2012. Vol.3, No.12A, 1202-1207
Published Online December 2012 in SciRes (http://www.SciRP.org/journal/psych) http://dx.doi.org/10.4236/psych.2012.312A178
Copyright © 2012 SciRes.
Psychological Capital as a Buffer to Student Stress
Laura Riolli1*, Victor Savicki2, Joseph Richards3
1College of Business Administration, California State University, Sacramento, USA
2Western Oregon University, Monmouth, USA
3College of Business Administration, California State University, Sacramento, USA
Received September 29th, 2012; revised October 23rd, 2012; accepted November 23rd, 2012
This study examined the influence of psychological capital (PsyCap), on the well-being of university un-
dergraduates during an academic semester. PsyCap, a recently developed, higher-order construct, applied
to the world of work has been hypothesized to aid employees cope with stressors in the workplace. The
current study extends this concept to work in the academic environment. Psychological capital is hy-
pothesized to empower students with the necessary metal strength to cope up with adverse circumstances.
Among undergraduate students from a university in the Western US, Psychological Capital (PsyCap) me-
diated between stress and indices of psychological and physical well-being. In the case of Psychological
Symptoms and Health Problems, PsyCap buffered the impact of stress so that the relationship between
stress and negative outcomes was reduced. In the case of Satisfaction with Life, PsyCap augmented a
positive psychological outcome. We discuss implications for research on resilience to academic stress, the
power of the PsyCap construct to effect positive psychological outcomes in a variety of student situations,
and implications for educators in developing and promoting positive outcomes based on this valuable
Keywords: Psychological Capital; Stress; Coping; Positive Outcomes
Psychological Capital as a Buffer to Student
Academic stressors pose a threat to the psychological and
physical well-being to the estimated 19 million college and stu-
dents enrolled in college in Fall 2009. College students are
particularly prone to stress and there is a clear link between
student stress and illness (Houghton et al., 2012). In fact, psy-
chological distress among university students was found to be
significantly higher than among the general population (Adlaf,
Gliksman, Demers, & Newton-Taylor, 2001; Stallman, 2010).
College students face a number of stressors ranging from the
demands of their academic coursework to challenges in man-
aging interpersonal relationships (Houghton et al., 2012). Un-
dergraduate students are subject of continuous evaluation such
as weekly tests and papers (Wright, 1964). One study suggests
that exams and examination results are the most important
causes of stress for students (Roddenberry & Renk, 2010).
Students are often under high pressure to earn good grades and
to obtain a degree (Hirsch & Ellis, 1996). Excessive homework,
unclear assignments, and uncomfortable classrooms are other
sources of academic stress (Kohn & Frazer, 1986). In addition,
relations with faculty members and time pressures may also be
sources of academic stress aside academic requirements (Sgan-
Cohen & Lowental, 1988). A measure of stress in college stu-
dents is the dropout rate. According to US News and World
Report (Bowler, 2009), approximately thirty percent of students
enrolled in universities drop out after their first year and half
never graduate. The college completion rates in the United
States have decreased for more than three decades (Bowler,
2009). Clearly academic stressors take a toll on students in a
variety of ways.
As pointed out by the positive psychology literature, some
individuals are unable to curb the psychological impact of
stressors and they suffer physical and psychological health
symptoms (Youssef & Luthans, 2007). Other individuals have
the capacity to rebound and experience little or no change in
their capacity to function. According to Tugade & Fredrickson
(2004), these latter individuals demonstrate psychological re-
siliency; that is, effective adaptation and coping in the face of
adversity. Individuals who believe that they can do something
about their stress have a more positive psychological adaptation
relative to those who do not hold such beliefs (Roddenberry &
Renk, 2010). One important research question, then, concerns
identifying factors that distinguish those who cope more effec-
tively with academic stress. According to previous research,
individual differences in resilient aspects of personality, such as
dispositional optimism, are favorably associated with psycho-
logical adjustment in college students (Brissette, Scheir, &
Carver, 2002). However, research has not comprehensively
tested the strength of resilient personality on health symptoms,
life satisfaction, and psychological symptoms with students.
