During caveman’s time, cortisol was an important hormone produced naturally by the body in response to stress. When this hormone was released, an individual was able to adopt a superhuman state of increased awareness and quicker response times, enabling them to protect themselves from the hungry tiger that may have been stalking them or fend off an angry bull. This pattern of responding is often referred to as the ‘fight or flight response’ and has evolved in humans as an evolutionary advantage, be it to escape a threatening situation or to seize the day by performing optimally. However, many of us today do not find ourselves in the shoes of Tarzan and Jane, but rather behind a desk completing our jobs. In such environments, we face similar (perhaps slightly less life threatening) stressful situations, and recent studies have indicated that hair cortisol concentrations can be an effective measure of such work-related stress in individuals.
Cortisol is an important regulator of imported bodily functions. However, excess levels can wreck havoc over the body. So what can a single strand of hair that lines our scalp tell us about our stress levels in the occupational setting?
Recent studies have started to look at the phenomena that is hair cortisol levels being a biomarker of stress. The recent study conducted by Van der Maij et al., aimed to take the current research one step further by investigating how self-reported levels of stress related to high cortisol concentration in a normal workload and high workload sample. They found that self-reported stress related to high cortisol levels only in the high workload sample and for variables associated with high effort and overcommitment and low reward. So if we break this down, what does this actually mean?
Many of us find ourselves in jobs that require us to complete work outside of the normal workday – in the current study, this group of people is referred to as the high work load sample. Similarly, those individuals who hold regular jobs with no extra work required are referred to as the normal workload. Whilst 50 years ago, individuals may have worked 9-5pm jobs and then finished work, this is not the case now – many jobs today require individuals to reply to emails or do some form of work outside of the office, blurring the idea of ‘clocking out’ from work. Therefore, it is likely many will be able to relate to this high workload sample.
Cortisol levels are constantly changing in our bodies, however, they are altered significantly when individuals receive little compensation or reward for their efforts they are overcommitted to. Whilst stress can occur both immediately after a situation, for example, forgetting to do something on a specific day, or in a more prolonged form, in the case of continual pressure at work. When it comes to hair cortisol levels, it is only this high stress exposure that can use hair cortisol levels as a physiological measure of stress. That is to say, whilst we all may experience stressful situations or a daily basis, a certain threshold must be reached for an over or under production in cortisol levels to be detected.
By combining both physiological and psychological indicators of stress, such as through questionnaires and hair cortisol concentrations, businesses can better assess which situations produce stress, and which situations are good or bad for employee health. It is important for individuals to perform optimally and this may be accompanied with some stress, however, it is when this stress surpasses the threshold of too much, that business need to take a look at the pressures and role they are playing in producing extreme hair cortisol concentrations.
Whilst we are not Tarzan and do not go swinging above trees on a daily basis, his approach of moving from one vine to the next can relate to managing stress levels; only when we have done one task or moved past one vine, can we move onto the next. Stress can easily build up, however, it is important to balance ourselves in our tasks by completing one job before moving forward or grabbing for that next branch.
Van der Maij, L., Gubbels, N., Schaveling, J., Almela, M., & Van Vugt, M. (2018). Hair cortisol and work stress: Importance of workload and stress model (JDCS or ERI). Psychoneuroendocrinology, 89, 78-85. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.psyneuron.2017.12.020