Workplace stress - how do you measure it?

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This feature was provided by the Institute for Employment Studies

In response to the growing demands to know how best to measure stress in the workplace, the Health & Safety Executive (HSE) has commissioned the first ever major review of measures of workplace stressors (ie, measures of those aspects or 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).

Organisations are required by law carry out risk assessments for workplace stress, and many questionnaires which measure stress have been developed for this purpose - but just how good are they? Do they really measure stress in a reliable and valid way? And, do they really provide organisations with the information they need to tackle workplace stress?

In a paper presented last week at the British Psychological Society Occupational Psychology Conference, 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.

Study and Main Findings
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 is 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.

Even where there is quite a lot of evidence for particular stress measures, the results are inconsistent and mixed in a number of ways, suggesting that these stress measures are not very reliable tools for assessing stress in the workplace.

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 show if the stressful aspects of work tapped by these measures actually lead to ill health.
Dr Jo Rick (Principal Research Fellow, Institute for Employment Studies) 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 (Senior Lecturer in Organizational Psychology, 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.’

Implications of the research
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 using such measures 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.

It is not clear, therefore, that using these measures either on their own or as part of a broader stress assessment process, fulfils the requirements of health and safety legislation to identify and control those aspects of work that are likely to lead to ill health or harm.

While more information is needed about the reliability and validity of existing stress measures, the many problems identified by this study raise questions about the validity of this type of approach. Of greater importance is the need to consider new methods and techniques which organisations can use to accurately diagnose and manage harmful aspects of work.

The report, A Critical Review of Psychosocial Hazard Measures (CRR 356/2001), is available for free download (filesize: 900kb)

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