This study examines the relationship between academic stress,
health symptoms, life satisfaction, and psychological symptoms
and the mediating role of characteristics associated with stress-
resisting cognitive strategies in a sample of university students.
Individual differences in stress-resilient cognitive strategies are
predicted to mitigate the effects of stress on various indices of
well-being among college students.
The current research addresses the need for research on the
experience of academic stress, going beyond previous studies
on academic stress such as time management, and leisure
satisfaction and other studies about the transitional nature of
L. RIOLLI ET AL.
freshmen college life (Ross, Niebling, & Heckert, 1999). Study-
ing how resilient cognitive factors alleviate students’ reaction to
academic stress becomes important to finding ways to reduce
academic stress-related problems during their academic careers
as well as afterwards (Burris, Brechting, Salsman, & Carlson,
Academic Stress and Psychological Symptoms,
Health Symptoms, and Satisfaction with Life
A disconcerting trend in college student health is the reported
increase in student stress (Sax, 1997; Stallman, 2010). Acade-
mic stressors include the student's perception of the extensive
knowledge base required and the perception of an inadequate
time to develop it (Carveth, Gesse, & Moss, 1996). Each seme-
ster students report experiencing academic stress at certain
times with the greatest sources of academic stress ensuing from
taking and studying for exams, competition, and the large
amount of content to master in a small amount of time
(Abouserie, 1994). More disconcerting is the finding that stu-
dents suffering from psychological distress may consider this
condition “normal” and not seek relief (Stallman, 2010). For
the purposes of the present study, we adapt from Cavanaugh,
Boswell, Roehling, and Boudreau, (2000) the concept of stu-
dent challenge stressors which are school-related demands or
circumstances that, although potentially stressful, have associ-
ated potential gains for individuals.
Students exposed to such stressors report adverse physical
health outcomes, including poor self-reported health status, a
greater number of medical problems and psychological im-
pairment (Murphy & Archer, 1996; Stallman, 2010). The lit-
erature on stress in adolescent populations is limited by a focus
on negative indicators of health (i.e., psychopathology), with
less attention paid to important positive indicators of adolescent
functioning (e.g., life satisfaction). One model of studying
stress includes indicators that measure beyond a negative or
neutral point to desirable levels of functioning focusing on
adolescent social-emotional development (e.g., subjective well-
being) (Roeser, Eccles, & Sameroff, 2000). Using this model,
health can be examined in terms of traditional indicators of
psychopathology as well as the presence of positive indicators
of optimal functioning, such as happiness (i.e., life satisfaction).
Such a focus on positive individual traits and experiences is
consistent with the intent of the positive psychology movement
(Seligman & Csikszentmihalyi, 2000). Previous research indi-
cates that the more stress students experience, the lower their
levels of life satisfaction (Chang, 1998).
Adaptive Abilities and Resilient Personalities
Academic stressors that may contribute to the development
of problems ranging from concentration difficulty, fatigue, and
anxiety, to eating disorders, and other illnesses. And yet,
whereas many young adults encounter psychological distress
which often disrupts the completion of normal developmental
and educational tasks, others do not suffer such consequences.
What distinguishes young adults who adapt with only limited
psychological and physical effects from those who suffer a
great deal? One explanation may draw from psychological
abilities and traits that facilitate or hamper adjustment to aca-
demic stress conditions.
Some young adults with more stress-resilient personalities
suffer fewer health degradation in response to the same expo-
sure. These individuals have “positive” traits and abilities (e.g.,
optimism, positive emotionality, hardiness, hope, ego resilience)
which correlate negatively with physical and psychological
health symptoms (Seligman, 1998; Tugade & Fredrickson,
2004). Psychological capital (PsyCap), is a meta-concept that
incorporates various traits that have been found to foster psy-
chological resilience. PsyCap is defined as:
“an individual’s positive psychological state of development
and is characterized by: 1) having confidence (self-efficacy) to
take on and put in the necessary effort to succeed at challeng-
ing tasks; 2) making a positive attribution (optimism) about
succeeding now and in the future; 3) persevering toward goals
and, when necessary , redirecting paths to goals (hope) in order
to succeed; and 4) when beset by problems and adversity, sus-
taining and bouncing back and even beyond (resilience) to
attain success.” (Luthans, Youssef, & Avolio, 2007: p. 3).
