Karl Albrecht defines four core types of stress: time, anticipatory, situational and encounter. To overcome stress, individuals should understand which type of stress they are under, and respond with actions appropriate to that type of stress.

Summary by The World of Work Project

Albrecht’s Four Types of Stress

The modern workplace is increasingly complicated and demanding. As a result, most individuals now experience some form and level of stress at work. To succeed in work many people aim to improve their resilience and wellbeing.

Albrecht states that the stresses individuals face can be categorized into four core types: Time, Anticipatory, Situational and Encounter.

The best way for individuals to overcome the stresses they face is for them to understand which type of stress they are experiencing. Once they understand their stress, they can take appropriate actions designed to overcome that specific type of stress.

Of course, leaders have a role to play in relation to these four types of stress as well. Leaders should remain approachable so that their individuals can speak to them about stress. In addition, where possible, leaders should help the people in their teams overcome stress.

Each of Albrecht’s Four Types of Stress feel slightly different when you’re experiencing them. Each of the different types also has specific responses that individuals and leaders can undertake that are most likely to help reduce the stress that people may be feeling.

1. Time Stress

The first of Albrecht’s Four Types of Stress is time stress.

What Time Stress feels like

When individuals are experiencing time stress, they feel trapped. They feel that they don’t have the time they need to complete their tasks, or do their job well.

When under this type of stress individuals often find themselves fixating on their imminent deadlines and volumes of work. This fixation uses a lot of their focus and energy. This means they have little energy and focus left to actually do the work that they need to do. Under this type of stress, individuals might also find themselves focusing on a sense of injustice or unfairness over their deadlines and the volume of work that they need to complete.

Overcoming Time Stress

Individuals can address some of their time stress through improving productivity and time management. Prioritizing, to-do lists, the Eisenhower-matrix, working longer and working at more productive times are all recommended.

Ultimately though, most of those actions are short term fixes.

The best long term way to overcome time stress is to address the root causes of it. These are often to do with work volumes and effective communication. To overcome these issues requires developing the ability to say no to further tasks. It also requires open and honest conversations with leaders and managers so that they are aware of the situation.

From a leadership perspective, it’s not always easy to spot whether an individual is experiencing time stress. This is because many people may try and keep it hidden. As a leader it’s important to be approachable so your employees feel able to tell you about their time stress. Remember, sometimes you’ll say things in passing that morph into important deliverables and generate work and time pressure without that being your intention. When requesting work of individuals make sure you really are clear. You particularly need to say whether what you’re asking for is important and urgent, or just a nice to have.

2. Anticipatory Stress

The second of Albrecht’s Four Types of Stress is anticipatory stress.

What Anticipatory Stress feels like

When individuals are experiencing anticipatory stress they are usually stressed about a future event or activity. These events are typically something that they think could do wrong or have negative consequences for them. When this happens, individuals may find themselves fixating on the event or potential outcomes. They might fixate so much that they cannot focus on the things they should be doing.

The types of things that can cause anticipatory stress include upcoming deliverables, presentations and meetings, or future events like exam results or moving house.

Overcoming Anticipatory Stress

Individuals can overcome some of their anticipatory stress through contingency planning. This just means having a planned course of action for a range of possible future situations.

Other techniques that individuals may find helpful include positive visualization and meditation, as well as improving underlying confidence. Several common ways to to build confidence in relation to a specific future event include practice, feedback, preparation, dry-runs and building relationships where appropriate.

Leaders can play a large role in helping individuals to overcome anticipatory stress. One of the best things leaders can do is to actually focus on prevention rather than cure. They can do this through creating safe and supportive environments. Other things leaders can do include speaking to the individuals in their teams on a regular basis and exploring potential sources of anticipatory stress. When specific sources of this stress are identified, leaders can help coach their individuals through their stress through. To do this they should use effective, supportive questioning techniques. They can also help by reiterating the supportive and psychologically safe working environment of the team. Alternatively, they could help manage the individual’s workload in an effort to mitigate specific events, if the levels of stress associated with them are too high.

3. Situational Stress

The third of Albrecht’s Four Types of Stress is situational stress.

What Situational Stress feels like

Situational stress, by definition, happens in the moment. It often arises when individuals are triggered by a situation they can’t control, typically conflict, loss of status or emergencies. Other factors that could cause situation stress include each of the five factors of the SCARF model.

When individuals are experiencing situational stress, they usually feel threatened by what’s happening around them. As a result their automatic fight or flight responses kick in. This makes it hard for them to focus on achieving the best outcomes possible in the moment.

