aqa  Sources of stress: life changes and daily hassles. Workplace stress, including the effects of workload and control.

Life Changes

The SRRS (Social Readjustment Rating Scale)


Life Changes – Rahe et al. (1970)

Navy Sailors

Aims: Rahe et al. aimed to test the hypothesis that the stress of life events was correlated with illness. This followed up research by Holmes and Rahe (1967) who had observed that patients tended to have experienced critical life events in the months prior to the onset of illness. Life events were defined as positive or negative events, which disrupted normal routines and so required social readjustment.

Procedure: An investigation of 2500 male US naval personnel took place over a period of six months. A self-report questionnaire measured the number of life events, which was based on the Social Readjustment Rating Scale (SRRS) constructed by Holmes and Rahe. This consisted of 43 life events, each of which had assigned to it a value (or life change unit, LCU) based on how much readjustment the event would necessitate. Participants were asked to indicate how many of the life events they had experienced in the past six months. A total life change unit score (stress score) was calculated for each participant by adding up the LCUs of each life event. A health record was also kept of each participant during the six months tour of duty. A correlational analysis was carried out to test the association between total LCUs and incidence of illness.

Findings: A significant positive correlation of +0.118 was found between the total LCU score and illness (as total LCUs increased so did incidence of illness). The direction of the correlation was positive and the strength of the relationship was weak. The association was small but significant.

Conclusions: The findings suggest that the stress of life events is correlated with physical illness. The correlation appears weak: if the total LCU score was always associated with illness a perfect positive correlation of +1.0 would have been found. If there were no association the correlation coefficient would have been 0. The correlation coefficient of +0.118 is much closer to 0 than +1, but in a sample of 2500 this is a significant correlation. Implications include the importance of using stress management techniques when experiencing life events.

Evaluation of the SRRS

Supporting evidence: A strength of Rahe’s work is that it has supporting evidence.  Jacobs et al. asked parents to do an SRE (a type of stress scale) and found that children from families with lots of life changes were more likely to develop cancer than children from less stressed families. This suggests that research into life changes as a source of stress is backed up and that stress caused by life changes can have a negative effect on health.

Practical Applications: A further strength of research into life changes as a source of stress is that they have practical applications. If we can understand the life events that cause the most stress we can put measures in place to help people in these times of change. For example we can make sure that counselling is provided for those who are struggling to cope with the death of a partner or close relative. This may reduce the risk of stress related illnesses that are linked to this type of stress. This suggests that by understanding factors that cause stress we can help to improve the quality of people’s lives.

Population Validity: One weakness of the research is that it has low population validity.  The sample was biased because only American men were investigated. Thus, the sample was ethnocentric (as only one culture was sampled) and androcentric (as only males were sampled). The fact that such a restricted sub-group was sampled means the findings are not representative of the wider population (e.g., other cultures; women). The findings may not even be representative of the target population, as a random sample of American naval men was not taken. Thus, the research cannot be generalised to the whole population.

Correlational: Another weakness of the research is that it is correlational.   The evidence is correlational, which means that cause and effect cannot be inferred and other factors are likely to be involved in the association, as these are not controlled for in a correlation. For example, life events may lead to unhealthy behaviours, which are another factor in the relationship between life events and illness. The direction of effect can be questioned: is it that life events lead to stress or does stress lead to life events, such as a relationship breaking down? Also, the correlations found tend to be weak.  This suggests that cause and effect cannot be established.

Individual Differences: Another weakness of that there are issues of individual differences in self-perception of the events. Individual differences modify the experience of stressful life events, e.g., some people may react badly to a life event because they have a stressful personality type. Other differences include past experience, coping skills, gender, and culture and these may explain the weak correlations. There are also individual differences in perception of the event, which are not taken into account by the SRRS. One of the strongest criticisms is that it doesn’t assess self-perception because the values for each event are assigned and this reduces its value because the amount of stress assigned to each life event is not the same for everyone.  This suggests that the results are therefore not generalisable. 

Opposing Research: A final weakness of the research is that there is contradictory evidence by DeLongis et al., 1982. They criticised the SRRS as they argued the SRRS consists of different kinds of life events, e.g., desirable and undesirable. These are very different experiences, which are unlikely to affect people in the same way. Consequently, they devised their own scale, the daily hassles and uplifts scale, which distinguished between positive and negative. They thought this was a more valid measure of stress because they focused on day-to-day sources of stress, which DeLongis et al. thought determined stress levels more than the less frequent life vents.  This suggests that there is refuting evidence for the SRRS.

