Researchers Develop New Analysis Procedure for Psychological Stress at Work

Press Release No. 291/2012
19 December 2012
Business shows great interest in tool developed by Heidelberg industrial and organisational psychologists

In order to uncover and counteract pathogenic psychological stress factors at work, Heidelberg scientists have developed a procedure that numerous well-known companies in Germany are already taking advantage of. Unlike surveys that identify psychological stressors based on subjective assessments by employees and managers, the instrument developed by the Department of Industrial and Organizational Psychology of Heidelberg University measures quantifiable stress factors. Representatives from industrial health and human resource management are using the tool, among them the automobile, chemical-pharmaceutical and steel industries, as well as tourism and logistics.

“The starting point was the empirically proven increase in workplace stress in the face of manifold technological and organisational changes”, explains Prof. Dr. Karlheinz Sonntag, who heads the Department of Industrial and Organizational Psychology. Besides individual consequences for the employee, the increase in workplace accidents, sickness-related absences and fluctuation also affect the employer. “It should therefore be in the company’s own interest and within the employer’s responsibility to identify psychological stressors at the workplace and prevent the negative impact on the ability and willingness of employees to perform.”

The “Instrument for Analysis of Psychological Stress” (IAPB) takes into account both current scientific knowledge on identifying psychological stresses as well as practical requirements and the specific situation in the organisation. The researchers use a multi-step approach. In the initial development phase, the content of the instrument is adapted to the specific circumstances in collaboration with company representatives such as occupational physicians, the works council and supervisors. Then analysis teams trained in the use of the tool observe the individual jobs. Individual stress dimensions such as work complexity, interruptions, cooperation requirements, scope of responsibility and latitude are analysed. The decision as to which factors are relevant in psychological stress and the form they take on the job is reached only by consensus. The Heidelberg researchers assume that stress cannot be reduced to one single dimension, as it is in most traditional models. For that reason they identify critical stress combinations associated with a greater risk of health problems or the effects of strain such as stress, tiredness, exhaustion, irritability, and similar symptoms.

If a job combines little latitude and high customer orientation, for example, employees are left with no room to manoeuvre to deviate from defined standards and respond as the situation may demand. Employees end up caught between their individual desires and the agreed-upon rules. In one specific case that involved the employees in consulting and sales of a company, the Heidelberg researchers worked together with the employees and company representatives and introduced a flexible consulting system that permitted defining time margins and accommodating individual customer requests.

“Only through careful diagnosis can appropriate and differentiated measures for occupational safety and health protection be developed that ensure the health and well-being of employees, their job satisfaction and motivation, as well as improve the ability of the company to compete”, explains Sonntag. “The attractiveness of the procedure lies in its ease of implementation, the objective evaluation by an analysis team, and its consensus-oriented assessment. The relevance and timeliness of an empirical analysis of psychological stress at work is evident not only in this topic’s presence in the media, but especially in the real workaday world.”


Prof. Dr. Karlheinz Sonntag
Department of Industrial and Organizational Psychology
Phone +49 6221 54-7320

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