Experimental study finds that office stress and interruptions at work affect psychobiological stress responses

In a controlled lab experiment, a team of researchers found that simulating social pressure in an office environment elicited both a biological and psychological stress response in participants. Notably, while work interruptions further increased the biological response to stress, interruptions appeared to decrease participants’ psychological response to stress. The findings were shared in the journal Psychoneuroendocrinology.

Feeling ill-equipped to cope with the demands of one’s job can result in acute stress. This type of stress can lead to an onslaught of mental health problems including depression, burnout, and poor cardiac health. Study authors Jasmine I. Kerr and her team say that understanding the psychological and biological processes behind acute stress can help inform strategies to support employee mental health.

“Work-related stress has been on the rise for the last decades and most of us are in some way affected by it,” explained Kerr, a PhD student and researcher at the Mobiliar Lab for Analytics at ETH Zurich. “This is especially alarming since chronic stress can have severe effects on mental and physical health. Studying stress-related processes in an realistic and controlled office-like environment is therefore an essential first step of tackling this issue.”  

To explore this topic, the researchers designed an experimental study in a laboratory setting that was designed to resemble a realistic office. This controlled experiment allowed them to manipulate office stress and closely monitor participants’ psychobiological responses.

In groups of ten, participants were equipped with heart monitors and seated at office desks with computers. They were asked to behave as if they were employees for a fictitious insurance company and were given office tasks, such as computing sales numbers and scheduling appointments. The participants also provided saliva samples and answered psychological state questionnaires at specific intervals throughout the experiment.

Experimental study finds that office stress and interruptions at work affect psychobiological stress responses

Importantly, the experiment included three different conditions. While working on the computer tasks, one group was submitted to a stress test that elicited social pressure — an actor in the role of a human resource officer notified participants that they would be interviewed in 20 minutes for a promotion. A second group underwent this same stress test with the addition of work interruptions that consisted of continual chat messages from their manager. A control group received neither stressor.

First, the researchers found that the office-related stress test led to psychological and biological stress responses among participants. The two groups that experienced the stress test demonstrated increased cortisol levels, increased heart rate, and lower heart rate variability compared to the control group. This suggests an activation of the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis and the autonomic nervous system (ANS) which typically occurs with stress. The stress test groups also demonstrated a psychological stress response, reporting higher perceived stress, worse mood, and stronger declines in calmness compared to the control group.

The task interruptions appeared to aggravate the biological stress response. Subjects who received the stress test and the work interruptions demonstrated increased salivary cortisol compared to the group who received the stress test only, suggesting that getting interrupted while anticipating an anxiety-provoking social interview led to even further activation of the HPA axis.

Interestingly, these participants rated the upcoming interview as less threatening compared to the stress task only group, suggesting a blunted psychological stress response. The authors say that the chat interruptions may have led to familiarity with the manager, increasing subjects’ perception of control over the interview. Alternatively, the chat messages may have served as a distraction from the upcoming stressor.

“Psychosocial stress and work interruptions led to measurable and significant subjective and biological stress responses in our simulated office setting,” Kerr told PsyPost. “Interestingly, these stressors affected different stress responses in different ways. Namely, participants who experienced work interruptions while they anticipated the upcoming job interview, secreted more cortisol but perceived the situation as less threatening than participants who weren’t interrupted.”

“Participants might have been too distracted and preoccupied by the interruptions to worry about the job interview. We also believe that the extra cortisol might have provided participants with extra energy to psychologically better cope with the mock job interview.”

While the controlled experiment allowed researchers to manipulate variables and closely monitor subjects’ responses, the design came with limitations. It is unclear whether the limited hours spent in the simulated office environment were enough to elicit office stress. The authors propose that future studies should examine stress within real office settings, which would additionally allow for the assessment of longitudinal data.

“This was a cross-sectional laboratory study with healthy and young people. It is the first of its kind and requires replications in different populations and translation into the real-world that support these findings,” Kerr said. “It would be interesting to study different age groups in the workforce and employees already at risk of developing work-related diseases and disorders.”

“An acute stress response is essential in order to cope with stressors and therefore not something inherently negative,” Kerr added. “What we observed in our experiment is most probably a state of eustress (‘good stress’) rather than distress (‘bad stress’). Still, it is important to effectively manage acute stress in order to prevent harmful states of chronic stress.”

The study, “The effects of acute work stress and appraisal on psychobiological stress responses in a group office environment”, was authored by Jasmine I. Kerr, Mara Naegelin, Raphael P. Weibel, Andrea Ferrario, Roberto La Marca, Florian von Wangenheim, Christoph Hoelscher, and Victor R. Schinazi.