The trail to solutions
To prevent, you have to first detect the presence of a problem. Even
in a stressful work environment, a portion of people is always at risk
of being affected by mental health problems. Such is the importance of
detection for determining people at risk, something that is not without
its own problems.
Actually, talking about detection with management amounts to what
when it is too late? “We’re interested in problems and we try to
control them when an individual already presents symptoms of « burnout »
or of depression.” This is what qualifies as the « too late stage »,
since affected individuals will be pulled out of their workplace. They
will be in absence and will need pharmacology or all kinds of other
interventions to be remedied. They will be left little choice in terms
However, what most employers do not seem to understand is that stress
IS the determining factor for developing « burnout » and the most
marking factor for the development of depression. Moreover, stress is
implicated in 100% of « burnout » cases and 50% of depression cases in
the workplace. Thus, detecting people with chronic stress in the
workplace would help to prevent emergencies with troubles that are
brewing well before they appear.
2- Can we actually detect stress?
After studying stress for seventeen years, we have come to the
conclusion that the major problem with stress is that it is an overused
term. This is very well illustrated by a New York Times citation
: “Stress is a word that is as useful as a Visa card, and as satisfying
as a Coke. It's non-committal and also non-committable” (Richard
Schweder, New York Times, 2004).
This overused and misused word has become extremely ambiguous. There
are as many definitions of the word stress as there are words in a
dictionary. This forces people who are concerned with problems to think
that there are few possible avenues for research.
The popular definition of stress is limited to time pressure : a
person is stressed when unable to accomplish tasks allocated within a
set time frame. This definition of stress is false.
Two big schools of thought
Two big schools of thought have studied stress : the school of psychology and the school of physiology.
1- School of psychology
Numerous studies of stress in the workplace have been carried out
using the psychological approach. They have generated two principle
models : the first perceives stress as arising mostly from the
environment (stress as an environmental stimulus), while the second
highlights an disequilibrium between resources and demands.
a- Environmental stimulus
We call it the « fly model », that is, we perceive events coming from
outside as the generator of stress. Grief would be a stressor, marriage
a stressor, the birth of a child a stressor, which would ultimately
lead to pathology. The problem with this model is that it measures only
the consequences of stress and brings no attention to the components
which might explain why a marriage has become a stressor.
b- Disequilibrium between resources and demands
This is a model that explains just about everything (which becomes a
major problem) but also gives information about the origins of a
stressor since it must each time determine what are the resources and
the demands. These are very abstract terms.
In these two types of models, psychological stress is measured with
the help of questionnaires, where we interrogate the respondent on
diverse subjects such as : « Do you often catch a cold? », « Do you feel
tense ». Thus, these questionnaires measure the consequences of stress
and not the cause. If the respondent obtains a high score on one of
these tests, then it is already too late. Taking into account the big
weakness of the psychological approach to stress, several researchers
turned towards physiology where we have found some very interesting
markers with enormous potential.
2- School of physiology
Adrenalin and cortisol are two hormones that the body secretes when a
person is stressed. The first is very well known to specialists, so our
attention falls more on cortisol.
In 1950, researchers successfully identified a measure of these two
hormones in urine. During fifty years, researchers did but one thing :
examine the characteristics of a situation that would push the body to
secrete these hormones. After fifty years of research, they found four.
So when a person interprets a situation as being stressful, which
would lead their body to secrete these two stress hormones, the person
must be confronted by situations that are novel, unpredicted or
unpredictable. In a more important manner, the person must have the
impression that they have no more control over the given situation and
finally, this situation must threaten certain aspects of their
Indeed, stress is a personal experience, but also a result of
interactions with the environment. If a person always stayed at home and
never faced novelty in life, they would have few chances of being
stressed, even if this situation would bring about certain
Cortisol can now be measured in saliva. Hence the interesting idea of
researchers to use « Salivette®» where the tip is formed from a little
piece of cotton imbedded in a polyester coating. Placed in the mouth to
gather saliva, it is pulled out once completely saturated and then
examined by specialists. It is the level of concentrations of the
cortisol hormone measured with the « Salivette® » that determines the
degree of the person’s exposure to stress.
A person is said to be exposed to chronic stress once cortisol causes
a « domino effect ». That is to say, any variation of the bodies’
normal rate affects other hormones, since hormones act in the interior
of a tightly closed system. Thus, once the body finds itself in a
situation of increased cortisol secretion for a long time, the long-term
effect will be a diminution of insulin, an augmentation of glucose then
possibly diabetes, an augmentation of cholesterol leading to
cardiovascular problems, and finally a diminution of the immune systems
efficiency, causing immune problems.