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Work Stress Auditing: Assessing the Differences in Stressors

Alex Alonso
Society for Human Resource Management
Mo Wang
University of Florida


For the benefit of this column, we would appreciate your indulging us in an imaginary straw poll. Have you (our readers) experienced the spillover effect of workplace stressors? Have you encountered intense stress from the complexity and difficulty of the work you do? Have you experienced heartburn as a result of work overload or poor communications with coworkers? Have you suffered from some stress-related health issue because of the ever-changing workplace? If your answer is “Yes!” please standby. If your answer is “No!” we would like to advise you to seek out medical attention because work stressors are ubiquitous. You may need to be resuscitated if you do not experience their effects. Now back to those of you who have experienced work stress. What can we, as industrial-organizational psychologists, do about it?

The short answer is to design organizational interventions to mitigate the effects of workplace stressors. The long answer is to start with an assessment of workplace stressors, determine which ones are stressors, identify the appropriate strategies for reducing their effects, implement these strategies as needed, and evaluate the impact of these stress-reduction strategies (Wall, 1999). Each of these steps in dealing with work stress is critical, but none is more important than the first step—the assessment of workplace stressors. Assessing the impact of workplace stressors serves organizational purposes on several levels by charting the course for a large number of employee engagement and well-being initiatives (Gilbreath & Montesino, 2006). In recent years, research in this area has exploded with countless occupational psychologists, medical doctors, therapists, and other researchers examining the concept of work stress auditing.

Physicians and clinicians developed the concept of stress auditing with the aim of gauging all the sources of stress in a patient’s life. Stress audits are defined as a method for measuring the causes of stress, stress response or coping mechanisms, and useful strategies for mitigating the effects of stressors (Wall, 1999). In the late 1990s, researchers in occupational therapy and psychology began examining the concept of work stress auditing (Cooper & Cartwright, 1994, 1997; Williams & Cooper, 1998). They tackled this issue from two directions: (a) the best way to measure the effects of stress in employees, and (b) the best strategies or interventions for reducing stress as defined by an audit. Then, during the 2000s, many global organizations began to see the value proposition of conducting work stress audits. They further recognized the return on investment for auditing their HR records for indicators of employee stress and stress-coping counterproductive behaviors (Gilbreath & Montesino, 2006; Noblet, 2003). To date, there is an extensive body of research and practice involving work stress auditing with a small segment coming from the I-O community across the globe. But there is too little evidence to suggest work stress audits have been fully actualized, especially in the context of multinational organizations where stressors can have differing effects on cross-cultural workforces. In reviewing this international body of research, many questions arise:

  • Are all work stressors perceived and defined the same way from nation to nation?
  • Are strategies for stress assessment and stress reduction equally effective across cultures?
  • How can I-O psychologists advance work stress auditing?

Addressing Questions…

To answer the questions around work stress auditing across the globe, we sought input from some of our internationally based colleagues. We were looking for a different perspective that would give us insight into international approaches to work stress auditing. We looked for researchers and practitioners with wide exposure to multinational corporations. Luckily, our call was answered by Dragos Iliescu and Coralia Sulea from Romania. In keeping with the purpose of our column, we have asked them to explore the very topic of work stress auditing as it is put into practice in Romania, Europe, and beyond.

Dragos Iliescu, PhD, holds the position of associate professor at the SNSPA University in Bucharest, Romania, where he also leads the graduate (master’s) program in Human Resources and Managerial Communication. He is also the managing partner of Testcentral, the Romanian test publisher, and has been involved in over 40 test adaptation projects. His professional experience spans 15 years of activity in I-O psychology and HR consultancy. He is the current president of the Romanian Association of Industrial and Organizational Psychology and is also active internationally in various associations, including the International Test Commission (ITC), the Society for Industrial and Organizational Psychology (SIOP), and the International Society for the Scientific Study of Subjectivity (ISSSS).
Coralia Sulea, PhD, is assistant professor of Organizational Psychology and Occupational Health Psychology at the West University of Timisoara. Her research interests include employee well-being and interpersonal mistreatment in the workplace. She is also the codirector of the master’s program in Organizational Psychology and Occupational Health Psychology at the same university and the associate editor of the Romanian Journal of Applied Psychology.

For the purposes of this column, we asked Dragos and Coralia to focus on (but not limit themselves to) lessons learned around four major questions:

  • What are the critical factors gauged by work stress auditing in your nation?
  • What strategies for work stress auditing are employed in your nation?
  • What are some best practices in place for work stress auditing in your nation?
  • What advice would you offer I-O psychologists working with domestic employees to enhance work stress auditing?
  • What are the critical factors gauged by work stress auditing in your nation?

Stress auditing is not mandatory, by Romanian law. From a legal point of view, occupational stress is mentioned in passing in a law discussing workplace health and safety (319/2006) but is not acknowledged legally as a risk factor, neither for the health of employees nor for their security.

A stress audit usually focuses on the organization, not on the individual. Being an optional though sometimes trendy effort, companies rarely scrape together the budget needed for comprehensive audits focused specifically on stress and well-being. When the matter is investigated, with dedicated approaches or included in other evaluative approaches, the investigation focuses on the organizational outcomes of occupational stress and not on the individual outcomes. Indeed, lay representations of Romanian managers regarding occupational stress link stress with organizational performance, workforce productivity, and customer satisfaction, and not with issues pertaining to individuals’ physical health and psychological well-being (Vercellino & Iliescu, 2010).

What strategies for work stress auditing are employed in your nation?

