How do we define trust?

It’s not often that you hear the importance of trust discussed with regard to business outcomes. It’s even less common with regard to individual health outcomes. But trust is integral to both. Likewise, business outcomes and employee health impact each other. If employees are overly stressed, or experiencing other health challenges, they won’t perform as well at work. When a company is experiencing a downturn or rocky times, this invariably affects the health of employees.

Trust is an upstream determinant; meaning it affects more proximal influencers that directly impact outcomes. For example, a lack of trust leads to higher threat appraisals and subsequently higher stress in individuals. Essentially, if you don’t trust those around you, you’re more likely to believe they are a threat, and this can be stressful. Similarly, distrust can prevent people from sharing their ideas in group settings which stifles collaboration and problem solving within teams and organizations.

Trust is a part of the social environment of any organization. It is created and experienced by each individual but can be fostered by business policies and practices. Management and informal leaders have a profound affect on trust through their individual behaviors. Within an organization, individuals experience trust in a general way (organizational trust), with their peers (intra-departmental trust), between departments (inter-departmental), and specifically with leadership (managerial trust). All of these are important but may impact an individual’s behavior differently.

Stress as a Determinant of Health

Stress has a significant impact on health. High levels of chronic stress is a risk factor for many chronic diseases including cardiovascular disease, cancer, musculoskeletal disorders and depression1. This is probably due to the chronic overexcretion of stress hormones. In the short term, these hormones can be beneficial, but when they are chronically elevated they become detrimental to many body systems.

Additionally, stress can indirectly influence health through unhealthy coping behaviors such as increased intake of unhealthy foods, self-medication, substance abuse, inactivity, and relational problems2. The American Psychological Association’s 2011 Stress in the Workplace Survey found that 36% of working Americans feel stressed during a typical workday3. Of the surveyed employees, 20% reported their stress level to be an eight or higher on a ten point scale.

There are two primary ways we can define stress. The first is the physiological perspective, or the physical stress response. The second is the psychological process of stress, or what happens in our minds to create stress.

The physiological stress response starts in the brain. First, sensory information from the environment arrives at the amygdala, the small lobe toward the bottom and back of the head. Here the information begins to be sorted and interpreted, to determine if there is a potential threat. The brain then begins a process of preparing to react and signals other organs to prepare as well. The body is flooded with several hormones normally only present in small amounts. The lungs expands, the ventilation rate and heart rate increase, pupils dilate, blood is shunted from major organs to large muscle groups and stored sugar and fat is released into the blood stream to be used as fuel.

The psychological perspective of stress can be simply stated as an individual’s perception that demands in the environment outweigh resources for handling them. In other words, there is a perceived threat. The perceived threat may be a physical threat, a threat to one’s reputation, or a threat to resources. Perception is often referred to as appraisal in stress literature.

Perception matters

It’s important to notice that the physical stress response and the psychological stress process do not happen in isolation. If there is no perception of threat in your mind, the physical stress response is not triggered in your brain.

Individuals are constantly appraising their situation, receiving additional information, and reappraising. Aspects that influence a person’s perception, or appraisal, are past experiences, beliefs and priorities, novelty and predictability, temporal factors, tangible resources, and intangible resources4.

While stress can be positive (eustress) or negative (distress), both forms are driven by a person’s appraisal of their environment in relation to themselves4. An individual makes an evaluation of the demands imposed on them by their environment as well as their resources for coping with those demands. Eustress happens when an individual perceives an increase in demands but appraises their resources for coping as sufficient. This is referred to as challenge appraisal, and the experience can be motivating and energizing for an individual. If the demands are perceived to outweigh the resources for dealing with them, a person is more likely to experience distress. They are more likely to appraise the situation as threatening. We call this threat appraisal.

The impact of stress may be minimized or exaggerated by an individual’s chosen means of coping with a stressor. Regardless, perception, or appraisal, is a prerequisite to stress while coping is a process of dealing with stress after it has happened. Therefore, altering perception can be viewed as a means of prevention while coping a means of treatment of stress.

