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The work stress of Chinese senior executives: Work stressors and coping strategies

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posted on 2021-11-05, 03:34 authored by Zheng Duan

Along with rapid economic development, work stress has become a serious issue in China, especially for senior executives who are steering their organisations in this turbulent and complex social environment. The Chinese economy is transitioning from being centrally planned towards a more market-orientated one, where political and market forces continue to work closely together. As these economic changes challenge traditional values such as harmony and guanxi, Chinese senior executives who work within these environments and manage these workplace transitions become an interesting focus of attention worthy of deeper research. While our knowledge about work stress is mainly based on research in Western societies, how work stress manifests itself in a transitional economy like China is underexplored.

Drawing on cognitive appraisal theory, this study examines the work stress of Chinese senior executives. Work stress is not only caused by stressors but is also influenced by the efficacy of coping. As an individual can cope with a stressor in different ways depending on the resources possessed by the individual, this study is interested in the relationship between coping resources and coping strategies. Therefore, it asks two research questions: What stressors do Chinese senior executives experience in their work environment? How do Chinese senior executives utilise resources to cope with their work stress?

This study draws on phenomenology as a philosophical lens to explore the work stress of Chinese senior executives as stress is conceptualised as a subjective personal experience, the investigation of which needs to be based on the phenomenological assumption that reality is based on perception and interpretation of the external world. In addressing the research questions, a sample of Chinese senior executive within private, public, and mixed ownership organisations were interviewed using Critical Incident Technique (CIT) to capture contextual details critical for identifying stressors and coping strategies. Research data was analysed using six phases of thematic analysis.

This study contributes to extant literature by providing insights into the work stressors and coping strategies that Chinese senior executives face and employ. Findings highlight the relevance of both organisational and environmental factors in shaping performance uncertainty that give rise to the work stress of Chinese senior executives. Moreover, political-business role conflict linked to the one-party state is identified as a distinctive work stressor in the Chinese context – a work stressor that has hitherto not been identified in the work stress literature. Furthermore, whereas previous literature predominantly focuses on workplace interpersonal conflicts as a major work stressor, this study identifies an additional interpersonal stressor: the challenge of maintaining workplace interpersonal harmony. Finally, while previous research of career-related stressors mainly focuses on negative, confining career experiences, this study reveals that Chinese senior executives often identify challenging work goals in their desire for career success.

As for coping, prior research has mainly focused on individual coping, with less attention afforded to collective and social coping. This study finds that collective coping is supported by job resources (within the organisation) and that social coping is underpinned by social resources (external to the organisation). A specific focus of this study was to examine how job and social resources are utilised to implement collective and social coping. Findings reveal that job and social resources facilitate problem-focused strategies in both collective and social coping. By contrast, these resources are barely used to facilitate emotion-focused and meaning-focused strategies in both collective and social coping. Research has shown that effective coping is determined by coping flexibility and that multiple coping strategies are utilised flexibly according to different situations. However, the asymmetric pattern of collective and social coping found in this study indicates that Chinese senior executives may not fully benefit from coping in the organisational and social domain.

Overall, this study builds on cognitive appraisal theory by identifying several contextually situated work stressors and explaining the connections between coping resources and coping strategies within the framework of collective and social coping. In doing so, the study provides new insights into work stress in the Chinese context, where Chinese senior executives are required to meet many contradictory expectations in a rapidly changing society.


Copyright Date


Date of Award



Te Herenga Waka—Victoria University of Wellington

Rights License

Author Retains Copyright

Degree Discipline

Human Resource Management

Degree Grantor

Te Herenga Waka—Victoria University of Wellington

Degree Level


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy

ANZSRC Type Of Activity code


Victoria University of Wellington Item Type

Awarded Doctoral Thesis



Victoria University of Wellington School

School of Management : Te Kura Whakahaere


Bryson, Jane; Donnelly, Noelle