Occupational stress and strain of support staff at a higher education institution in the North-West province
Mahomed, Fathima Essop
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Higher education institutions across the globe have been confronted with a series of complex changes. These include changes in management style and structure, increased competitveness, mergers with other institutions, changes in working conditions, increases in student numbers in the context of decreased expenditure per student, higher student-staff ratios, modularization of courses, and the introduction of quality monitoring systems. Tertiary institutions in South Africa are experiencing a similar transformation that is necessary because of changes in the political, economic, technological and social environments. As a result of these transformations support staffs operating within such environments are likely to experience a sense of powerlessness, to report feelings of anxiety and insecurity, including a lack of confidence in their abilities and uncertainty about their future in their organisations, resulting in occupational stress and strain. Possible uncertainties that these same employees may be faced with are lack of job security, decreased career prestige and professional recognition, scarcity of resources, difficulty in understanding the changing values of the organisation, increased centralisation of authority, increased bureaucracy and an increased demand for accountability. Many tertiary education support staff will now be involved in greater interaction with other people, either students or co-workers and would therefore be more vulnerable to occupational stress and strain. Furthermore the workload of support staff is increasing and the nature of the support work is changing. Support personnel groups are being asked to take on more duties and do work for a greater number of people. They are also required to use new technology, sometimes without adequate training, resulting in high stress levels. It is well documented that high levels of occupational stress, if left unchecked and unmanaged, undermine the quality of employees' health, wellbeing and morale, as well as a reduction in productivity and creativity. Therefore the objectives of this research are to determine the levels of occupational stress and strain of support staff at a higher education institution in the North-West province, to investigate possible demographic differences and to determine whether perceived organizational commitment moderates the effect of occupational stress and strain. A stratified sample (N= 3 15) of support staff at a higher education institution in the North-West province was taken. The ASSET Organisational Stress Screening Tool was used as measuring instrument. Descriptive and inferential statistics were used to analyse the results. The results of the study showed that the support staff has fairly poor physical and psychological health indicating that support staff experience stress-related strain which could be mainly attributed to their work relationships and job characteristics respectively. The levels of the stress were relatively low, while high levels of both individual commitment to the organisation and perceived commitment from the organisation were found. Furthermore, differences in terms of occupational stress levels were found for different biographical groups. Practically significant positive relationships were found for job security, job characteristics and control. This means that in order for employees to feel secure about their jobs, they need to have perceived control over the aspects of their jobs. Work relationships were significantly related to job characteristics, overload and control which means that employee's relationships with others depended to a large extent on the element of control that they have of their jobs and the amount of work that they have. Contrary to the findings in the literature, organisational commitment did not moderate the occupational stress-strain relationship of support staff in the present study. Organisational commitment was significantly negatively related to occupational stress, while occupational stress was significantly positively related to ill-health (strain). Occupational stress explained 18% of the variance in ill-health (strain) and 23% of the variance in organisational commitment. Recommendations for the organisation and future research are made.