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Home 9 Human Performance 9 Category: Stress


About this topic


The World Health Organisation (WHO) define stress as any type of change that causes physical, emotional or psychological strain. 

Stress is increasingly seen as a psychosocial risk, with sources and solutions at several levels i.e. individual, situational and organisational, though the physiological signs were the first ones to be described in a scientific approach as an organism’s response to aggressive factors. One can also wonder about the myth of good stress or good stressors, based on a commonsense perception of stress as a “good” level of stimulation.  

Nowadays, it is more usually referred to as professional or occupational stress when people feel there is an imbalance between what they are asked to do professionally and the resources they have to do it (e.g. time, instructions, competences, tools).  

Many diverse consequences can be described, from more physiological ones (e.g. cardio-vascular, reduced immunity from viruses, cancers), to more mental ones (e.g. anxiety, trauma, depression, suicide).  

Studies to assess the economical and societal cost of stress are showing its huge impact, i.e. half of the lost workdays or up to more than 10% of the GDP according the UK Health and Safety Executive. 

Relevance to rail 

Different roles within a rail organisation can be exposed to stress in different ways – whether through exposure to trauma (such as drivers or other staff witnessing a fatality, or staff being verbally or physically abused by customers) or to high workloads (senior managers, project staff performing deadlines, operators working in degraded or emergency conditions). 

Some railway occupations would expose more than others, particularly when considering acute stress and post trauma stress disorders, or when linking with safety compliance, constraints, limited resources, and motivation. As reported by Teneul (2009) it was not until 1993 that the SNCF – and here it is up to each railway organisation to question its own practices – took responsibility for train drivers potentially under trauma, and the trigger was a driver making a serious safety error within an hour of a ‘person collision’. In fact, critical events inducing acute stress are numerous (e.g. fatal accident, suicide, serious near-miss, personal assault, robbery). 

Railways, like other sectors, are not immune to the close links between other psychosocial risks (e.g. violence, harassment, discrimination) and stress (and its effects on performance). Nor are they immune to specific forms of stress such as burn-out (state of mental, emotional and/or exhaustion resulting from prolonged exposure to stressors), brown-out (deep loss of meaning in one’s work) and bore-out (complete loss of interest in work with extreme boredom associated).  

It may also be useful to identify a rail organisation’s obligation to look after the mental wellbeing of staff under workplace health and safety legislation, which includes understanding and minimising work-related stress. 

With continuous changes, both short and long-term challenges, and a deep societal and changing political context, railways are also seen as stressful for their managers, from field team leaders to top executives, and a lot of other non-safety related staff. Especially with the competing values and objectives to arbiter (e.g. customer-centred, finance and governance oriented, investments or punctuality indicators and of course the safety levels of performance).  

Approaches and models 

In order to maintain or recover a professional performance and reliability, and also to reduce the stress risks and their consequences (in terms of e.g. sleep issues, errors, absenteeism), some companies have set up prevention, training and guidance programs. Very often these programs provide support to better manage acute stress or post-traumatic stress for their Train Drivers, Train Managers, Signalers or Regulators, or Commercials. Deutsche Bahn reported a drop from 32% to 10% for the number of employees affected by serious PTSD (more than 4 weeks of sick leave), on a total average of one thousand acute stress cases per year. 

Stress is a multidimensional phenomenon, which has been modelled in many ways. Bruchon-Schweitzer proposed a bio-psychosocial model, integrating the 1) predictors of stress, 2) the individual’s transation to the environment (coping strategies), and 3) the consequences of this interaction. The World Health Organisation advocates this integrative approach (in Zawieja et al., 2014). Each of the three dimensions is broken down into defined elements.  

As regards the measurement of stress, sometimes collective, sometimes individual, questionnaires are generally used although attention should be paid to psychometric criteria, i.e. sensitivity, reliability and validity (INRS, 2011). And often other scales are associated, such as the measurement of anxiety and depression. Subjective and objective (e.g. biological/physiological) measures of stress exist. E.g., assessments often include collection of data on both, such as via subjective rating scales as well as other measures like heart rate, blood pressure. 

More information 

In recent trainings proposed by the ERA, the Safety Leadership training is supporting the sector, and demonstrating how the pressure on the system can impact the safety outcomes. In the Organisational Just Culture Training, stress and stress management are included, and shown to be one of the sub-processes in place producing trust, reporting conditions, and at the end, the just culture level of the company. “Stress” is also one of the 25 human and organisational factors, in the neutral and simplified HOF 5×5 model. 

When assessing risk, an organisation shall take into account the need to determine, provide and sustain a safe working environment which conforms to applicable legislation, in particular Directive 89/391/EEC. And, of course, its impact on losses of safety performance. 

Mental stress is described with its components (stress factors), and its short-vs. long-term effects, in a specific standard ISO 10075-1:2017. 

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