How can we measure stress?

mäta stress

Nobody wants to be stressed, and we would all like to prevent stress in the workplace. But to do so, we must be able to measure stress in some way. So, how do we do it?

Methods of measuring stress

First and foremost, it’s important to define the meaning of “stress” because, let’s face it, it’s a very broad concept. Researchers define stress as experiencing demands from an external situation that exceed our ability to handle them. Which can lead to internal reactions. Are we interested in measuring the situation and if it triggers stress?  Or the experience of stress, namely, the acute or short-term reaction to the situation? Or do we want to measure if there’s a long-term affect or impact of stress on our health or productivity?

Measure stress using questionnaires

A situation that can be stressful is a poor work environment with exceedingly high demands or a low degree of influence. We often measure the work environment by using questionnaires. Then we assume that the mean value of the employees' answers is probably a strong representation of the truth. When employees are asked to take part in an employee survey, they may, for example, be asked if they feel low or high demands on themselves at work. They check the box that best correspond the feeling at the time.

From research, we know that these types of guesstimates have a strong connection with how employees feel, how productive they are, and whether they’ll stay at work or resign. The problem with this type of measurement is the subjectivity. We don’t know how much of the guesstimate depends on personality or personal attitude, rather than the situation that a person experiences. In addition, the workplace culture affect how open and honest the employees want to be in a survey.

We don’t know how much of the guesstimate depends on personality or personal attitude, rather than the situation that a person experiences. In addition, the workplace culture affect how open and honest the employees want to be in a survey. It is also possible to use questionnaires to measure common stress-related symptoms, like headaches, fatigue, stomach- or sleeping problems, etc. However, this type of measure can be difficult to analyze. It’s not uncommon for people to experience a burnout without previous warning signs. Many of us don’t have the level of self-awareness to notice the nuances of our wellbeing, in order to pick up early warning signs. Therefore, a person who is close to a burnout could claim that everything is fine when answering a survey.

Physiological measurements

Short-term or acute reactions to stress are those that occur immediately when you experience stress; for example, when you’re struggling with a tight deadline before you go to and pick up the kids from daycare. Everything from your pulse and blood pressure increasing, to you pumping out stress hormones such as adrenaline and cortisol in the blood, are examples of acute reactions to stress.

In research on stress, physiological measurements of stress have often been used, simply because they are more objective measurements. You can also ask people questions and get a subjective guesstimate. For example, “Do you feel stressed or excited right now?”. We’re then often surprised at how different we all are. And that we can perceive the same situation as stressful in such different degrees.

The long-term impact of stress is usually what we are interested in. Both in research and when we want to contribute to a healthy work environment in our workplaces. It’s often about measuring health and well-being—or the lack of it. The long-term affects of stress can be measured by following statistics of sick leave, or productivity or accidents, because stress-related illness is such a broad concept and impacts everything from productivity to cardiovascular disease, as well as accidents and fatigue syndrome among others.  A third way to measure the long-term effects (impact) of stress is through physiological indicators such as resting blood pressure, resting pulse, heart rate variability (HRV) and others.

Which stress measurement is best?

Which stress measurement is the best all depends on what you want to measure and what disadvantages you can endure.

Questionnaire survey (for the situation or long-term consequences)

  • Pros: I'ts cheap and easy to find. 
  • Cons: Point measurements, subjective, time consuming and the risk of low response rate. This often provides data long after the stress has arisen and requires the person to have self-awareness. 

Sick leave statistics, productivity measurements and other similar registers (for long-term consequences)

  • Pros: Tangible (for example, on sick leave or not), lower degree of subjectivity than self-reporting.
  • Cons: Data comes long after the stress has arisen, blunt measurement, tainted by other things (such as the doctor's willingness to diagnose sick leave or the quality of the productivity measure)

Physiological indicators (possible for all three parts)

  • Cons: Objective measurement, enables direct and continuous measurements, passive data collection (possibility of higher "response rate"), requires no self-insight or honesty.
  •  Cons: Data needs to be interpreted to be useable

This is how we do it at NudgeLabs

At NudgeLabs, we have chosen to work mainly with physiological indicators and to try to make them meaningful, impactful and easy to understand. With a small wristband that measures activity and collects biometric data, we can gather information continuously about both acute stress reactions and the long-term consequences of being in a stressful situation. Without bothering the user with a lot of questions all the time. In our first step in our journey to truly prevent stress-related illness, we place the information and tools for managing stress in the hands of healthy co-workers. So that they can continue to be healthy. In the next step, we’ll build our tools for employers to be able to see, in real time, which departments of the organization have changes in their stress levels. So that action can be implemented early and have the greatest impact.

Want to learn more?

Read what the researchers have to say:

Crosswell, A. D., & Lockwood, K. G. (2020). Best practices for stress measurement: How to measure psychological stress in health research. Health psychology open, 7(2), 2055102920933072. https://doi.org/10.1177/2055102920933072 Direct link to open the article: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC7359652/

Or contact us at NudgeLabs to talk about how you can prevent stress and increase wellbeing in your workplace.

About the Author

MSc in Psychology from Uppsala University, PhD from University of Oxford in workplace stress. Author of five books. Previously researcher at Karolinska Institutet, and Head of Clinic, deputy CEO and director of the board at Stressmottagningen.

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