help us create more effective stress management strategies and foster healthier work environments worldwide. By embracing the diversity of cultural responses to stress, we can better support individuals in their pursuit of well-being and success.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Stavy Papasotiriou is an organisational psychologist and the visionary behind Work Unlocked — a leading HR consultancy on a mission to revolutionise employee engagement, performance, and retention in businesses worldwide. With a profound understanding of HR practices, Stavy leverages psychological principles to unleash the untapped potential of workforces. At Work Unlocked, Stavy crafts bespoke strategies that are grounded in research and tailored to each organisation's unique needs. These strategies are designed to yield remarkable results while requiring minimal resources.