The ever complex and continuously changing environment of the hospitality industry presents a never ending assortment of stimuli, pressures and work-related demands which easily become sources of stress for hotel employees, particularly customer service employees.
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A challenge for the hospitality industry has always oscillated around coming up with effective ways that could be used to empower front-line employees to provide quality service that satisfies consumers (Hu & Cheng, 2010).
A flood of existing literature demonstrate that it is important for managers to examine job-related factors and other extraneous factors that may affect the performance of customer service employees because it is these employees who often represent the sole contact a customer has with the organization (Netemeyer, Maxham, & Pullig, 2005).
A focus on the identification of current and potential stressors affecting this group of employees, and the subsequent development of interventions which could be used by the employees to manage and curtail stress effectively, is imperative.
It is the purpose of the present paper to provide a critical insight into the antecedents of stress among customer service employees in the hospitality industry.
An evaluation of the individual, individual –organizational, and organizational antecedents of stress will be conducted. The paper will then focus attention to the interventions that could be used to manage stress among customer service employees.
Available literature suggest that it is often difficult to come up with a unified definition of the term ‘stress’ since it happens within individuals and can only be conceptualized in individual rather than holistic terms (Chao, 2011).
However, as noted by Lee-Davies & Bailey (2007), any definition must take into consideration the perception of the individual involved. These authors describe stress in a simple and understandable way, arguing that its genesis is the generation of a particular discomfort that makes an individual feel out of control in some way, and which varies from person to person.
In terms of customer service employees, such ‘discomfort’ can emanate from a nagging customer, a strict hotel supervisor, job insecurity, negative attitudes, role overload, family-work conflict, or uneasy interpersonal relationships (Murphy & Duxbury, 2005). These stressors will be discussed in detail in the subsequent section.
Lee-Davies & Bailey (2007) suggests that it is that point of discomfort which is constant in all employees that calibrates the biological ‘distress’ point. According to these authors, “…the signs of stress can be biological and cognitive and are linked to the inbuilt ‘flight and fight’ mechanisms our body has for survival” (p. 182).
The antecedents of stress are stimulated by our level of mental discomfort, especially in situations where we feel that something is out of our capability.
Of importance to note here is that stress is in the eyes of the beholder and, whereas an employee may believe that they lack the capacity to serve that customer to his or her pleasure, Lee-Davies & Bailey (2007) tells us that such an employee may be more than capable of making the customer happy but perception stands in the way.
Antecedents of Stress
There exist numerous antecedents of stress that affect employees, either in their workplaces or in private life (Littleford, Halstead & Mulraine, 2004). Scholars have suggested varying clusters of these antecedents.
For instance, Ivancevich & Matteson (1980) cited in Hu & Cheng (2010) suggested a four-cluster framework of antecedents, which includes: physical environment; individual level; group level, and; organizational level.
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However, since customers service employees mostly relate with their customers within the organizational settings, this paper will adopt a simplified version developed by Murphy & Duxbury (2005), and which revolves around the individual, individual-organizational interface, and the organizational categories.
Customer service employees the world over have their own individual situations that develop into stressors if not well controlled. Murphy & Duxbury (2005) note that some of the antecedents of stress that fall under this category include: perceived control; positive/negative affectivity; job security/insecurity; mobility; underemployment, and; work involvement.
To offer a critical analysis in regards to the hospitality industry, job security/insecurity and underemployment are, in my view, some of the likely candidates that cause stress to customer service employees, who are forced to work on half-pay or are retrenched in low season.
Additionally, customer service employees are more likely than office employees to suffer negative affectivity as they are required to respond to multiple demands from customers with diverse needs.
Antecedents under this category, according to Murphy & Duxbury (2005), include variables such as role overload, work to family conflict, and family to work conflict, among others.
Burnout, which is defined as “…a syndrome of physical, emotional, and cognitive exhaustion that develops from sustained interaction in situations that are emotionally demanding” (Hu & Cheng, 2010 p. 1339), also falls under this category.
To bring issues into perspective here, most hotels may expect their customer service employees to serve customers for long hours, with some lacking specified work-schedules since they operate using the ‘on peak’ and ‘off peak ’ season conceptions.
As such, management may expect employees to work for long hours during peak season as they will work for short hours when the season is on a downturn. Such an arrangement, in my view, only enhances employee burnout due to excessive demands placed on them, not mentioning that it exacerbates work-family balance.
Employees do not have any control of the antecedents under this category, yet they are affected by these variants if proper measures to neutralize stress are not put in place. According to Murphy & Duxbury (2005), antecedents of stress under this category include: organizational culture; organizational support; flexibility of work, and; work expectations.
Organizational change, a “…process whereby an organization converts from an existing state to a hoped-for future state in order to increase its effectiveness” (Ming-Chu, 2009 p. 17), is also included in this category. Organizational culture has a direct bearing on organizational change efforts (Sidle, 2008), and both fundamentally affect employees, either positively or negatively (Kinman & Jones, 2005).
According to Williams et al (2006), fresh graduates who fit well into the organizational culture of their workplaces always outperform those who don’t.
