Cybernetic Theory of Stress

The cybernetic theory involves human perceptions.

Wouldn't it be lovely to have the ability to control stress? How about increasing production while maintaining wellbeing in the workplace? The cybernetic theory of stress offers insight into the fundamental elements of stress as it creates a model applicable to the workplace. While many may associate cyber with machine, this theory has key components that are quite human.

What Is Cybernetics?

Cybernetics is a complex science that deals with how self-regulating systems function. Systems include electronic, mechanical and biological systems, which makes the topic very complicated. When dealing with stress responses, the focus is solely on the the theory's application to biological systems, most notably, the endocrine and the nervous systems.

Norbert Wiener was a mathematician who coined the word cybernetics in 1948. The word stems from the Greek word, kybernetes, meaning steersman. Metaphorically, the term also relates to guiding or governing.

The Cybernetic Theory of Stress

The body has self-regulating systems that maintain an internal equilibrium, or state of constancy. The state of constancy helps maintain physiological health, but stress can disrupt the balance. This causes the body to produce neurotransmitters and hormones to restore balance.

Compare a person's self-regulating system to a reservoir that maintains a certain level of water (healthy stress). If too much water flows into the reservoir, the levels increase, possibly to an unmanageable level (anxiety). The system has to respond to the increase by finding a way to lessen it (coping).

Sometimes, the system has to constantly adapt to stress, which leads to allostasis. Over time, the endocrine and nervous systems may become less effective in maintaining balance, which leads to allostatic load. How does the body (machine) maintain allostasis? The answer is negative feedback, which is a fundamental element in organizational stress theories, and the cybernetic theory of stress.

Organizational Stress and Negative Feedback

Work-related stress appears to be a major concern for many people, including employers. The negative feedback loop is a basic principal that can help relate cybernetics to different theories of organizational stress (OS).

Normally, people associated the word negative with something that is detrimental on some level. However, when it comes to regulating stress, negative feedback yields positive results. A negative feedback loop negates the effects of stress-causing input.

J.R. Edwards' Theory

J.R. Edwards has developed a cybernetic theory that relates to stress, coping and wellbeing in organizations. We can look at objectives in the workplace, or demands, as stressors. The stress cycle in the workplace is complex, and it involves many feedback loops that are working at the same time.

Edwards has developed a theory that adopts perception as a key element in workplace stress. He postulates that stress is "a discrepancy between the employee's perceived state and desired state." The discrepancy should be important to the employee, as it begins a loop.

  • Perceived state differs from desired state.
  • The discrepancy is important, and leads to stress.
  • Stress can damage wellbeing, which leads to coping mechanisms.
  • Coping may involve changing perceptions and desires.
  • Coping may involve lessening the importance of the discrepancy.

Perceptions, Desires and Importance

In this theory, the individual's cognitive construction of reality (perception) and social information (behaviors, beliefs and opinions) are important factors. When the employee has little information, he or she constructs reality based on social information and personal perceptions.

The theory presents desires as conditions the employee consciously wants. Stress occurs when a discrepancy between the employee's desires and perception exists. The Importance of the discrepancy is a factor as well. If the discrepancy is detrimental to the employee's wellbeing, it is a greater cause of stress.

Stress in the Machine

Theories of organizational stress offer insight into the impact of stress input and employee output. While some of its theories seem conflicting, the negative feedback loop is a principal that emerges in the cybernetic theory of stress as well as other OS models. Cybernetics recognizes that the body is more than a machine that regulates itself.

Is it possible to govern stress to achieve desired results in the workplace and in personal life? The notion of breaking down emotional states into fundamental stimulus-response cycles that you can steer can be appealing. However, it can be difficult to accomplish when you are in the throes of a stressful situation. Edwards' theory adds perception, which is a subjective, human element to the machine.

Cybernetic Theory of Stress