May 1984 // Volume 22 // Number 3 // Feature Articles // 3FEA4

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Up Tight Ain't Right: Easing the Pressure on County Agents

Is Extension a high stress occupation? This Kentucky study shows it is and reports what's being done to change the situation.

Robert J. Fetsch
Assistant Professor
Extension Specialist
Human Development and Family Relations
Cooperative Extension Service
University of Kentucky-Lexington

Robert Flashman
Assistant Professor
Extension Specialist
Family Resource Management
Cooperative Extension Service
University of Kentucky-Lexington

David Jeffiers
Extension Program Specialist for 4-H
Cooperative Extension Service
University of Kentucky-Lexington.

Extension work often requires long hours, including night and weekend meetings. Because of this, Extension staff find themselves torn between family commitments, expectations of clientele and administrators, and their own personal and work goals. Recessionary periods further aggravate the stress felt by agents. During difficult economic times, more private citizens seek help from their county agents. With less state and federal money available and with more hiring freezes imposed on vacated positions, county agents face increased workloads.

These increased demands quite naturally lead to even more than the usual amount of stress and time management difficulties for Extension personnel. Hawkins cited the disruptive, harmful effects on families of Extension staff because of jobs that absorb almost all an individual's time.1

Extension is beginning to examine workplace stress and how it affects Extension personnel and their families. In 1981, an Extension Committee on Policy (ECOP) Task Force was established to formulate a position statement on Extension's role in strengthening American families. This task force adopted a position paper with three major thrusts, one of which recommended adapting Extension employee policies to meet changing clientele needs. One statement said that "Extension organizational managers need to critically examine policies and practices in relation to their effects upon the family life of Extension employees."2 In other words, let's not ignore our own "family."

Only one Extension program to reduce job stress and improve employee productivity has been reported in the literature. Babkirk and Davis described a two-day conference for Maine Extension staff and their families.3 However, they neglected to report the use of normed instrumentsassessing program effectiveness.

Pilot Program

In an effort to reduce job stress and to improve the time management proficiencies of Kentucky Extension professionals who were wrestling with the problem of balancing their personal and work lives, a comprehensive, interdisciplinary in-service training program was developed.The pilot program was offered to all Kentucky 4-H county agents during their State Conference in Spring, 1981, as part of a 3-day professionalimprovement program.

Setting Priorities

The stress and time management program resulted from a need expressed by several agents to their 4-H state specialist. A planning committee, composed of agents and specialists, identified the key source of agent stress as uncertainty about job priorities. Consequently, the committee identified 23 specific job responsibilities related to program management, professional improvement, promotion, and support activities.

Measuring Stress Levels

The next step was to locate a valid and reliable instrument to measure the stress levels of participants before andafter the program. This instrument was useful in assessing the stress levels of Extension employees and clientele. Weconsidered using the popular Holmes-Rahe scale, but ruled it out because of the low likelihood that our program wouldchange the life events of participants such as death of spouse, divorce, marital separation, pregnancy.

Ultimately, we selected the Everly-Walker General Behavior Survey (EWGBS) because of its reliability and validity4and because of the likelihood of its measuring the expected impacts of an Extension stress management program. Form A of this survey uses a 24-item self-report scale that asks respondents to indicate the frequency with which they have recently experienced a variety of cognitive/affective conditions highly correlated with stress ranging from feeling nervous to having difficulty relaxing.

Program Description

The stress and time management workshop included a two-hour program the first day followed by a one-hour program the second day. Participants included 4-H county agents, area agents, state specialists, and the state assistant director of CES for 4-H, along with several area directors.

On the first day, after participants completed the EWGBS pretest, they ranked the list of 23 4-H agent job responsibilities in order of importance for 4-H county agents. A summary report by occupation (county agent, state specialist, or area director) was promised for the second day. The remainder of the first-day workshop included viewing the "Time and Tillie" slide set5 and a film called "Managing Stress."6 Specific methods of managing time and reducing stress were suggested and a variety of stretching-relaxation exercises practiced. Participants were encouraged to meet with their area directors to discuss and negotiate priorities and together create a mutually satisfying employment situation. Finally, they were given a stress management publication7and were encouraged to practice its behavioral exercises whenever they experienced stress symptoms at home or on the job.

On the second day, a summary of the rank ordering of 4-H job responsibilities by occupation was reported. Similaritieswere noted-for example, all 3 groups agreed that the top priorities for county agents were leader recruitment, leaderraining, program planning, and advisory work with the 4-H Council and other groups.

Serious discrepancies were also identified. While area directors ranked program evaluation, reporting, and supervising andother office management duties considerably more important than did agents, they judged helping ongoing clubs and teaching members directly considerably less important than did agents. To further resolve differences in expectations and thereby reduce job stress, the state assistant director expressed his willingness to meet with agents. They were encouraged to meet individually as wellas on an areawide basis with their area directors and the assistant director to negotiate priorities about how to best serve their clientele.


Analysis of the pretest data indicated that the mean stress level score for this group of 154 was 73.058 (S.D. = 14.232). According to the author of the survey, the mean score for normal adults was 60 (S.D. = 9).8 We can conclude that our agentswere experiencing high levels of stress and that prolonged exposure to such stress levels could put valuable Extension personnel at high risk for physiological and emotional stress-related problems.

