Work and stress: Can a sense of control help?


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Content type
Family Matters article

April 1991


Does a person's belief that events are personally controllable make the balancing of paid work and home-making less stressful than otherwise? Author briefly reviews research on the notion of control and how it should be measured, and concludes that 'by modifying our goals, setting priorities and delegating responsibility, we can reduce the pressures on us and hopefully maintain a sense of control and therefore wellbeing'.

Does a person's belief that events are personally controllable make the balancing of paid work and home-making less stressful than otherwise? Ruth Weston, AIFS Research Fellow, reports.

The ability to control events has often been described as important to actual safety and sense of wellbeing and, consequently, as a highly valued goal shared by most people. Further, regardless of actual personal control, a general belief in personal control over circumstances has been treated as an important resource for coping with life's difficulties, thereby enhancing wellbeing and reducing stress.

Kobasa (1982) describes a sense of personal control as an important component of 'hardiness' - a personality disposition which, in her view, reduces the stress of major life changes such as marriage breakdown, job retrenchment and moving residence. Kobasa also maintained that 'hardy' people are less likely to become ill after experiencing an accumulation of such events. Conversely, a person's sense of powerlessness has often been treated as dysfunctional. For instance, some authors believe that this can lead to pervasive, chronic depression (Abramson, Seligman and Teasdale 1978).

It might be expected, then, that people attempting to balance the demands of household and paid work will be able to cope better, feel good about life, avoid depression, and remain healthy if they feel in control of their lives.

However, there is confusion in the literature about the notion of control and how it should be measured. Rotter's (1966) highly influential 'locus of control' concept maintains that people develop a generalised expectation about whether events which happen to them are caused by themselves (an 'internal orientation') or by external factors such as other people, fate, luck or chance (an 'external orientation'). Rotter believes that this locus of control orientation is most likely to influence the way people interpret events which are novel and ambiguous.

Given the growing importance attached to beliefs in control in the literature, there has been a proliferation of scales aimed at measuring locus of control. Unfortunately, researchers have often assumed that these scales measure such qualities as a person's sense of competence or mastery over events. However, as the accompanying illustration shows, there is a difference between the locus of control concept and competence. The character is depicted as holding an internal orientation - a belief that he has caused his current circumstances. But he also feels incompetent in bringing about the circumstances he desires.

Lazarus and Folkman (1984) showed that control beliefs are complex in other ways. According to their model of psychological stress, a person's beliefs about control are central to the degree to which he or she feels threatened or challenged by life's demands. A sense of threat occurs when a person doubts his or her ability to cope with important demands. If threatened, a person is likely to feel anxious or worried. A sense of challenge, on the other hand, occurs when the individual believes he or she can manage life's demands with considerable effort and focuses on the rewards of doing so - an exhilarating, enjoyable experience. These arguments suggest that the stress experienced in combining paid work with home-making depends very much upon a person's sense of control.

However, Lazarus and Folkman also pointed out that there are times when a person's belief in personal control can increase a sense of threat - for example, when it is believed that exercising control requires acting against personal principles or leads to loss of friendships.

Thus, a mother who attempts to exert greater control over meeting financial demands by taking on a full-time job and leaving her children in child care may find this life style very stressful if she firmly believes that 'the mother's place is in the home', or that her relationships with her children will deteriorate if they are in child care.

Lazarus and Folkman further pointed out that several targets of control can co-exist, covering both the external circumstances and internal states - for example, changing external conditions, tolerating pain, controlling reactions, preserving self-image, and maintaining morale.

Thus, people may attempt to alter the demands of paid work and home- making to fit their own resources. For instance, they may delegate responsibilities, thereby relinquishing some control but at the same time managing to complete necessary tasks. Others may attempt to change their own goals - for instance, they may learn to tolerate a somewhat untidy household, or to lower their career aspirations. Although they may not realise it, these coping strategies represent different forms of exercising control.

In general, then, it does seem that a sense of personal control can help people cope with and enjoy the balancing of paid work and home-making. On the other hand, it can be very demoralising to find that, contrary to our own and others' expectations, we cannot master life's demands. However, some of the difficult 'demands' may be of our own making. By modifying our goals, setting priorities and delegating responsiblity, we can reduce the pressures on us and hopefully maintain a sense of control and therefore wellbeing.


  • Abramson, L., Seligman, M. and Teasdale, J. (1978), 'Learned helplessness in humans: critique and reformulation', Journal of Abnormal Psychology, Vol.87, pp.49-74.
  • Kobasa, S. (1982), 'The hardy personality: toward a social psychology of stress and health', in G.S. Sanders and J. Suls (eds), Social Psychology of Health and Illness, Erlbaum, Hillsdale NJ.
  • Lazarus, R. and Folkman, S. (1984), Stress, Appraisal, and Coping, Springer, New York.
  • Rotter, J. (1966), 'Generalized expectancies for internal versus external control of reinforcement', Psychological Monographs, Vol.80, Whole No.609.