Brain Sciences


New study shows people over-estimate their stress

22 June 2022

A new study involving UCL neuroscientists measures workplace stress and finds significant differences in workers’ perceptions of their stress levels and differences in stress levels between location, age and gender.

Stress at work

The study was undertaken for a global healthcare company through a company called BioStress in collaboration with UCL and the University of Bath.

The researchers used advanced biometrics and physiological data to map stress levels in detailand also ran a survey of over 1000 people on stress perception. They discovered:

  • Almost two thirds of those in London (63.6%), the South East (63.5%) and East Midlands (65%) perceive their lives to be most stressful, but the highest stress scores are in the South West (67.4%) and North East (67.1%).
  • 85.4% of people believe stress negatively affects their health and 61.5% rate their stress above average. Based on findings from a long-term US study of 29,000 people, these two factors increase the risk of premature death by 43%.
  • The main stated cause of people’s stress was work, but in fact more than 70% spent more time at work in recovery (the opposite state to stress) in the study of a global healthcare firm.
  • While workers perceived their stress was high - over 1.5 times higher than the global norm of 13 - they were not physiologically stressed, spending an average of just 3.3 hours per day in the ‘stress zone’ but longer in recovery.
  • 45-54s were most likely to judge work as the main cause of stress compared to anything else. Money stress declined as groups aged, whereas family and health stress increased.
  • Women rate themselves as significantly more stressed than men (66.8% v 55.9%).
  • 18-34 year olds rate themselves as significantly more stressed than 35-54s, but 55-64s have much lower stress scores than either of the other age groups.

Professor Joe Devlin (UCL Psychology and Language Sciences), who was involved in the study, said: “Until now stress has been subjective. How often do we hear the phrase ‘I’m stressed?’  There’s been no consistent industry or medical definition nor objective measure of stress. Our work gives employees and companies the quantitative information they need to understand and manage their stress levels in a uniquely trackable way.”

Neuroscientist Tim Routledge of BioStress said: “Our work is a milestone for stress definition and measurement. The majority of people tell us they’re stressed, but when we measure it accurately this isn’t the case; most of what people think about stress is wrong! 98.2% of respondents described stress as bad, using words like overwhelming and anxious, but we need stress in order to live successfully.”

Stress costs the global economy $1 trillion according to the World Health Organisation. Results of the BioStress programme at the global healthcare firm and automotive manufacturer achieved a 22% drop in perceived stress levels and 14% actual stress reduction, plus a 15% rise in sales, 16% increase in customer satisfaction and a 62% improvement in staff retention. Biostress received a six-figure Innovate UK and angel investment in April 2022 to accelerate global growth.


Photo by Karolina Grabowska on Pexels.