PsyCap is operationalized by combining optimism, hope, ef-
ficacy, and ego resilience (Peterson, Walumbwa, Byron, &
Myrowitz, 2009). These separate measures have been found to
differentiate persons on different criteria of well-being (Block
& Kremen, 1996; Scheier & Carver, 1985; Snyder, Irving, &
Anderson, 1991). The combination of these capacities have
been proposed by Peterson et al. (2009) to comprise a reliable
higher-order construct whose composite is a potentially robust
predictor of coping and health. Initial research in the Indus-
trial-organizational psychology field confirms a positive rela-
tionship between PsyCap and well-being (Culbertson, Mills, &
Fullagar, 2010) as well as other important work attitudes, be-
haviors, and performance (Avey, Reichard, Luthans, & Mhatre,
We predict that students who maintain higher PsyCap will
perceive the academic environment as being less distressing
and more than likely to see the positive elements that contribute
to their overall well-being. For example, despite a very stressful
environment, an optimistic, hopeful, efficacious, and ego resil-
ient person is likely to believe he or she has sufficient resources
to prevent being overwhelmed and experience debilitating dis-
We also anticipate that persons scoring high on PsyCap will
perceive the environment as maintaining more challenging
aspects, with the potential for benefits such as enjoyment,
learning, and personal growth. Research suggests that people
can be particularly adaptive to demands they find challenging
(Lepine, Podsakoff, & Lepine, 2005). More optimistic person-
alities tend to see the positive aspects associated with new de-
mands. Likewise, hope is associated with the salience of per-
sonal goals (hope-path) and with confidence that goal accom-
plishment will enable one to improve one’s life (hope-agency).
Together, these factors suggest that persons high in PsyCap will
more readily withstand stress and maintain physical and psy-
chological well-being and happiness in the face of academic
stress. These types of resilient adaptive personality and cogni-
tive differences have been proposed to mediate the effects of
stress on well-being for college students. Thus, if PsyCap actu-
ally enhances adaptation to stressors, we should expect to find
that among students who are exposed to the same stressful cir-
cumstances, those with higher PsyCap will have better health
and well-being. This suggests the following hypotheses:
The general hypothesis is that psychological capital will
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L. RIOLLI ET AL.
mitigate the effects of stress on various indices of psychological
well-being. Specifically, we hypothesize the following:
Hypothesis 1: Student stress will be significantly related to
reports of psychological symptoms (i.e., anxiety, somatic com-
plaints, and depression), satisfaction with life, and health pro-
H1A: Student Stress will be positively related to psy-
H1B: Student Stress will be negatively related to satisfaction
H1C: Student Stress will be positively related to health
Hypothesis 2: Psychological Capital will be significantly re-
lated to reports of psychological symptoms (i.e., anxiety, so-
matic complaints, and depression), satisfaction with life, and
H2A: PsyCap will be negatively related to psychological
H2B: PsyCap will be positively related to satisfaction with
H2C: PsyCap will be negatively related to health problems
Hypothesis 3: PsyCap will mediate the effects of student
stress on psychological symptoms, life satisfaction, and health
Participants were 141 organizational behavior, business stu-
dents from a university in the Western US Average age was
23.64 years with a range from 19 to 44 years. Males were 54%
and females 46%. The classes were populated mostly by Jun-
iors (40.4%), Seniors (30.5%) and fifth year students (23.4%).
On average they maintained 15.24 hours per week in outside
jobs while in school, and had an average of 5.67 years of pre-
vious work history.