Overcoming Situational Stress

Situational stress is difficult to manage as it is often automatic and Amygdala driven, causing a “fight or flight” response. Developing your emotional intelligence is a great way to reduce the likelihood of this type of stress taking control of you in difficult situations.

As you become more emotionally intelligent, you may learn to recognize your symptoms of stress. You may also learn to spot in advance the types of situation which may become stressful for you. By being able to spot these situations, you will know when you need to take mitigating action.

Of course, you’ll also need to have mitigating actions to take. There are lots of things that individuals can do in these situations to help them through. Examples include asking for a break, building an exit strategy into a difficult situation, pre-committing yourself to be somewhere else so you have an excuse to leave, seeking to control the physical environment your events occur in (e.g. choose your room and attendees) or even the classic responses of “counting to 10” or “sleeping on it” before you made a decision.

A Leadership Perspective

From a leadership perspective, it’s particularly important to help your team members with situational stress. When individuals experience this type of stress they may make bad decisions, fail to act or even respond unprofessionally. This can all damage important relationships.

As a leader it’s possible to help prevent these situations by having effective and open coaching conversations with your team members on a regular basis. In these coaching session you can help develop your team members’ emotional intelligence. You can also help them explore upcoming and potentially stressful situations with a view to having them individual visualize their responses to different eventualities and prepare appropriate contingency plans. This approach not only helps you develop your team, it also helps you maintain a clear handle on the challenges your team are facing are.

4. Encounter Stress

The fourth of Albrecht’s Four Types of Stress is encounter stress.

What Encounter Stress feels like

Individuals experience encounter stress when they worry about interacting with a person or group, or they are worn down by too many difficult interactions with specific people or groups.

This type of stress can lead to fixating on specific future encounters, can lead to avoiding specific encounters and thus not delivering specific pieces of work and can lead to further erosion of relationships.

Overcoming Encounter Stress

Encounter stress is best overcome through improving interpersonal skills and building confidence and resilience.

Improving your self-esteem, emotional intelligence and social skills can help with situational stress, as can spending time building relationships with the individuals or groups you consider to be stressful. Other things you can do to help with situational stress include managing your own expectations and making sure you have time and space to look after yourself. Ways you can do this include setting reasonable targets for your own performance and building in opportunities to recover and reduce your stress through activities like mediation or taking a walk. As with other forms of “in the moment” stress, visualization and contingency planning can also help.

In some instances, it may also be helpful to provide feedback to the individuals who are causing you encounter stress, though of course this can be very stressful in itself and it may not work.

A Leadership Perspective

From a leadership perspective, there are things you can do to help prevent and overcome encounter stress within your team. As with other forms of stress, effective coaching and conversations can play a huge role in helping your individuals develop as people. These coaching conversations can also help you build effective relationships with your team members so that they are open and honest with you.

If through your coaching and development conversations you identify specific causes of stress for your team members, you can work with them to overcome those specific issues.

You may also find encounter stress and conflict between members of your own team. This can be particularly difficult to overcome, but it’s hugely important to do so. In these situations, helping to bring people together, finding common ground, opening up shared experiences and celebrating shared success are all helpful. Team-building activities are very helpful in these situations.

As a side note, though not recommended for the workplace, you can read more about how a charitable venture called “Better Angels” in the US goes about bringing together individuals who are politically polarized here.

Learning More

Stress has a big impact on our lives. It can materially affect our Wellbeing. In fact, stress can lead to physical ailments through a process known as somatization.

Our resilience (which we can measure with the Brief Resilience Scale) can help us cope with stressful situations. Similarly, we can use some self coaching like the ETC model and the ABC framework to manage our own stress to some extent. Improving our positive thinking can help us manage stress as well. Also, some people also benefit from meditation, diet, exercise and the steps of the GREAT DREAM happiness model.

The below podcast covers the concept of stress-buckets, which might of interest.

The World of Work Project View

While Albrecht’s Four Types of Stress is a basic model, it is helpful to individuals. Its core premise of understanding the root causes of stress and taking actions specifically aligned to them is good.

Unfortunately, the model itself only really considers responses the individual can take themselves in relation to stress. In many cases leaders must also be accountable and take corrective action. To help overcome this we have added some limited guidance on how leaders can help prevent these stresses. We’ve also explored how leaders can help the individuals in their teams who may be experiencing them.

Mental health, stress and well-being are hugely important and should be understood by individuals and leaders. Please take stress seriously and seek professional advice where appropriate.

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The original work behind this topic was completed by the management consultant, Karl Albrecht. You can read more about his ideas at his website which you can find here. 

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