Article i 'Tidsskrift for arbejdsliv' no. 4 2008, page 76-91.
Illegitimate stressors or managerial prerogative
Ole H. Sørensen
A new perspective on stress – stress as offence to self (SOS) – has become increasingly popular internationally. The paper introduces the SOS perspective and uses it to analyse four industry cases. The analysis and the subsequent comparison with quantitative results indicate that the notions from the SOS perspective: illegitimate behaviours, illegitimate stressors and illegitimate tasks are useful when trying to understand offensive processes at work that can lead to stress. When many illegitimate processes occur, the workers experience increased emotional demands and feel that they have to hide their emotions. The paper highlights examples where workers are offended by the ‘rough but loving’ tone at the workplace and examples where workers are offended by middle managers’ behaviour and by disrespectful, ineffective or meaningless workplace processes. However, the analysis also emphasises that by using the notion of ‘illegitimacy’, the researcher or the occupational health and safety practitioner are inevitably forced to take sides in workplace conflicts. It is hard to determine whether the change processes in one of the case examples were legitimate and necessary restructuring processes or profit seeking measures that unjustly offended the workers and left them with inefficient and disgraceful working procedures. There is no common, independent ground that makes it possible to determine whether such workplace processes are legitimate or not. Judgement has to be related to common norms at the workplace or in society. Therefore, it is necessary for researchers to specify very precisely that when workers experience behaviour or tasks as illegitimate then it is a perceived quality of their work experience, but that it has concrete and severe effects on their health. The paper concludes that the SOS perspective is useful to describe stressful workplace processes that are not captured by established stress theories. However, the notion of ‘illegitimacy’ sends a rather strong signal, which in some cases might be useful, but generally might marginalise the researcher. Therefore, it is proposed that the notion ‘dignity’ might be a better choice of wording.