Chao (2011) and Jaramillo, Mulki, & Boles (2011) tells us why this is so by presenting literature suggesting that employees who do not conform to the laid down organizational culture, or who develop negative culture, are at an elevated risk of exhibiting stress-related characteristics, such as absenteeism, diminished productivity and performance, turnover, strained interpersonal relationships, and illness, than those who don’t.
Ming-Chu (2009) observes that for members of staff, “…organizational change may produce negative effects, such as ambiguous role responsibilities, unemployment, a lowering of social status, and family and job conflicts” (p. 17).
In my view, organizational change can pass for the greatest source of job-related stress for employees, not only in the hospitality industry but also in other sectors. Indeed, many hotels do not involve the customer service employees in change designing and implementation processes, yet the change efforts affect them directly.
Reports abounding the mainstream media portrays an industry where customer service employees of many hotels worldwide are sent packing at the slightest provocation by terrorists.
The hotel management, ostensibly citing massive hotel booking cancellations, argue that they are restructuring their operations and therefore do not require many employees until the terrorist threat subsides. Such kind of orientation, according to Tsai et al (2010), reduces employee trust, elevates stress level, and directly leads to unemployment, hence increasing stress.
Stress Management Initiatives
Kinman & Jones (2005) argue that “…the concept of stress is not only of academic interest: its increasing salience in modern Western society as a metaphor for human misfortune, dissatisfaction and suffering has been documented” (p. 102).
In the fight against stress, customer service employees in the hospitality industry are in a class of their own owing to the fact that they are in direct contact with customers of various behavioural orientations, hence are bound to be exposed to a myriad of stressors (Hu & Cheng, 2010).
This section aims to discuss simple yet effective stress management strategies that could be used by service employees to deal with the antecedents of stress discussed earlier.
Individual antecedents of stress can be dealt with effectively by exercising responsive time management, personal organization, self analysis and introspection, and disclosure of emotions to a counsellor or a support group (Kinman & Jones; Blomme, Van Rheede, & Tromp, 2010).
Undertaking regular exercises and looking after oneself through healthy diet and sleep also help employees deal with some stressors arising from within, that is, they are internal (Chao, 2011). As a matter of fact, Lee-Davies & Bailey (2007) suggest that individuals should regulate all those things that they engage in excessively, such as excessive drinking or cigarette smoking, and stress will definitely reduce.
From experience, it is agreeable that most employees experience elevated levels of stress, not because of big problems but due to small issues like been late to work due to traffic jam, or failing to report to work on Monday after engaging in binge drinking over the weekend. Such antecedents can be wiped out completely by following simple rules and procedures such as those described above.
Individual-organizational antecedents are hard to deal with (Murphy & Duxbury, 2005), but researchers have developed many interventions that could be used to curtail these antecedents, hence manage stress. For instance, employees can work to change their reactions or attitudes towards hotel supervisors or customers.
The hotel management must always ensure the facility has adequate employees to avoid role overload, and employees should always be encouraged to lodge formal complaints to management should the work load exceed capability (Chao, 2011).
Employees need to take time off to unwind and relax, a factor captured well by Lee-Davies & Bailey (2007), who suggest that people should always make time for fun and relaxation without necessarily feeling guilty that they are relaxing.
Available literature demonstrates that many organizations have implemented Job enrichment and job-life balance packages, such as telecommuting, compressed week, paid leave, and children day centre care, to reduce stress among employees (Blomme et al, 2010; Teng & Barrows, 2009).
Lastly, some organizational antecedents of stress can be dealt with effectively through employing cognitive-behavioural approaches, such as encouraging employees to rethink their beliefs about challenging situations, or relaxation approaches, such as engaging in meditation, deep breathing, and progressive muscle relaxation to calm thoughts and become aware of their tension (Sidle, 2008).
Some employees, in my view engage in actions without ever recognizing that their cynical and often unclear viewpoints of gloom and doom only leads to more stress. For instance, we have had cases of employees going on strike due to an unfriendly organizational culture.
In such a situation, cognitive-behavioural approaches could be used to assist employees rethink their beliefs and realize that changing an organizational culture is more a process than an event. Organizational approaches that target workplace changes, such as developing employee support system, functional complaint unit, and peer support, could also be employed to create less stressful work environments (Sidle, 2008).
The present paper has comprehensively discussed and analyzed antecedents of stress that are known to affect customer service employees in the hospitality industry, and how these antecedents could be reduced through effective stress management strategies.
What has come out so clearly is the fact that there are certain types of stressors that are characteristic to this group of employees, mainly due to their frequent association with customers of diverse behavioural orientations (Hu & Cheng, 2010).
Another point is that customer service employees are at risk of high stress exposure than other employees who work in office settings due to the association they have with a lot of people on a daily basis. It does not therefore come as a surprise that researchers have been calling on specialized treatment of this group in terms of stress management.
But while initiatives to find more suitable ways of managing stress among customer service employees are ongoing (Teng & Barrows, 2009), this paper has demonstrated that the use of simple yet effective stress management strategies, such as responsive time management, personal reflection, relaxation, regulation and redirection, can to a large extent assist these employees manage their stress.
List of References
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