research-based stress assessment

Unmanaged stress can damage the psychological and physiological well-being of your team, sabotaging performance. A reliable way of measuring the stress levels within your organization is important.

Companies have a moral and legal obligation to assess the psychosocial hazards that their team members are exposed to and to make plans within the organization to reduce the opportunity for  psychological damage. Every leader wants to manage stress and increase productivity, but you cannot manage what remains unmeasured.

Unreasonable workloads and repetitive work are the main personal stressors. When an unreasonable high workload is imposed on team members this leads to:

  • poor work quality,
  • declining work satisfaction,
  • burnout and,
  • increased leaving intent.

There are a host of negative health and behavioural effects that come with psychosocial hazards and a direct link between heavy workloads and an increase in negative behaviour such as:

  • counterproductive workplace attitudes,
  • drug or alcohol abuse,
  • absenteeism,
  • bullying,
  • declining work engagement and,
  • a drop in performance.

Repetitive work exacerbates the negative effects of a stressful organisational environment. Repetitive work, when coupled with a lack of control, threatens the psychological well-being of team members.

Although there’s a lot of research on workplace stress, the majority of it focuses on gathering information through self reporting. These are open to influence by the team member’s biased, subjective interpretation of what is happening in the objective world and this makes it harder to ascertain the truth. In response, researchers developed a purely objective assessment that would assess the stress levels of team members independently of the their subjective interpretation.

The problem here is that the very same objective stressor can trigger a acute stress reaction in one team member and no reaction in another. Primarily due to differences in personality and social status within the organization. This makes it impossible to use a purely objective approach to assess the level of stress within any given organization.

When a purely subjective assessment is insufficient and a purely objective assessment is equally insufficient, then we need a hybrid approach that takes elements of subjective interpretation, from the team member being assessed, and place that within an objective framework. This hybrid method, properly weighted, will paint a more accurate picture of organisational stress levels.

The Research-based Stress Assessment combines quantitative and qualitative approaches through the assessment of workplace stressors with four different data types:

1. Organisational archival data (organisational indicator sheet);

2. Qualitative data (focus groups);

3. Worker perception (questionnaire);

4. Observational data (observational checklist).

By considering these four data sources together we reduce bias. The purpose of this is to allow you, as a manager, to get a reliable measurement of your team member’s stress profile. This provides a higher resolution organisational stress profile compared to a single analytical tool.


ReSt Assessment

The goal of a ReSt Assessment is not to measure the stress levels of each individual within an organization. It is designed to calculate where your organization stands as a whole. To achieve this, we make use of two tools:  1) a structured self-report questionnaire and 2) a structured observational checklist.


Self-report questionnaire

There are two parts to this questionnaire, the first part measures on psychosocial risks of workload and effort-reward imbalance while the second part measures psychological stress and emotional exhaustion.

1a Workload

Workload can be measured by using the ERIS (efforts-reward imbalance scale). Three targets are an effort to be perception of workload coupled with job pressure. These are to use use a five point Likert scaling from one ‘strongly disagree’ to five,  ‘strongly agree’. Higher scores in this area are indicative of a higher  workload.

1b Effort-reward imbalance

We measure effort-reward imbalance by using our ERI scale. This measures effort, reward and overcommitment using 5 point Likert scales.

2a Psychological Stress

Psychological well-being may be measured using parts of the General Health Questionnaire (GHQ-12). This focuses on perceived stress. Higher scores in this test are indicative of diminished psychological health.

2b Emotional Exhaustion

When you feel overextended and depleted of internal resources, this is symptomatic of emotional exhaustion. We can measure this using the Maslach Burnout Inventory-General Survey (MBI-GS).  This survey contains five items scored on a seven point scale. Higher scores on this survey indicate a higher level of emotional exhaustion.


Structured observational checklist

For every psychosocial hazard that is assessed during the self-reporting questionnaire, there must be a corresponding item on the observational checklist. For example, if we wanted to measure the burnout level within a department, we would not give the Observer a version of something like the MBI-GS. Instead the Observer would be asked to measure something objective such as the number of coffee or cigarette breaks a certain team member takes within a given period of observation. Such objective observations provide context for the subjective assessments collected from individual team members.

The Research-based Stress Assessment, has three main stages:

  1. Steering committee
  2. Data collection
  3. Analysis


Stage 1

Establish a steering committee to manage the assessment process. It is important that senior management is committed to the process from the outset and senior managers must be represented on the steering committee. Benefits of the ReSt Assessment include:

  • increased job satisfaction,
  • improved organisational learning,
  • strengthened team member’s commitment to the organization,
  • increased innovation and,
  • improved overall performance.

Between assessment cycles, it is the job of the steering committee to develop strategies that will improve the outcome of future ReSt Assessments.


Stage 2

At this stage we aim to gather as much relevant data as is reasonable, and this is achieved in 4 sub-stages.

Stage 2a – OIS

Observe organisational indicators in an objective manner. The tool for this job is the Organisational Indicators Sheet (OIS) to develop an initial map of the organization. This is a small but important step for the selection of the correct tools for the following stages. No two organisations are the same.

Substage 2b – Questionnaire

Questionnaires are the most reliable tool for measuring perceived psychosocial hazards in a workplace. This quantitative information provides a basis for comparison when more scattered data is collected in the next stage. Questionnaires conform to a stable and rational framework, but internally large parts are dynamic allowing for flexible application.

Each workplace has a unique stress profile classified into broad categories:

  1. job demands,
  2. workload,
  3. role conflicts,
  4. job resources,
  5. social support,
  6. job control.

Stage 2c – Focus Groups

Focus groups provide contextualised subjective information, giving an emotional snapshot of the organization. Each member of the focus group works in the same environment but perceives it uniquely. We learn from contrast.

The design of these focus groups is empirically founded. Each of the sessions begins with a structured discussion. This will provide context for the focus group.

Substage 2d – Observational Checklists (OC)

OCs allow us to objectively measure the psychosocial hazards of specific job roles. Instead of focusing on individual team members, Observers will be focus on individual roles, giving this substage a task-based perspective.

This will indicate which roles are more demanding and which events are presenting barriers to team members. Stressors disturb performance by producing conditions in the workplace that hinder progress towards the metagoal. However, these barriers only exists when no resources are provided to deal with these obstacles.

These are not easy things to measure objectively and so the indicators  must be chosen carefully and depend upon the data collect in stages 1-2c, the job role, and responsibility of the subject.


Stage 3

Finally, analyse all the collected data and calculate the organisation’s psychosocial hazard level (PHL Score). Before final scoring, the data should be discussed with the steering committee to allow for multiple interpretations of the data. The ReSt Assessment is part of the cyclical process of Research-based Stress Management.