The importance of appraisal in stress cannot be overstated. Not only does an individual’s perception of the environment impact their experienced stress, but one’s perception of available resources and even the perception of the threat of stress itself matter. For example, research has shown that if we believe that our stress is detrimental to our health, it actually has a greater negative impact on our health than if we don’t think it affects our health5. Being chronically stressed negatively impacts our health all on its own, but it seems that worrying about our stress’ negative health impact exasperates our health outcomes. Talk about self- fulfilling prophecy!

So, whether we experience stress due to a challenge appraisal or a threat appraisal is dependent on our perception of whether or not we have the resources to deal with challenges. Our resources can be tangible or intangible. Tangible resources include cash, property, and other easily measurable resources. Intangible resources include things like skills, knowledge, and social connections. An intangible resource can only fulfill its potential benefit to an individual if that individual is aware they possess it. Stated otherwise, a person must perceive they have access to an intangible resource in order to utilize it. For example, if we don’t believe we have time to exercise, we won’t use the time we do have available to exercise.

Trust as a Determinant of Stress

Social connections and networks are intangible resources. Because intangible resources can only be utilized if we perceive them to be available, the factors influencing perception of social resources must be assessed. One of these factors is trust. Trust influences an individual’s perception of potential threat in any social context; it also determines whether or not an individual perceives social connections as resources. A lack of trust can result in threat appraisal, even when there may be no objective threat. Therefore, trust can impact stress in two ways; by increasing threat appraisals and by reducing resources.

Trust is context specific. A multidisciplinary analysis of trust by Rousseau, Burt, and Camerer identified at least four forms of trust; they are deterrence-based trust, calculus-based trust, relational trust, and institutional trust6.

Deterrence-based trust is confidence in another’s behavior based on the belief that the other perceives the cost to behave in an unpredictable or unfavorable way would be greater than any benefit of doing so. Institutional trust is the belief that systems put in place to ensure equity and fairness are sufficient. Both Deterrence-based trust and institutional trust have been proposed to not be trust at all, but rather low levels of distrust, and an antecedent to calculus or relationship trust, respectively6

Calculus-based trust is trust based on external information about the credibleness or another, through reputation, licensure or otherwise. Relational trust is built through interactions with another and repeated fulfillment of expectations6. This type of trust involves significant emotion but is not merely seen with significant others and friends. Long term employees may feel loyalty to their employer for the history of fair treatment, and employers may reward consistent employees with career advancement opportunities. Both situations are based on relational trust and both instances can illustrate strong emotions.

Relational based trust is very important in the workplace but is sometimes proxied with the other types of trust. A workplace specific definition of trust developed by researchers consists of three factors. First, that “good-faith efforts” are made to fulfill any and all explicit and implicit commitments. Second, negotiations of such commitments are made honestly. Lastly, the trustee “does not take advantage of others even when the opportunity is available”7. These factors, when fulfilled lead are call organizational trust7.

As we’ve discussed, trust influences stress through its impact on appraisal (perception). Ford and Huang discuss the impacts of organizational injustice on threat appraisal, trust, stress, and poorer health outcomes for employees8. The relationship Ford and Huang outline between these constructs is that an individual’s evaluation of organization injustice may lead to distrust, subsequent threat appraisal and stress response, resulting in health consequences for the employee.

Impacts on business

We’ve established that low trust leads to higher stress and that higher stress leads to unhealthy outcomes in employees. The first clear way that this can impact business is by increased health care claims: This is obvious, but there are more ways in which trust and stress affect business.

Employees with high levels of trust are more willing to share information with colleagues and supervisors, leading to more collaboration. Individuals who report high levels of organizational trust perform at a higher rate and display more organizational citizenship behavior.

Organizational citizenship behavior is any act that an employee engages in that is outside of their explicit work requirements, that promotes the employer. This includes behavior such as helping a colleague, sharing positive experiences about employment with others (even after they leave the organization), compliance with procedures and policies, and other altruistic behaviors. Another area that can benefit from low stress and high trust in the workplace is retention. Employees who experience either low trust or high stress in the workplace have higher turnover intentions.

