In My Words: Is workplace stress a worldwide problem?

  • Blog
  • 04 February 2016

Winner of the Indigogold Work Psychology Innovation Award 2015, Sara Estevez Cores, of King’s College London, explains the motivation behind her MSc project and what the award win means to her.

The 2015 HSE report shows that 9.9 million working days were lost to stress, anxiety and depression in the UK in the year. Similarly, a recent Forbes article indicates that workplace stress is costing between $125bn and $190bn per year in US healthcare spending.

Is workplace stress a worldwide problem? And if so, can we do anything about it? The answer isn’t clear. During my MSc, we were presented with a variety of views on this issue; from guest speakers who considered ‘workplace stress’ nearly an epidemic that needed immediate attention, to those who described stress as a ‘modern myth’.

Intrigued by the disagreeing positions on this issue, I decided to explore it further for my dissertation. I became particularly interested in learning whether stress interventions in the workplace actually work. Are companies wasting money trying to address the problem or do interventions actually yield positive results?

There is a large amount of research on workplace stress interventions, but the evidence is conflicting. Examining this problem through a meta-analytical approach seemed the right fit, given the rise of ‘big data’ and the emphasis on implementing evidence-based practices at work.

To determine the effectiveness of stress interventions in the workplace, we tightened our study criteria – selecting only journal articles that had randomised participants in study and control groups – and explored how the interventions impacted specific outcome variables, including stress, anxiety, burnout, general health and absenteeism.

Our results – presented at the 2015 Indigogold MSc Work Psychology Innovation Award – showed that stress interventions were very effective at reducing self-reported feelings of stress and state anxiety (the temporary feeling of anxiety).

They were also effective at reducing trait anxiety (individuals’ predetermined predisposition to anxiety) and emotional exhaustion. Similarly, they improved general health.

However, not all interventions had the same results. Relaxation interventions – such as yoga or meditation – were particularly effective at reducing perceived feelings of stress. Cognitive interventions – such as cognitive behavioural therapy – were effective at reducing emotional exhaustion and improving general health. Multimodal interventions – a combination of two or more types of interventions – were effective at improving general health.

Despite these findings, interventions did not have a significant impact on absenteeism.

During the recent Indigogold networking event, I had the opportunity to discuss these results with academics and practitioners. They suggested potential future research directions and highlighted interesting findings for the industry. The event was very inspirational – seeing the amazing work fellow MSc students had done – and also educational, helping me better understand how academic research could be implemented at the organisational level.

The event was an invaluable source of ideas. It was refreshing to see a boutique consultancy like Indigogold establish a channel of communication between scholars and practitioners. Research should not exist in a vacuum, and Indigogold helps research findings move beyond the scope of a simple MSc dissertation.

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