Changing the way we measure stress

employee survey
Emilie biostress

Emilie Wielezysnki

Research and Content Intern

Introduction

The typical approach to workplace wellbeing is outdated and employee stress is not getting better, but for this to change the way we measure stress needs to change.

Let’s say you’re head of HR, and you routinely send out a wellbeing survey asking your employees to rate how stressed they are. As the years go by, your wellbeing survey indicates levels of stress have not lowered at all, and if anything, seem to be getting worse. This is despite your implementation of a wellbeing management program, following the NHS guidelines for coping with workplace stress and providing information on key areas such as sleep and mindfulness. Yet every year, the survey comes back with the same stark answer – your employees are stressed, and it is not getting better.

BIOStress dashboard

The problem with surveys

According to a 2022 Deloitte report, this dilemma is one faced rather commonly in the professional world. Approximately 2/3 of organizations surveyed stated that wellbeing management strategies were critical goals. Yet, workplace stress is at an all-time high. What if the problem wasn’t just in the interventions, which follow the proper guidelines and procedure, but how we’re considering the culprit: stress? Emerging evidence from the field of occupational neuroscience is showing that the collection of subjective, qualitative data is inferior to objective data in measuring workplace stress. Understanding why this is the case boils down to the fact that, despite your best efforts, individuals don’t always know why or when their body is stressed.

A landmark study by Biostress, UCL and Bath University recorded physiological measurements of stress and compared them to survey results for employees of a global healthcare firm. They found that although work was the most selected answer for why participants are stressed, in reality, over 70% of employees spent more time in ‘recovery’ – the opposite of stress – at work than anywhere else. Is this surprising? Probably. What these results show is that workplaces may be lower stress environment for many employees. How do we reconcile this with the fact that workplace stress is considered an ‘epidemic’ by the WHO, and responsible for trillion-dollar annual losses in revenue? By re-educating and reframing our understanding of stress. Ultimately, the common narrative about stress is inaccurate and leads to bias in the self-report data. Briefly, stress is not a bad thing, it’s not a disease – it is simply a physical response which is triggered unconsciously, often without us even knowing the cause. Our brain, however, will want to rationalise this response and that’s when we think of explanations as to why we suddenly feel stressed. And as we’ve seen, stress responses are often blamed on the workplace. This is how stress, which often originates outside the workplace can impact employee productivity, turnover and absenteeism, as they believe their job is actually the cause of this stress.

The importance of objective data

The importance of objective data, recorded through medical grade wearable devices, is reflected in another Biostress case study for a top automobile firm. Data collected from these devices were analysed using advanced algorithms determining type and intensity of stress, similar to strategies developed by the University of Tokyo. Biostress was then able to design stress management solutions implemented at both organisational and individual levels, resulting in a 15% increase in sales alongside a 62% increase in staff retention. These results are not often seen in typical wellbeing interventions. Creating effective and helpful strategies to manage employee wellbeing is important, not only for employee health, but for the company’s commercial performance too – but doing this will require a reframing in how we approach the problem. Objective measurement must be the first step.

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