Trust is built by building a relationship. Relationships are built with communication. It’s important to remember though that communication is more than just what we say; it is also what we do not say, and how we behave. Building trusting relationships in the workplace requires outlining expectations, setting and sticking to boundaries, realistic communication of abilities, discussing each party’s needs and showing gratitude. It also goes a long way towards building trust when individuals, particularly those in leadership positions, show their own humanity by discussing their own challenges and needs. Trust cannot be shortcut, bought, or faked. It also must derive from every level and policy within an organization. Inconsistency is an antonym to trust.

Workplace trust builders

  • Autonomy – While different jobs allow for different amounts of flexibility for scheduling and location, striving to allow individuals to make as many decisions as possible about their day-to-day gives them a sense of ownership, responsibility and a feeling they are respected.
  • Boundaries – When you set clear boundaries with others and you hold them, you demonstrate that, that is appropriate behavior. The caveat is you must also respect others boundaries, and when boundaries are unclear, you must ask.
  • Confidentiality – In general, you need to hold in confidence the things people share with you. As leaders this gets tricky. There are times when you have a responsibility to tell someone. For example, if you believe someone is in danger of hurting themselves or another, or if inappropriate behavior is happening in the workplace, such as harassment.
  • Vulnerability – Sharing our own humanity increases empathy. When we share our struggles, challenges, or goofiness with others, it reminds others that we all have these parts of our lives. It is much easier for people to trust those they believe are like them; imperfectly human.

Workplace trust wreckers

  • Micromanagement – when you helicopter manage, you are communicating to your team that you don’t believe they are willing and/or able to do the job without you hovering over their shoulder: in other words, you don’t trust them. Trust is reciprocal.
  • Over-commitment – Being unaware of our own personal limitations. It’s very difficult to trust someone if they are not reliable. Learn to say no when you need to. It demonstrates that it’s okay to do so, and prevents issues of reliability.
  • Contradictions – “Do as I say, not as I do” hurts trust. Be consistent with your communications, including what you say and how you behave.
  • Unaccountable – Just like it increases trust to share our imperfections or vulnerabilities, it harms trust to deny them. Particularly if we make a glaring mistake and we don’t take ownership or apologize if its appropriate. Make amends when things go wrong, and let others do the same. Don’t act like you are just over it after things went bad, try to empathize with the other person, regardless if you or them were in the wrong.


  1. Salleh M. R. (2008) Life event, stress and illness. Malaysian Journal of Medical Science, 15(4) pp 9–18.
  2. Jatturong, R., & Wichianson, S. A. (2009). Perceived stress, coping and night eating in college students. Stress and Health, 25. 235-240.
  3. American Psychological Association, (2011). Stress in the Workplace: Survey Summary.
  4. Lazarus, R. S. AND Folkman, S. (1984). Stress, Appraisal, and Coping. New York, New York: Springer Publishing Company, Inc.
  5. Keller, A., Litzelman, K., Wisk, L. E., Maddox, T., Cheng, E. R, Creswell, P. D., Witt, W. P., (2012). Does the perception that stress affects health matter? The association with health and mortality. Health Psychology, 31(5):677-84. doi: 10.1037/a0026743.
  6. Rousseau, D. M., Sitkin, S. B., Burt, R. S., Camerer, C., (1998). Introduction to Special Topic Forum: Not so Different after All: A Cross-Discipline View of Trust. The Academy of Management Review, 23(3) 393-404.
  7. Cummings, L. L., & Bromiley, P. (1996). The Organization Trust Inventory (OTI): Development and Validation. In Kramer, R. M., and Tyler, T. R. (Eds.), Trust in Organizations: Frontiers of Theory and Research (p302-330). Thousand Oaks, CA. SAGE Publications.
  8. Ford, M. T., Huang, J. (2014). The Health Consequences of Organizational Injustice: Why Do They Exist and What Can Be Done? In Leka, S., & Sinclair, R. R., (Eds.) Contemporary Occupational Health Psychology (35-50). West Sussex, UK. John Wiley & Sons, Ltd.