Objectifying psychomental stress in the workplace – an example
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Background: Psychomental stress is a major source of illness and reduced productivity. Data objectifying physiological stress responses are scarce. We studied salivary cortisol levels in a highly stressful environment, the pediatric critical care unit. The aim was to identify targets for organizational changes, to implement these changes and to assess their impact on cortisol levels. Design: Repeated measurements observational cohort study (before and after intervention). Subjects: 84 nurses working in two independent teams (A and B) in a 19 bed pediatric intensive care unit. Between study periods team A experienced a major exchange of experienced staff while the turnover rate in team B remained average. Measurements and interventions: Salivary cortisol samples were collected every 2 h and after stressful events. Nurses in study period I showed elevated cortisol levels at the beginning of the late shift, interpreted as an anticipatory stress reaction. To ease conditions during the early part of the late shift (conflicting tasks, noise and crowding), we postponed the afternoon ward round, limited non-urgent procedures and introduced a change in visiting hours. The early shift, which was not affected by the intervention, served as control. Main results: Both crude and adjusted analysis revealed a decrease of cortisol levels at the beginning of the late shift in team B (p = 0.0009), but not in team A (p = 0.464). The control situation showed no difference between teams and study periods. Interpretation: We demonstrated reduced cortisol secretions in one team following organizational changes, which was probably overridden by the disruption of social coherence in the second team.