Stress audits are most often done via a survey approach. Often integrated in voluminous climate and culture surveys, or job satisfaction and engagement surveys, which are for many HR departments both the in thing to do and a yearly routine job, stress is assessed in this approach by ad-hoc questions with little concern for validity or reliability of the measurement. Oftentimes, results are gauged at face value and are not norm referenced—there are no norms for internally developed ad-hoc questions, and HR specialists without a background in psychology or measurement do not really have psychometric concerns. Up to 80% of stress surveys carried out in Romania may fall into this category.

Who pays for it? Stress audits are traditionally an attribute of the HR function and are identified as such by HR professionals, who attend conferences and presentations related to workplace stress and well-being. Most of the budgets of HR departments however, especially in the current economic crisis, are routed towards only the most basic of functions, and employee well-being never counts as a basic function, especially when not mandated by law. It is interesting to point out that successful and visible stress audit and intervention efforts have often been run under the umbrella of corporate communications or branding departments, and are financed by corporate social responsibility (CSR) budgets. Such an approach assumes that a pertinent CSR project should focus on a reasonable exploitation of resources, and the human resource is always one of these; a company cannot be responsible in the outside without being responsible in the inside.

Who does it? HR specialists working in HR departments do stress surveys. Stress surveys, as a method and stress/well-being as an area of concern and potential source of improvement, are most often promoted by I-O psychologists. Surveys and interventions built by I-O psychologists focus on the primary level, on concepts such as sources of pressure, the work environment, and usually on predictors and criteria that have been proven to be valid. I-O psychologists have a keen eye out for improvements that make sense from a business point of view. Clinical psychologists and the subgenre of health psychologists also tend to focus on stress as an approach but are far less business savvy. Clinicians often focus on the secondary and tertiary level of measurement and intervention, being interested in Type-A behavior patterns, individual resilience, emotional intelligence, mental and physical well-being, or treatment and rehabilitation interventions—issues that require professional clinical attention.

What are some best practices in place for work stress auditing in your nation?

A variety of factors can be and are assessed in the workplace. Business psychologists active in the stress arena in Romania often take the advice of Gilbreath and Montesino (2006) and include four factors (not necessarily with this wording, but with this intention) that were presented as valid for almost all professions and professional fields: job control, role overload, social support, and supervisor behavior. Another often seen approach is a careful look at those factors that are responsible for the systemic causes of stress.

Trained I-O psychologists favor the standardized approach. Two measures have been published in Romania to support standardized approaches to the measurement of stress: the Job Stress Survey (Spielberger & Vagg, 1999) and the ASSET (A Shortened Stress Evaluation Tool; Cooper & Cartwright, 2002). Both these measures have been carefully standardized and have both national norms and also specific norms on certain industrial or demographic categories. Other measures are also used, many of them renowned as research measures, but without the benefit of professional norms for Romania. Among them we should mention the Ways of Coping (Folkman & Lazarus, 1988), the Stress Diagnostic Survey (Ivancevich & Matteson, 1976), or the Job Diagnostic Survey (Hackman & Lawler, 1971; Hackman & Oldham, 1975).

What advice would you offer I-O psychologists working with domestic employees to enhance work stress auditing?

Regardless of the model employed for auditing stress, information from the job demands–resources model (Demerouti & Bakker, 2011; Demerouti, Bakker, Nachreiner, & Schaufeli, 2001) will be very useful and has proven its effectiveness in the Romanian context. This model analyzes organizational demands (the psychosocial stressors usually assessed in stress audit processes; e.g., high work pressure), organizational resources (e.g., supervisor and coworker support, job security), and more recently, personal resources (Xanthopoulou, Bakker, Demerouti, & Schaufeli, 2007; e.g., self-efficacy, organizational-based self-esteem). Such resources have the potential to help employees in dealing with job demands, contribute to their comfort and development, and boost their motivation and capability to achieve professional goals. Therefore, evaluating at the same time not only stressors and hazard but also identifying present resources and their development potential  could have a very important impact for efficient future interventions. This is especially true in countries with challenging economic and development issues, where in some cases reducing demands is not really possible. In these cases increasing resources and personal strengths has a good chance of contributing to employee well-being and high work performance.
Table 1 provides a summary of best practices highlighted by Dragos and Coralia. Please use this as a cheat sheet for your own work.

Table 1
Work Stress Auditing Best Practices From a Romanian Perspective

  1. Assess four universal factors in any work stress audit—job control, role overload, social support, and supervisor behavior.
  2. Explore all causes of systemic stress by capturing organization-wide behaviors (i.e., increased absenteeism as a coping mechanism).
  3. Use validated measures of work stressors like the Job Stress Survey or the ASSET assessment in conjunction with other measures of job characteristics.
  4. Make sure to measure your stress-coping mechanisms especially as they relate to job demands.
  5. Examine the organizational and personal resources available to your employees.

See you next time!

WE NEED YOU AND YOUR INPUT! We are calling upon you, the global I-O community, to reach out and give us your thoughts on the next topic: employee engagement strategies. Give us your insights from lessons learned in your practice. We are always looking for contributors and we will be on the lookout. To provide any feedback or insights, please reach us by e-mail at the following addresses: mo.wang@warrington.ufl.edu and alexander.alonso@shrm.org.

We leave you with this parting thought: “One of the symptoms of an approaching nervous breakdown is the belief that one’s work is terribly important.” These words from Bertrand Russell drive home the importance of dealing with work stress by focusing on the sources of stress. Without sharing lessons learned from work stress audits, we will forever miss out on opportunities to apply new strategies for evading that imminent nervous breakdown. Until next time, ramas bun, zaijian, and adios!


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