Workplace Stress Management
Interventions: What Works Best?
Research Brief by Stuart D. Sidle, Assistant Professor,
Department of Psychology, University of New Haven
ave you ever experienced the stress of having too many choices? Ironically, managers who want to reduce the stress levels of their employees may feel overwhelmed by the many stress management interventions they have to choose from. Adding to the selection challenge is that interventions often differ tremendously in terms of cost, time, and practicality.
Considering the effort and expense involved, it would be helpful to know which intervention approaches are most effective at reducing employee stress. Fortunately, new research helps us sort through the many approaches to stress management. In their recent study, Katherine Richardson and Hannah Rothstein of Baruch College compare the outcomes of a variety of workplace stress management interventions.
Specifically, Richardson and Rothstein examined the results of 36 experimental studies of stress management interventions from a variety of work environments and synthesized the findings. Their synthesis of results across these studies, known as a meta-analysis, allowed Richardson and Rothstein to compare the efficacy of various workplace stress management interventions. In doing so, they classified interventions as primary, secondary, or tertiary.
Primary interventions attempt to alter the source of the workplace stress by making changes such as redesigning jobs to give employees greater flexibility or more decision control. Secondary interventions help employees better recognize and manage stress symptoms as they occur. Examples of secondary interventions include courses that teach skills such meditation or time management.
Finally, tertiary interventions are designed to help employees recover from stressful events. For example, an organization may have an Employee
Assistance Program (EAP) providing employees
access to counseling to help them recover from challenging circumstances.
Richardson and Rothstein’s meta-analysis included several studies of primary interventions aimed at altering stressful work environments, but most of the studies they examined focused on secondary interventions such as relaxation training. None of the studies in this meta-analysis involved tertiary interventions such as EAPs.
That said, Richardson and Rothstein were able to sort through the outcomes of stress management interventions across a large number of participants representing diverse occupations and nationalities. For example, one study included office workers in the United Kingdom, another looked at hazardous waste workers in the United States, and a third focused on nurses in Taiwan.
In gathering these experiments for their analysis, Richardson and Rothstein created a diverse list of primary and secondary stress management interventions. These were further divided into one of five subcategories for comparison purposes: cognitive-behavioral, relaxation, organizational, alternative, and multimodal.
Cognitive-behavioral approaches are secondary interventions that help employees rethink their beliefs about challenging situations. Specifically, individuals learn to recognize how their pessimistic and often distorted thoughts of gloom and doom lead to stress. Next, they learn to replace their overly pessimistic thinking with more realistic or more optimistic thinking.
Relaxation approaches such as meditation, deep breathing, and progressive muscle relaxation are also secondary interventions. They teach individuals to calm their thoughts and become aware of their tension. These interventions do not usually remove the source of stress. Instead, they help individuals remain calmer and focused in the face of workplace stress.
Organizational approaches are primary interventions in that they focus on workplace changes to create a less stressful work environment, usually by increasing employee control and