Uncertainty and stress in an R&D project environment




R&D project managers work in an environment in which the uncertainty and complexity of engineering development problems are an important source of episodic job stress. A study of the US. Navy's top major project R&D managers (N = 118) was conducted to test the use of various coping skills and social support as preventive stress management techniques for this population. It was found that perceived environmental uncertainty (PEU) had a direct, positive effect on psychological distress of these project managers while social support had a therapeutic effect on their experience of burnout. While problem focussed coping had a small, positive effect on burnout, neither coping skills nor social support were found to have a primary prevention effect upon perceived environmental uncertainty (PEU).

Engineering managers engaged in high technology R&D are confronted by a wide range of uncertainties, risks and changing demands that give rise to the stress response with its attendant physiological and psychological changes (Asterita, 1985). Adams (1980) has argued that an episodic versus chronic dichotomy of stressors is valuable because it distinguishes between intermittent stressors of finite duration (episodic) and ongoing stressors of indeterminant duration (chronic). This article reports the results of a study of uncertainty as an episodic work stressor for the U.S. Navy's high technology R&D project managers. The results suggest that R&D project managers should develop social support systems and structures to maintain well-being and avert distress and strain.