Of the 154 participants completing pretests, 88 completed identifiable posttests a month after the program. To determine whether those who returned the posttests were different from those who didn't, a t-test analysis was run on both groups' pretests. Since the two groups didn't differ at the .05 level, our results were generalizable to all 154 original participants.

A t-test analysis of pretest-posttest differences revealed a statistically significant reduction in stress levels at the .001level. Stress levels were reduced from a mean score of 72.114 to 68.875.


Critical Issues

Two factors seem crucial to the reduction of stress levels in the pilot program. The first is that 4-H agents requestedthe program, identified key problems to be addressed, and were integrally involved in the program's development. Thesecond is that the state assistant director supported the program. These two factors appear critical to the success ofsimilar programs conducted elsewhere.

... Extension can be in the forefront of agencies helping their employees help themselves by offering effective stress and time management programs designed to reduce stress in a short time....

While the pretest- posttest shift was statistically significant, the question remains whether it was practically significant. That even the posttest stress levels were around one standard deviation above the mean for normal adults suggests that expanded, ongoing stress management programs are needed by 4-H agents. Without them, there was concern that the health of the individuals would deteriorate and that the 4-H program as a whole would suffer.

Program Expansion

The pilot stress and time management program has been expanded, improved, and used on an areawide basis whenrequested by area directors. The expanded program involves an all-day workshop for agriculture, home economics, and4-H agents as well as their secretaries and assistants. Initially, local problems of balancing personal and worklives are identified. Depending on what the local problems are, different program components are included, such as:

  • A life-goals exercise for planning personal-career priorities.
  • A method of clarifying expectations between supervisors and supervisees.
  • Conflict negotiation and problem-solving skills for use with supervisors and supervisees or family members.
  • Various time and stress management techniques to increase control over personal and work responsibilities.
  • Positive imagery techniques for visualizing successful outcomes of problem situations.
  • An exercise for building the self-esteem of oneself and others.
  • A life scripts and roles exercise to help couples negotiate role expectations.

By gathering data on pretest- posttest changes in stress levels and coping behaviors, a program evaluation study is conducted.

In its present format, the program is designed for use as a five-hour workshop for Extension employees, but we're considering developing it into a two-part program of three hours each-one for Extension employees and the other for them and their spouses.


We believe that Extension can be in the forefront of agencies helping their employees help themselves by offering effective stress and time management programs designed to reduce stress in a short time. The economic benefits of retaining rather thanreplacing employees have been documented.9 We believe there are additional benefits. One is increased job satisfactionfor employees as they reduce their stress levels and increase their positive coping behaviors. For administrators, there's increased employeeproductivity. And, best of all, for Extension's clientele there's improved programming.


  1. Leo F. Hawkins, "The Delicate Balance: Work and Family," Journal of Extension, XX (September/October, 1982), 38-42.
  2. ECOP Task Force, Extension's Role: Strengthening American Families (Lincoln: University of Nebraska, 1981), p. 3.
  3. Douglas G. Babkirk and Neal R. Davis, "The Incredible Balancing Act," Journal of Extension, XX (September/October, 1982), 5-6. More recently, Maine Extension professionals voted to recommend to their administration the implementation of a two-year pilot project involving a variety of creative alternative work arrangement schedules. The program's impact will be measured. Joseph R. Blotnick, "Extension's Experience with Alternative Work Arrangements in the United States"(Orono: Maine Association of CES Faculty, 1983).
  4. Test-retest reliability ranged from .894 to .956 for 20 working adults, 52 graduate students, and 66 undergraduate students. Validity correlations with the Taylor Manifest Anxiety Scale that is the classic measurement scale of anxiety and the trait anxiety form of the STAI ranged from .647 to .875 for 20 light industrial workers, 25 graduate accounting students, and 114 adult undergraduates. George S. Everly and Eileen C. Newman, "The Development of a Self -Report Scale To Measure Stress Arousal in Adults" (Catonsville, Maryland: Life Health Systems Institute, 1981).
  5. Marie S. Hammer and Katey Walker, " T'n T: Time Management for Paraprofessionals," Journal of Extension, XX (March/April, 1982), 5-9.
  6. Stephen Judson, Managing Stress (Del Mar, California: CRM-McGraw, 1978). [film]
  7. Samuel Quick, Stress Management, Leaflet 325B (Lexington: University of Kentucky, College of Agriculture, Cooperative Extension Service, 1981).
  8. George S. Everly, personal communication, May 7,1982.
  9. According to a study by Massi, professor of social work at the University of Maryland, a company usually spends 60% less to rehabilitate than to replace a worker who is performing poorly due to personal problems. Dale Massi, "Marital Aid Inc.," Money, XII (July, 1983),124. Dudrow and Fowler report that family-oriented policies have paid off within two years. Janet Dudrow and J. Richard Fowler, "A Report to the Management Policy Committee" (Minneapolis: Northwestern National Bank of Minneapolis, Social Policy Task Force on Work and the Family, 1981).