Getting the Measure of Workplace Stress

Management Services, April 2002 | Go to article overview

Getting the Measure of Workplace Stress


In response to the growing demands to know how best to measure stress in the workplace, the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) has commissioned the first ever major review of measures of workplace stressors (ie, measures of those aspects of characteristics of jobs, such as workload or lack of control, which, when present at excessive levels, are believed to lead to poor psychological or physical health).

In a paper presented at the British Psychological Society Occupational Psychology Conference recently, researchers provided findings from the first ever large scale review of stress measures. They highlight the strengths and weaknesses of different approaches to measuring stress and discuss the implications for organisations trying to measure and tackle workplace stress.

The research was undertaken by a team of independent organisational psychologists led by Dr Jo Rick from the Institute for Employment Studies (IES) and Dr Rob Briner from Birkbeck College, University of London. The study developed a set of rigorous standards that were used to evaluate over 25 different stress measures widely used in UK organisations. The findings of the review were surprising in a number of ways: The amount and quality of evidence about different measures was quite limited. There was only sufficient evidence to provide a detailed analysis for five measures. This lack of evidence suggests that many stress measures have not been adequately developed and that in many cases we do not know if these instruments are accurately measuring stress.

Perhaps the most surprising and serious problem was the almost complete absence of evidence about the predictive power of these stress measures. This is a particularly worrying issue as the main purpose in measuring stress is to assess those aspects of work that are likely to lead to health problems in order to change these harmful aspects of work. However, almost all the evidence reviewed was from one-off 'snap-shot' studies that cannot really show if the stressful aspects of work tapped by these measures actually lead to ill health.

Dr Jo Rick - IES Principal Research Fellow said: "I was very surprised by the lack of evidence linking the workplace stress measured by these scales to possible ill-health outcomes. This has serious implications for organisations using these measures to help them tackle stress at work."

Dr Rob Briner (Birkbeck College) added: "This report shows the need for a fundamental rethink of the way in which stress is measured at work and how more valid and reliable tools for assessing stress can be developed.

"Given the requirement for organisations to assess stress and the results of this study suggesting severe limitations of the available measures, a number of implications arise... organisations using commonly available stress measures may not be accurately measuring those aspects of the work environment that could lead to ill-health".

"This means that organisations may be focusing on changing aspects of work which are not necessarily harmful and at the same time failing to accurately diagnose real stress problems in the workplace. …

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