Coping has been defined as “efforts to reduce the negative impacts of stress on individual well-being” (Edwards 1988). Coping, like the experience of work stress itself, is a complex, dynamic process. Coping efforts are triggered by the appraisal of situations as threatening, harmful or anxiety producing (i.e., by the experience of stress). Coping is an individual difference variable that moderates the stress-outcome relationship.
Coping styles encompass trait-like combinations of thoughts, beliefs and behaviours that result from the experience of stress and may be expressed independently of the type of stressor. A coping style is a dispositional variable. Coping styles are fairly stable over time and situations and are influenced by personality traits, but are different from them. The distinction between the two is one of generality or level of abstraction. Examples of such styles, expressed in broad terms, include: monitor-blunter (Miller 1979) and repressor-sensitizer (Houston and Hodges 1970). Individual differences in personality, age, experience, gender, intellectual ability and cognitive style affect the way an individual copes with stress. Coping styles are the result of both prior experience and previous learning.
Shanan (1967) offered an early perspective on what he termed an adaptive coping style. This “response set” was characterized by four ingredients: the availability of energy directly focused on potential sources of the difficulty; a clear distinction between events internal and external to the person; confronting rather than avoiding external difficulties; and balancing external demands with needs of the self. Antonovsky (1987) similarly suggests that, to be effective, the individual person must be motivated to cope, have clarified the nature and dimensions of the problem and the reality in which it exists, and then selected the most appropriate resources for the problem at hand.
The most common typology of coping style (Lazarus and Folkman 1984) includes problem-focused coping (which includes information seeking and problem solving) and emotion-focused coping (which involves expressing emotion and regulating emotions). These two factors are sometimes complemented by a third factor, appraisal-focused coping (whose components include denial, acceptance, social comparison, redefinition and logical analysis).
Moos and Billings (1982) distinguish among the following coping styles:
- Active-cognitive. The person tries to manage their appraisal of the stressful situation.
- Active-behavioural. This style involves behaviour dealing directly with the stressful situations.
- Avoidance. The person avoids confronting the problem.
Greenglass (1993) has recently proposed a coping style termed social coping, which integrates social and interpersonal factors with cognitive factors. Her research showed significant relationships between various kinds of social support and coping forms (e.g., problem-focused and emotion-focused). Women, generally possessing relatively greater interpersonal competence, were found to make greater use of social coping.
In addition, it may be possible to link another approach to coping, termed preventive coping, with a large body of previously separate writing dealing with healthy lifestyles (Roskies 1991). Wong and Reker (1984) suggest that a preventive coping style is aimed at promoting one’s well-being and reducing the likelihood of future problems. Preventive coping includes such activities as physical exercise and relaxation, as well as the development of appropriate sleeping and eating habits, and planning, time management and social support skills.
Another coping style, which has been described as a broad aspect of personality (Watson and Clark 1984), involves the concepts of negative affectivity (NA) and positive affectivity (PA). People with high NA accentuate the negative in evaluating themselves, other people and their environment in general and reflect higher levels of distress. Those with high PA focus on the positives in evaluating themselves, other people and their world in general. People with high PA report lower levels of distress.
These two dispositions can affect a person’s perceptions of the number and magnitude of potential stressors as well as his or her coping responses (i.e., one’s perceptions of the resources that one has available, as well as the actual coping strategies that are used). Thus, those with high NA will report fewer resources available and are more likely to use ineffective (defeatist) strategies (such as releasing emotions, avoidance and disengagement in coping) and less likely to use more effective strategies (such as direct action and cognitive reframing). Individuals with high PA would be more confident in their coping resources and use more productive coping strategies.
Antonovsky’s (1979; 1987) sense of coherence (SOC) concept overlaps considerably with PA. He defines SOC as a generalized view of the world as meaningful and comprehensible. This orientation allows the person to first focus on the specific situation and then to act on the problem and the emotions associated with the problem. High SOC individuals have the motivation and the cognitive resources to engage in these sorts of behaviours likely to resolve the problem. In addition, high SOC individuals are more likely to realize the importance of emotions, more likely to experience particular emotions and to regulate them, and more likely to take responsibility for their circumstances instead of blaming others or projecting their perceptions upon them. Considerable research has since supplied support for Antonovsky’s thesis.
Coping styles can be described with reference to dimensions of complexity and flexibility (Lazarus and Folkman 1984). People using a variety of strategies exhibit a complex style; those preferring a single strategy exhibit a single style. Those who use the same strategy in all situations exhibit a rigid style; those who use different strategies in the same, or different, situations exhibit a flexible style. A flexible style has been shown to be more effective than a rigid style.
Coping styles are typically measured by using self-reported questionnaires or by asking individuals, in an open-ended way, how they coped with a particular stressor. The questionnaire developed by Lazarus and Folkman (1984), the “Ways of Coping Checklist”, is the most widely used measure of problem-focused and emotion-focused coping. Dewe (1989), on the other hand, has frequently used individuals’ descriptions of their own coping initiatives in his research on coping styles.
There are a variety of practical interventions that may be implemented with regard to coping styles. Most often, intervention consists of education and training in which individuals are presented with information, sometimes coupled with self-assessment exercises that enable them to examine their own preferred coping style as well as other varieties of coping styles and their potential usefulness. Such information is typically well received by the persons to whom the intervention is directed, but the demonstrated usefulness of such information in helping them cope with real life stressors is lacking. In fact, the few studies that considered individual coping (Shinn et al. 1984; Ganster et al. 1982) have reported limited practical value in such education, particularly when a follow-up has been undertaken (Murphy 1988).
Matteson and Ivancevich (1987) outline a study dealing with coping styles as part of a longer programme of stress management training. Improvements in three coping skills are addressed: cognitive, interpersonal and problem solving. Coping skills are classified as problem-focused or emotion-focused. Problem-focused skills include problem solving, time management, communication and social skills, assertiveness, lifestyle changes and direct actions to change environmental demands. Emotion-focused skills are designed to relieve distress and foster emotion regulation. These include denial, expressing feelings and relaxation.
The preparation of this article was supported in part by the Faculty of Administrative Studies, York University.