Student Stress. Student challenge stressors, as defined by Ca-
vanaugh, Boswell, Roehling, and Boudreau, (2000) are school-
related demands or circumstances that, although potentially
stressful, have associated potential gains for individuals; e.g.
“Time pressures I experience in school,” and “The number of
projects and or assignments I have in school.” This six item
scale used a 5 point Likert scale from 1 = Produces no stress, to
5 = Produces a great deal of stress. Alpha for the current sample
Satisfaction with Life Scale (SWLS). The SWLS is a five item
questionnaire using a seven point Likert scale to rate overall
satisfaction with life using questions such as “In most ways my
life is close to my ideal” (Diener, Emmons, Larsen, & Griffin,
1985). The SWLS can be viewed as a measure of psychological
adjustment since the scale demonstrated moderately strong
criterion validity with several measures of psychological well-
being (Diener, Emmons, Larsen, & Griffin, 1985 pp. 72-73).
Alpha for the current sample was .890.
Psychological symptoms. Psychological well-being/strain
was measured based on the average of four sub-scales from the
Brief Symptom Inventory (BSI) (Derogatis & Melisaratos,
1983). The five to six item symptom cluster scales included
were Somatization: distress arising from perceptions of bodily
dysfunction; Depression: dysphoria and lack of motivation and
energy; Anxiety: nervousness, panic attacks, apprehension,
dread; and Hostility: thoughts, feelings or actions of anger.
Coefficient alphas for the sub-scales were Somatization .845,
Depression .852, Anxiety .827, Hostility .802.
Health Problems. The physical health questions (25) of the
Lifestyle Questionnaire (Engs & Aldo-Benson, 1985) were
summed. Students indicated how frequently they suffered the
specific health problems over the month previous; e.g. “heada-
che,” “cough,” “stomach upset.” The test-retest reliability coef-
ficient for this instrument was reported by the authors as .89.
Psychological Capital (PsyCap), Psychological capital is
conceptualized as a combination of efficacy, optimism, resil-
ience, and hope (Luthans, Youssef, & Avolio, 2007). The mea-
sure used in this study is the sum of normalized scores from
several well-known instruments. Efficacy was drawn from the
Professional Efficacy scale of the Maslach Burnout Inventory
(Student Survey, MBI-SS) The MBI-SS was constructed by
Schaufeli, Martinez, Marques-Pinto, Salanova, and Bakker
(2002). It measures students’ feelings while they study. The 6
item Professional Efficacy scale was responded to on 7-point
Likert scale is used, from 0 (never) to 6 (always). The alpha for
this sample was .778. Dispositional optimism was measured
using the 4 item optimism sub-scale of the Life Orientation
Test (LOT) (Scheier & Carver, 1985). Alpha for the current
sample was .755. Psychological resilience was measured using
the Ego-Resiliency Scale (Block & Kremen, 1996) which as-
sesses the capacity to respond effectively to changing situ-
ational demands, especially frustrating or stressful encounters.
This scale consists of 14 items, each responded to on a 4-point
Likert scale, ranging from 1 (does not apply at all) to 4 (applies
very strongly) For the current sample, the alpha reliability
was .748. Hope was measured using two components of hope
developed by Snyder and his colleagues (Snyder, Cheavens, &
Sympson, 1997): Hope Agency (four items), the degree to
which individuals felt that they might be able to act to achieve a
positive outcome, and Hope Path (four items), the degree to
which an individual could see a way or path toward a positive
outcome. All hope items were rated using an eight point Likert
scale ranging from 1 = Definitely false, to 8 = Definitely true.
Alphas for the current sample were Hope Agency = .829, Hope
Path = .806.
Participants responded to the measures at two different times.
First, after mid-term exams, but prior to the deadlines for class
papers and final exams. At this time they responded to the
PsyCap measures, and reported various demographic informa-
tion. The second time point was directly upon completing the
class final exam. At this point they responded to the BSI,
SWLS, Health Problems, and the Student Stress questions. All
responses were kept confidential. Students received extra credit
in their classes for their participation.