Daily Hassles (& Uplifts)

Most people experience major life events very infrequently. Therefore a better measure of stress might look at the stresses and strains of daily life. These are called “hassles”.

Daily Hassle

Daily Hassles – DeLongis et al (1982)

DeLongis et al (1982) compared the two measures: a life events scale and their own hassles scale, to see which was a better predictor of later health problems. They also considered the effects of “uplifts”. Uplifts are events that make you feel good. How does that affect health?

Participants were asked to complete four questionnaires once a month for a period of a year:

  • Hassles scale (117 hassles, such as: concerns about weight, rising prices, home maintenance, losing things, crime and physical appearance).
  • Uplifts scale (135 uplifts, such as: recreation, relations with friends, good weather, job promotion).
  • Life events questionnaire (24 major events).
  • A health status questionnaire consisting of questions on overall health status, bodily symptoms, and energy levels.

There were 100 participants from around San Francisco area, aged between 45 and 64. They were predominantly well educated and had high income. The findings were that both the frequency and intensity of hassles were significantly correlated with overall health status and bodily symptoms. Daily uplifts had little effect on health. They also found no relationship between life events and health during the study, although there was a relationship for life events recorded for the 2 ½ years before the study

Generally our everyday feeling of being stressed can probably be attributed more to minor, irritating problems than to the rarer major life events.  According to Lazarus (1981) research has found that hassles have a greater correlation with ill-health than do the seemingly more serious life events.

Examples of hassles were devised by Kanner et al (1981).  This was later developed by De Longis (1988) into a combined hassles and uplifts scale.

Workplace Stress

Causes of Workplace Stress

Homework interface


Karasek’s (1979) model of the relationship between demand (workload) and job strain (stress)

Workplace Stress

Workload/Control: Johansson et al. (1978) – Swedish Sawmill


Aim: to investigate whether work stressors such as repetitiveness, machine-regulated pace of work and high levels of responsibility increase stress-related physiological arousal and stress related illness

Procedures: The researchers identified a high-risk group of 14 “finishers” in a Swedish sawmill. Their job was to finish off the wood at the last stage of processing timber. The work was machine-paced, isolated, very repetitive yet highly skilled, and the finishers’ productivity determined the wage rates for the entire factory. The 14 “finishers” were compared with a low-risk group of 10 cleaners, whose work was more varied, largely self-paced, and allowed more socialising with other workers. Levels of stress-related hormones (adrenaline and noradrenaline) in the urine were measured on work days and rest days. Records were kept of stress-related illness and absenteeism

Findings: The high-risk group of 14 finishers secreted more stress hormones (adrenaline and noradrenaline) on work days than on rest days, and higher levels than the control group. The high-risk group of finishers also showed significantly higher levels of stress-related illness such as headaches and higher levels of absenteeism than the low-risk group of cleaners.

Conclusions: A combination of work stressors- especially repetitiveness, machine-pacing of work and high levels of responsibility – lead to chronic (long-term) physiological arousal. This in turn leads to stress-related illness and absenteeism. If employers want to reduce illness and absenteeism in their workforce, they need to find ways of reducing these work stressors, for example by introducing variety into employees’ work and by allowing them to experience some sense of control over the pace of their work 

Evaluation: Some important variables, such as individual differences, are not controlled in this study; it may be that certain people who are vulnerable to stress (e.g. those exhibiting Type A behaviour) may be attracted to high-risk demanding jobs, such as finishing in a sawmill. In addition, the study does not identify which of the various work stressors may be the most stressful. The high risk group was exposed to low levels of control through repetitive machine-paced work, physical isolation and high levels of responsibility. To separate out the effects of these different factors, a more controlled experimental study would have to be carried out, but this would be at the expense of ecological validity.

Job Control: Marmot et al. (1997) – Whitehall I & II


Marmot et al (1997) began with the hypothesis that control was negatively correlated with stress-related illness; that is as control decreases the level of illness increases.

Over 10,000 civil servants were investigated over a period of three years.  Researchers assessed the level of job control by self report questionnaires and by assessments by personnel managers and this was then compared to levels of stress related illness.

They found that workers with less control were four times more likely to die of heart attack than their colleagues with more control.  In addition they were twice as likely to suffer from other stress related illnesses such as cancers, ulcers, stomach disorders and strokes.  Even when other possible contributory factors such as smoking, blood pressure, cholesterol, obesity and socioeconomic status had been taken into account the additional risk remained!

The conclusion was obvious, that lack of control seemed to be associated with illness and they recommended that employers gave their staff more autonomy and control.

Real life application of the research is a key evaluation point.