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Work stress and resilience study in the COVID-19 era

Posted on 18 May 2020

During Mental Health Awareness Week 2020 Professor Christina van der Feltz-Cornelis and her research team, based in the Department of Health Sciences and Hull York Medical School, will launch an academic study to explore how people respond to work stress and differ in terms of resilience. This will include the impact of COVID-19 on work and studying.


The study is funded by the University of York and by the European Union-funded EMPOWER project. It is supported by HR and by the students' organisations of the University of York and Hull York Medical School (HYMS). The study received ethical approval of the Health Sciences Research Governance Board of the University of York.


Work stress is a common phenomenon. It is associated with decreased work productivity, depressive and anxiety symptoms, and physical ailments. Although questionnaires exist for assessing work stress, they tend to measure general levels of stress that may or may not be related to harmful outcomes.

In a Delphi study among mental health employees and experts in the field of work-related stress, Christina van der Feltz-Cornelis introduced and explored the concept of benign work stress, that is stress associated with challenges resulting in rewards; and harmful work stress, that is associated with lower productivity, depression, anxiety and physical illness. Based upon this study, her team developed two questionnaires: the Work Stress Screener (WoSS), that discerns benign from harmful work stress, and the Work Resilience Screener (ReWoS), that assesses workplace resilience. 

The impact of the COVID-19 outbreak on work, study and living arrangements of University staff and students is clear. There is an urgent need to explore their stress levels, mental wellbeing and resilience in the current era. There is also a need to assess these levels later in the year, to see how they develop, as we will, gradually, return to less homebound work and living arrangements, and there is a need to explore how staff and students deal with this outbreak and its consequences in the long term.

Study aims

The work stress and resilience study in the COVID-19 era has the following aims: 

  • to explore work-related stress and resilience, 
  • to validate two questionnaires specifically developed for this purpose, 
  • to explore the impact of the Coronavirus outbreak on stress levels and resilience among employees and students of the University of York and Hull York Medical School (HYMS), 
  • to explore possible adoption of the questionnaires as screeners for work-related stress and resilience for employees and students in the future,
  • and to explore options for development of interventions and policies to support employees and students with high stress levels.


The questionnaires have been piloted first to ensure they are easily understood. We will then validate these two questionnaires by an online survey. For this purpose, this online survey will be provided via a link among University of York employees and students, and HYMS students. It will be launched in the week beginning 18 May 2020; this is Mental Health Awareness Week and right in the middle of the COVID-19 outbreak. 

We will then analyse the answers to check that the WoSS and ReWoS provide a valid and reliable measure of benign and harmful work stress and work resilience. Also, they should prove to be distinct from questionnaires assessing alternative measures such as anxiety or depression. 

We will also explore stress levels and explore the impact of the Coronavirus outbreak on stress levels and resilience among University employees and students. For a longer-term perspective, we will repeat the online survey at a later stage. All data will be provided on an anonymous basis and only the researchers will have access to the study data.

Outcomes and deliverables

We will assess work stress and resilience levels, stress coping, psychological and physical stress equivalents, as well as work functioning measures. We will use these to validate the WoSS and ReWoS. We will combine these with assessments of the direct impact of the COVID-19 outbreak and the new work and living arrangements resulting from that. The findings will be aggregated and analysed per group, ie staff and students. The results at group level will be presented to student organisations, communicated on social media and the study website, and laid down in publications. The possibility for adoption of the questionnaires in screeners, and for development of interventions and policies to support employees and students with high stress levels will be explored.

How you can participate

The survey has now closed.

If you would like further information, please contact Danielle Varley, PhD candidate Health Sciences (

Research team

Principal investigator: Professor Christina van der Feltz-Cornelis

Researchers: Danielle Varley, Rebecca Woodhouse

International advisor: Dr Iman Elfeddali, Tilburg University, the Netherlands

Collaborators in the study

HR Department, University of York

Graduate Students' Association, University of York

University of York Students’ Union (YUSU)

HYMS Programme Director

HYMS Student Staff Committee

Work stress-related research

This study is part of a programme of work stress-related research of Christina van der Feltz-Cornelis that she discussed at her inaugural address in February 2020: Stressed out? Stress, work stress and physical symptoms.