Confirmatory Factor An alysis
We conducted a confirmatory factor analysis to verify the
higher-order factor of PsyCap. In this model, the first order
indicator variables were the scale items. The secondary-factor
model showed good model fit, χ2 = 481.21, df = 197, p < .01;
Copyright © 2012 SciRes.
L. RIOLLI ET AL.
NFI = .96; GFI = .95; CFI = 97; RMSEA = .05. The standard-
ized factor loadings for the higher-order factor of trait PsyCap
are .63 (optimism), .78 (hope), .87 (efficacy), and .80 (ego re-
silience), and the standardized factor loadings for the four
first-order factors ranged from .47 to .75. Based on this support
for the higher-order PsyCap model, the aggregated means of the
four facets were used to index PsyCap in the subsequent analy-
Stress, PsyCap, and Psychological and Health
Symptoms and Satisfact io n with Life
Table 1 illustrates the relation of research variables to each
other. An examination of Table 1 shows that hypothesis 1 is
supported since Student Stress was significantly positively
correlated with psychological symptoms and health problems,
and inversely correlated with satisfaction with life. Hypothesis
2 was supported since PsyCap was significantly inversely cor-
related with psychological symptoms and health problems, and
positively correlated with satisfaction with life. Both student
stress and psychological capital operate in the predicted manner.
A mediation analysis, following Barron and Kenney (1986)
tested impact of individual accumulation of the personal re-
sources associated with Psychological Capital.
Mediation analysis is a two step process commonly under-
taken using hierarchical multiple regression. The question an-
swered is whether or not a mediating variable, in this case Psy-
Cap, accounts for some or all of the variance that relates two
other variables. In the current study the independent variable
was Student Stress, and the dependent variables were Psycho-
logical Symptoms, Satisfaction with Life, and Health Problems.
Table 2 shows the results of the mediation analyses. The key to
accepting the mediating action of a third variable (PsyCap) is
whether or not it is significantly related to both the IV and DV,
and if, when added in step 2 of the hierarchical regression, the
beta for the IV is reduced because some part of its relationship
is accounted for by the mediating variable. As Table 2 reveals,
Psychological Capital is a sufficiently strong mediator that it
deprives Student Stress of its statistical significance in step 2 of
the hierarchical regressions with both Satisfaction with Life,
and with Health Problems. With Psychological Symptoms,
PsyCap adds to the significance of the regression, but only
partially mediates the relationship between Student Stress and
Psychological Symptoms. In all three cases, Psychological
Capital demonstrates that it mediates between stress and psy-
chological or physical well-being. In the case of Psychological
Symptoms and Health Problems, PsyCap buffers the impact of
stress so that the relationship between stress and negative out-
comes is reduced. In the case of Satisfaction with Life, PsyCap
augments a positive psychological outcome. In relation to a
variety of measures of student well-being, psychological capital
shows its mediating power.
Psychological Capital was not related to any demographic
characteristics of the sample; e.g. age, years of work, gender.
Yet one interesting finding suggested by Avey, Luthans, Smith,
and Palmer (2010) was supported. In a separate analysis of the
current sample, PsyCap was significantly related to stress ap-
Means, SDs, and correlations for major variables.
MeanSD 1 2 3 4
Student Stress 3.470.77
with Life 5.05 1.20 –.27**
Symptoms 3.29 2.89.31** –.37**
ealth Problems 21.9 25.24.21* –.04 .44**
Capital 0.00 0.71 –.28** .49** –.29** –.22**
Note: *p < .05, **p < .01.
Mediation analyses for psychological capital with student stress and
three well-being measures.
