The topic of occupational stress is a particularly apposite one for Australia in the early 21st Century. The nature of occupations and the social and inter-personal structures within which many occupations are carried out are undergoing rapid and sometimes dramatic change.

The topic of occupational stress is a particularly apposite one for Australia in the early 21st Century. The nature of occupations and the social and inter-personal structures within which many occupations are carried out are undergoing rapid and sometimes dramatic change. The costs associated with this change are substantial and varied; they include impaired health (both physical and psychological), disruptions to both social and family relationships, and impairments to occupational efficiency. The consequent economic costs are difficult to calculate with any precision but it is worth noting that compensation only for the health consequences of occupational stress now forms the single biggest payment category for Comcare (the Commonwealth Government’s primary health insurer) and this trend is also reflected in the liabilities of other major Australian health insurers. For Comcare alone, stress ranked in the top 4 of claims in the 1998/1999 financial year and accounted for more than 10% of all claims against the insurer (Comcare Annual Report, 1998/1999). Stress ranked third for proportion of expenditure by injury group and top in terms of the average total cost of pay-out (greater even then multiple physical injury).

It is very clear then that occupational stress permeates the entire fabric of Australian society, with attendant costs on health and well-being which flow through to directly and negatively impact onto social and occupational functioning, leading in the final analysis to significant and broad based economic loss.

One of the most difficult issues facing contemporary research into stress is that of definition. This issue is central because without a clear-cut definition, the process of operationalisation to produce valid and reliable measures is tenuous at best. And if this process is flawed, the flow-on inaccuracies arising from attempts to relate stress to illness, impairment or inefficiency, are self-evident. Bishop’s (1984) definition is perhaps as best reflective of the contemporary view as any, when he states that:

“The definition of stress may take three different forms: the stimulus form (defined in terms of particular events in the environment), the response form (defined in terms of the physiological and psychological effects of those events) and the process form (defined in terms of individual perceptions of those events)”.

This is an important definition since it explicitly recognises what is now widely accepted doctrine in the psychology of stress, that there is an indissoluble nexus between each of (a) the psycho-social environment, (b) the process of cognitive interpretation, and (c) the response phase, in any contemporary consideration of stress. This recognition is crucial to the construction of measures of stress. But one other recent definition is also worth considering. Sarafino (1998) said that:

“Stress is the condition that results when person/environment transactions lead the individual to perceive a discrepancy, whether real or not, between the demands of a situation and the resources of that person’s biological, psychological and social systems”.

I cite this definition not because it is in any way inconsistent with that of Bishop, but because it minimally recasts stress in the light of a failure to cope, and as such it more closely approaches popular views of occupational stress than do many others.

There is a vigorous debate at present as to whether occupational stress may be considered as a separate entity with its own unique theoretical foundation and requiring a set of purpose-built measures which accurately assess the nature and strength of the phenomenon, or whether it should be considered only as a sub-class of a far broader notion of stress based on a more general but certainly better founded body of psychological theory. This is a debate which effectively splits applied and academic psychologists. Applied psychologists would tend to take the former view whereas academic psychologists would seem more likely to consider both the nature and measurement of occupational stress within the broader framework of established psychological theory.

Regrettably, five decades or more of Australian and international research has failed to unequivocally identify the causes of stress either in the workplace or in other delimited domains of human experience. The clear reason is that stress arises from a very complex psychobiological interaction between the individual and the social environment in which that individual exists, and any attempt to reduce this to a simple linear formula produces trivial and misleading results.

The predominant questions, at least so far as occupational stress is concerned, are far more obvious. With particular regard to the contemporary Australian situation these are:

  • What is the prevalence of occupational stress in Australia?
  • How can it best be measured to provide the most accurate estimates of its impact?
  • What are the particular characteristics of occupational environments in Australia which are associated with the experience of occupational stress?
  • What are the health, social and economic costs of occupational stress in Australia? and
  • Given that occupational stress poses a problem for this country, how can it best be managed?

The proposed workshop aims to assemble a small group of acknowledged Australian authorities in the broad area of occupational stress and its consequences, as core participants, to:

  • critically report on the best available Australian and international evidence on occupational stress within their own areas of academic expertise;
  • establish current and emerging issues of national importance in occupational stress through a process of consensus workshopping; and
  • recommend on immediate priority areas for empirical, applied and policy research in occupational stress in Australia.