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Measuring Workplace Stress – In A New Way

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workplace stress emwave pro-3 blog

Measuring Workplace Stress – In A New Way

Researchers studying the effects of stress on employees undertook a new approach in their research to improve upon what they said may be outdated and obsolete tools for evaluating workplace stress. As a result, they said, some of their findings were "astonishing."

The researchers, Adrian Low of the Hong Kong Association of Psychology, and study advisor HeartMath Institute Director of Research Dr. Rollin McCraty, used HeartMath’s emWave® Pro Plus as a quantitative assessment tool for the study. (Click this link to read the entire study: Emerging Dynamics of Workplace Stress of Employees in a Large Organization in Hong Kong.)

emWave® Pro Plus. This software program collects pulse data and translates the information from a subject’s heart rhythms into user-friendly graphics, allowing researchers to watch in real-time how thoughts and emotions affect the subject’s heart rhythms. Low and McCraty compared the results of study participants’ heart rate variability (the beat-to-beat changes in heart rate) with the Personal and Organizational Quality Assessment (POQA) and the Perceived Stress Scale (PSS), both of which have been in use for many years.

Surprise! Of particular surprise among their findings, according to the researchers, were significant positive correlations between both emotional stress and HRV and workers’ intention to quit their jobs and HRV. They said the higher the emotional stress employees who participated in the study faced, the healthier they were, in terms of their HRV. Low and McCraty suggested one indication of the study was that healthier, stressed-out employees report having higher intentions of quitting their jobs than less healthy employees.

Why The Study Matters. The researchers said the importance of this research was that it fulfilled an identified need to validate quantifiable stress measurements, especially in a corporate environment.

"Research on workplace stress measurements varied without much accuracy and effectiveness," they stated in the study. The validity of some tools being used to evaluate workplace stress is questionable, "as some questionnaires and survey questions contain outdated questions and unrepresented data that cannot accurately reflect today’s population of workplace employees."

Many researchers, business executives and organizational development consultants use questionnaires, surveys created and validated more than 25 years ago to assess workplace stress, they said, and some questionnaires still in use were developed more than 30 years ago.

The Participants. Eighty-five employees, about 61% of them female and 39% male, with a 500-employee company in Hong Kong participated in the study.

  • All participants were listed as full-time workers, with their weekly hours as follows: 21 percent worked 36 to 40 hours; 47 percent worked 41 to 50 hours; 17.6 percent worked 51 to 59 hours; and 14 percent worked more than 60 hours.
  • The ages of participants were as follows: About 43 percent were 21 to 30; 47 percent 31 to 40; about 8 percent 41 to 50; and only one was older than 50.

Why Workplace Stress Matters. The researchers cited the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health’s (NIOSH) definition of workplace stress, which was "the harmful physical and emotional responses that occur when the requirements of the job do not match the capabilities, resources, or (the) needs of the worker."

This study, which was published in the November issue of the professional journal, Emerald Insights, cited the following key facts:

  • Work and Stress. The American Psychological Association’s five-year stress study, published in 2011, reported that 70 percent of Americans said work was a contributing factor to stress. A 1999 NIOSH study showed that 40 percent of employees indicated their jobs were very or extremely stressful.
  • A Global Problem. A number of developed countries are experiencing workplace stress as an emerging global problem, with Canada and the United Kingdom reporting that workplace stress contributes to diseases, depression, injury and a decrease in organizational productivity.
  • Stress’s Cost in the Workplace. Researchers found stress costs businesses and organizations in the United States more than $300 billion annually in productivity loss, absenteeism, turnover, medical, legal and insurance costs. In Canada, workplace stress was found to cost $6 billion in Canadian dollars annually. In the United Kingdom, research focused on lost work days, finding an estimated annual loss of 200 million work days because of illnesses triggered by workplace stress.

Low and McCraty also authored another article about this study. The professional journal Heart and Mind published the article, Heart Rate Variability: New Perspectives on Assessment of Stress and Health Risk at the Workplace, in its January 2019 edition. Click the link to read it.

Implications for Office Work. In this section of their findings, the researchers explained the overall research implied "an average employee experiences a close to high level of workplace stress on a regular basis." This presents "a universal threat to organizational costs and workplace performance."

Emotional stress and relational tension are inherent in the workplace, they said, and emotional stress may deplete one’s internal resources regardless of whether one is healthy or not. Consequently, because employee turnover may occur when employees are dissatisfied with the workplace environment, it is "very critical to find new and effective tools such as HRV assessments to measure and monitor stress as well as having effective interventions to reduce and prevent workplace stress."

Recommended. Low and McCraty recommended that organizations should "implement organizational resilient strategies such as mindfulness psychology and integrative health coaching programs as an integral part of a strategic framework of change management initiatives. The act of being mindful for employees and leaders within an organization means to be aware in the present moment, having intention in thought and being purposeful in action."

Beneficial Outcomes. The authors said organizations that take steps to address stress in the workplace can realize a number of benefits, including "competitive advantages, employee engagement, decreased attrition, increased productivity, better well-being, leadership development, better collaboration leading to healthier organizational culture, climate, longevity and social coherence."

Going Forward. Low and McCraty said the findings of this study were promising, but advised that "future studies should continue to tap into HRV as an objective measure of mental health and workplace stress."

This study further recommended that a purpose of future related research would be to align various research in this area with the social and global coherence notion posited by HeartMath Institute.

"Future research," they said, "will continue to address topics ranging from stress to reducing violence, reducing health costs, emotional regulation, biofeedback interventions, stress management and even other nonworkplace topics such as the academic performance of children of different ages, PTSD, intuition and much more."