Mediation Analyses B SE B
Psychologic al Symptoms
Step 1 Student Stress 1.156 .293 .318***
Step 2 Student Stress .930 .299 .256**
Psychological Capital –.918 .343 –.219**
Satisfaction with Life
Step 1 Student Stress –.409 .123 –.276***
Step 2 Student Stress –.212 .115 –.143
Psychological Capital .771 .131 .456***
Step 1 Student Stress 6.428 2.514 .212**
Step 2 Student Stress 4.886 2.589 .161
Psychological Capital –6.285 2.976 –.180*
Note: *p < .05, **p < .01, ***p < .001.
praisals as operationalized by Ferguson, Matthews, and Cox
(1999). Psychological Capital showed significant positive cor-
relations with the appraisal of Challenge (r = .367, p < .01), and
negative correlations with Threat (r = –.240, p < .01), and Loss
(r = –.315, p < .01). This finding supports theorizing that higher
levels of PsyCap may allow individuals to view events more
positively, less negatively, and thus engage in more productive
coping styles. This presumed connection must be tested further.
The academic work environment for students contains many
of the same difficulties evident in an organizational or business
environment. Stressors may manifest in different stripes, but
the impact of those stressors on student well-being can have a
variety of negative psychological, health, and behavioral effects
that may reduce student effectiveness, cause high levels of dis-
tress, and in the long run deprive the economy and the nation of
valuable, educated contributors. The study of psychological
capital, as a potential antidote to the effects of stress, suggests
that this higher-order concept may offer an avenue to boost
Copyright © 2012 SciRes. 1205
L. RIOLLI ET AL.
student immunity to stressors, or even to shape the way in
which they appraise and define events to reframe them as moti-
vational challenges rather than debilitating threats. Each indi-
vidual construct of optimism, hope, efficacy, and ego resiliency
is imperfect in representing general resilience to stress, and thus
their common factor should provide a more complete index of
the domain. The current study ported the concept of psycho-
logical capital into the student, academic work context.
Reports of psychological capital measured well prior to an
acute stress situation (final exams and term’s end) correlated as
hypothesized to three measures of student well-being (psycho-
logical symptoms, health symptoms, and satisfaction with life).
In addition, psychological capital buffered stressors with the
negative stress outcomes, and augmented the positive outcome.
One suggested mechanism for these mediating effects is that
psychological capital may be related to more positive and less
negative cognitive appraisals of stress.
Implications for university educators include a focus on as-
pects of psychological capital within the academic curriculum.
Psychological capital may be as, or even more, valuable as a
resource for students than is traditional academic content, since
PsyCap helps students persevere in their studies in a psycho-
logically and physically healthier manner. The notion that Psy-
Cap can influence the adaptation of students to face stressful
events such as exams and tests, is itself a valuable piece of
information that could be used for designing customized eva-
luation tools that will adapt to each student’s particular circum-
Training students to develop more optimistic explanatory
styles, lower levels of distressed thinking, and more construc-
tive envisioning of the future, that persons scoring high on trait
PsyCap engage in naturally, may help less psychologically
resilient students. Seligman in his book “learned optimism”
talks about developing more optimistic appraisals and to use
other strategies that foster resilience (Seligman, 1998). Thus,
such training programs might be successful in terms of im-
proving students long-term health outcomes and it would sug-
gest to universities the benefits of promoting a more “positive”
psychological outlook as part of general training that can be
administered in the classroom, emphasizing elements of Psy-
Cap such as developing an optimistic explanatory style and
avoiding distressed thinking. Fortuitously, Luthans, et al.,
(2006) have demonstrated that PsyCap can be developed in
short training classroom interventions, as well as in an online
format (Luthans, Avey, & Patera, 2008).
One limitation of this study concerns the potential gener-
alizability of the findings. The extent to which the current re-
sults extend to other organizational settings beyond academia
remains to be seen. The academic context of this study is very
focused. Our sample was drawn from a single campus; future
research should validate our findings with a more diverse
sample. As with studies without a true experimental design, it is
not possible to assume causality.
There is a need to examine how young adults who experience
academic stress over a prolonged period of time either adapt to
it or fail to cope with it effectively. The current study suggests
that the construct of psychological capital may serve a substan-
tial role in differentiating those who prove to be more or less
adaptive to stressful environments. Luthans, Avolio et al.
(2007), suggest that strategies can be developed to better shape
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