The doctoral dissertations of the former Helsinki University of Technology (TKK) and Aalto University Schools of Technology (CHEM, ELEC, ENG, SCI) published in electronic format are available in the electronic publications archive of Aalto University - Aaltodoc.

World-Wide Work Stress: Multi-Case Study of the Stress-Coping Process in Distributed Work

Niina Nurmi

Doctoral dissertation for the degree of Doctor of Philosophy to be presented with due permission of the Faculty of Information and Natural Sciences for public examination and debate in Auditorium TU1 at the Aalto University School of Science and Technology (Espoo, Finland) on the 8th of October 2010 at 12 noon.

Overview in PDF format (ISBN 978-952-60-3356-3)   [437 KB]
Dissertation is also available in print (ISBN 978-952-60-3355-6)


The changing world of work is increasing demands on workers through greater need for flexibility in global collaboration. Many organizations utilize distributed teams in which a group of people with a common purpose carry out interdependent tasks across locations and time, using technology to communicate more than face-to-face meetings. Prior literature on distributed teams shows that distributed work creates several challenges for team members' well-being, but our knowledge about the unique stressors that arise from these new work settings is limited and calls for further investigation.

This multiple-case study uses a qualitative research approach to study context-specific job stressors that contribute to employees' psychological strain, and the coping mechanisms employees use to alleviate that strain. Ninety-seven team leaders and members from ten distributed real-life work teams were interviewed. The semi-structured interview data was analyzed qualitatively on team and individual levels.

Results reveal the unique stressors and coping mechanisms of distributed work and model their relations to psychological strain. Geographic distance, electronic dependence and cultural diversity hinder the information flow and task coordination in distributed teams, creating stress-evoking ambiguity and uncertainty for team members. Not only these job stressors but also some of the strategies used to cope with them contribute to overload and strain. In particular, certain team-level coping strategies, such as frequent traveling to face-to-face meetings, prolonged work hours due to synchronous computer-mediated communication, and email overload create secondary sources of work overload when people use them continuously to manage uncertainty and ambiguity in distributed collaboration. To cope with the team-level coping strategies, team members rely heavily on individual coping resources, because spatial and temporal distance hinder the mobilization of social resources related to emotional, instrumental and informational social support.

This dissertation suggests that the team-level coping strategies that are effective in managing certain job demands may, however, create other stressors and overload for individuals. Experienced workers, who have good self-management skills, may succeed in coping with these secondary sources of strain by prioritizing and setting clear limits for workload. Less experienced workers may feel more overloaded and need more social support from their leaders and teammates. As a practical implication, this dissertation suggests that the self-management skills in coping, employees' efforts in setting clear limits and prioritizing tasks should be better supported by organizations.

This thesis consists of an overview and of the following 5 publications:

  1. Niina Kokko and Matti Vartiainen. 2007. Hajautetun työskentelyn kuormitustekijät. (Job stressors in distributed work.) Työ ja ihminen, volume 21, number 2, pages 142-159.
  2. Niina Nurmi. 2010. Work stressors related to geographic distance and electronic dependence in virtual teams. International Journal of Business and Systems Research, volume 4, number 3, pages 311-329.
  3. Niina Nurmi, Petra Bosch-Sijtsema, Anu Sivunen, and Renate Fruchter. 2009. Who shouts louder? Exerting power across distance and culture. In: Proceedings of the 2009 ACM SIGCHI International Workshop on Intercultural Collaboration (IWIC 2009). Palo Alto, California, USA. 20-21 February 2009. New York, NY, USA. Association for Computing Machinery. Pages 71-80. ISBN 978-1-60558-502-4.
  4. Niina Nurmi. 2009. Unique stressors of cross-cultural collaboration through ICTs in virtual teams. In: Ben-Tzion Karsh (editor). Proceedings of the 2009 International Conference on Ergonomics and Health Aspects of Work with Computers (EHAWC 2009). Held as Part of the 13th International Conference on Human-Computer Interaction (HCI International 2009). San Diego, California, USA. 19-24 July 2009. Berlin, Heidelberg, Germany. Springer. Lecture Notes in Computer Science, volume 5624, pages 78-87. ISBN 978-3-642-02730-7.
  5. Niina Nurmi. 2010. Coping with coping strategies: How distributed teams and their members deal with the stress of distance, time zones and culture. Stress and Health, Early View. DOI: 10.1002/smi.1327.

Keywords: stress, stressor, psychological strain, coping, distributed work, job demands

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© 2010 Aalto University School of Science and Technology

Last update 2011-05-26