In our most recent Motivation Beyond Measure Forum we met with both forward thinking organizational leaders and outside consultants to talk about Best Practices for Measuring the Stress Levels of Employees. Coming into the forum our assumption was that leaders and consultants would want specific tools for accurately measuring the stress levels of people working in their organizations; however as often happens in our forum discussions, our participants shared some unexpected and very welcome ideas for better understanding what is going on within people’s individual stress experiences.

Alarming Stress Statistics

The awareness of organizational and employee stress has perhaps never been greater than it is right now. As we wrote about in an earlier MBM blog post, the Harvard Business Review’s current series on employee burnout has highlighted continually alarming trends, including that 89% of their survey respondents say that their work lives are getting worse and 85% report that their well-being has declined. According to a recent survey conducted by the Global Leadership Forecast, 86% of high-potential employees feel “used up” at the end of the workday. 66% of Human Resources professionals feel the same and about 44% of those leaders are considering changing companies.

Burnout: A Taboo Topic

While stress awareness seems to be at an all-time high, what may even be more distressing than the levels of reported employee stress is the apparent lack of acknowledgement or support from organizations themselves. A survey from FlexJobs and Mental Health America reports that only 21% of employees are able to have open and productive conversations about burnout with their HR departments and 56% said their HR departments did not encourage discussions on burnout. It would appear that as a whole, even if organizations recognize the ship is sinking very few leaders are willing to listen to the alarm, never mind grab a bucket and start bailing.

How to Measure Stress

When it comes to stress, measuring it can be a curious thing. On one hand, stress is pretty simple, when defined as “the result of a person’s perceived physiological and psychological inability to cope with their current view of reality.” In other words, when a person perceives that they can’t effectively respond either physically or psychologically to their current life demands, their body and brain jump into gear to help. Of course, the problem becomes that if the response isn’t effective in solving the perceived problem then the body and brain try and turn up the response higher and higher until either the problem is solved or the person burns out. Although beyond the intent of this article, there are a some very effective ways to manage stress at this level, namely by addressing a person’s perception and how it relates to their environment and reality.

On the other hand, stress is very complex considering that it is not only physiological and psychological but also emotional, behavioral, environmental, social, relational, and once again, perceptual. Stress is also strange, in that not everyone responds to the same stressful exposures in the same way; and yet work stress can be predicted based on the relationship of perceived effort vs. reward and degrees of demand vs. control. In many ways stress is as elusive as Bigfoot but also as common as the family pet.

The number of surveys, scales, and assessments for measuring stress are quite extensive, each one with a specific nuance which makes it more or less valid for any one particular situation. During our forum discussion, we introduced several scales ranging from non-validated, context specific scale surveys to our personal favorite validated measures, the Perceived Stress Scale and Motivational Mapping. Initially we were most interested in finding out more about which stress metrics leaders really wanted, however based on the discussion with forum participants our focus meaningfully turned to the most effective qualitative, rather than quantitative stress investigation methods.

Best Practices: Measuring Stress in the Workplace

For our group of participants, it was clear that they already knew high levels of people within their organizations were stressed, their question was now, “why”? This can be a tricky place for organizational leaders and managers, on one hand knowing and caring that your people are stressed and on the other hand if you ask “why”, there is a high likelihood that it will have something to do with you! This is where only the most courageous leaders are willing to go, asking the questions that not only may be a bit ego bruising but also initiate your taking actions to respond and address these newly revealed and often painful issues.

We asked our group, “What is one question you would love to ask your people, that you haven’t asked yet”? Here is a sample of a few responses:

  • “What is one thing you’ve consistently done this year that has helped you manage your stress better?”
  • “From a leadership perspective, do you feel like I have your back?”
  • “What is one obstacle that will get in your way from having a great day today?”
  • “How clear are your job requirements and responsibilities?” 

Each of these questions not only surveys a person’s own stress experience but also offers an opportunity for empowerment in self-expression and advocacy. It’s also worth suggesting that any one of these questions asked to several people will begin to give a more detailed picture of the cultural threads which connect your teams and organizations together. It would seem that when it comes to measuring stress, gathering quantitative data is a necessary place to start while the qualitative understanding will ultimately drive much needed change.