Sources and physiological measures of stress
Stressors originate from many sources, including life changes, daily hassles and workplace stressors. Life changes are occasional events incurring adjustments to lifestyle, like moving house. Self-report scales measure the impact of life events on health. Holmes & Rahe’s (1967) Social Readjustment Rating Scale (SRRS) measured stressful life events as life change units (LCUs), to find a positive correlation between LCU score and the chances of becoming ill. Daily hassles, everyday irritations and annoyances, like traffic jams, have a greater negative effect due to the elevated, continual level of stress they produce. There are also uplifts, regular positive experiences, like socialising with friends, which can neutralise the negative effects of daily hassles. Self-report scales like Kanner’s (1981) Hassles and Uplifts Scales demonstrate the harmful effects of daily hassles on health. Workplace stressors concern aspects of the work environment that exert a negative impact on health. Workload involves the number of tasks an individual has to complete within a set time, while control involves the degree of influence an individual has over their workload and job requirements. Physiological measures of stress concern objective, biological measurements of stress. For example, skin conductance response (SCR) measures electrical conductivity within the skin as a measure of psychological and physiological arousal.
Fig 14.3 Being stuck in traffic jams on the way to work is an example of a stressful daily hassle
Holmes & Rahe (1967) investigated the effect of life change stressors, after Holmes noticed he developed a cold every time his mother-in-law came to stay. They examined 5,000 patients’ medical records, making a list of 43 life events, of varying seriousness, which clustered in the months preceding illness. 100 judges were told ’marriage’ had a score of 500 and they then gave values to the other life events. From this the SRRS was developed, which measures the amount of stress experienced in a given time, as life change units (LCUs). Only six events were seen as more stressful than marriage, like death of a spouse. Individuals with high LCU scores for the last year were vulnerable to developing stress-related illnesses in the next year, a score of over 300 LCUs being classed as a major crisis, incurring an 80 per cent risk of illnesses like heart attacks, leukaemia and sports injuries.
• Kanner et al. (1981) found by studying 100 participants aged 45—64 years over a 12-month period that, although the effects of uplifts were unclear, daily hassles correlated with undesirable psychological symptoms and were a better predictor of illness than life events. This suggests that daily hassles do contribute to stress-related illness.
• Kivimaki (2006) performed a meta-analysis of 14 studies involving 80,000+ participants, to find that workload was positively correlated with risk of developing coronary heart disease, demonstrating the influence of workload upon stress-related illness.
• Marmot et al. (1997) found employees with low job control three times more likely to have heart attacks than those with high job control, suggesting that low job control negatively impacts on health.
• Villarejo (2012) found that SCR readings were able to measure participants’ stress levels when performing tasks involving varying levels of stress with 76.5 per cent accuracy, illustrating that SCR is a capable, though not perfect, method of measuring stress.
SCR measurements are useful, as they can be used continuously throughout research without participants really noticing them and are easy to perform and are of low cost.
Research illustrating the negative effects of workplace stressors has led to changes, like reducing workloads. This has lessened stress levels and therefore absenteeism, increasing profits for employers and better health for employees.
Life changes and daily hassles have a mediating effect on each other, for example the life change of divorce leading to the daily hassle of increased housework. This suggests their cumulative effects can be considered.
The SRRS scale has pre-determined scores for life events. However, individuals experience events in dissimilar ways. The sudden death of a loved one is devastating for some, but if the loved one has been suffering for a long time, it may be a welcome release.
It is difficult to isolate and test single workplace stressors and so therefore difficult to see which stressors have the most effect and what specific effects each has upon health.
SCR measurements are negatively affected by external factors, like changes in temperature, leading to inconsistent readings. Internal factors, like medication levels, also negatively affect measurements, reducing the effectiveness of SCR readings.
A practical application of research into life changes, daily hassles, workplace stressors and their measurements is that knowledge gained helps form effective therapies to counteract the negative effects of such stressors.