Major new study examines link between performance related pay and stress

The relationship between performance-related pay (PRP) and stress will be the focus of a major new study by economists and health psychologists at the University of Aberdeen.

The three-year project, backed by £469,025 in funding from the Economic and Social Research Council, will study whether PRP - prevalent in many jobs including those in the so-called ‘gig’ economy - has a negative impact on health.

Scientists will undertake a series of experiments as part of the study, which will include measuring the levels of cortisol - a stress hormone - released by people engaged in performance related tasks compared to those who are paid a salary. 

As repeated to exposure to stress can lead to ill health, the study aims to objectively establish whether PRP produces a measurable, physical stress reaction in workers.

The study is being led by Professor Keith Bender, SIRE Chair in Economics at the University of Aberdeen Business School, in collaboration with Professor Ioannis Theodossiou in Economics, and Dr Julia Allan and Dr Daniel Powell, from the health psychology research group at the University’s Institute of Applied Health Sciences.

Professor Bender said: “Studies carried out here at the University of Aberdeen have suggested a strong correlation between performance-related pay and health, and this project will build on that work.

“Much of the previous research in this area tends to be broad-based case studies that haven’t been able to establish a definitive link between PRP and stress, but we will be the first to use objective measurements to establish whether or not a link exists.

“The strength in our study is that it is multi-disciplinary, combining the skills of the Department of Economics and the research group in Health Psychology, with a clear focus on establishing whether PRP induces low grade stress which is bad for our health.” 

Dr Powell added: “Cortisol is a hormone which is essential for regulating normal physiological functioning, but can have negative effects on both physical and psychological health if elevated over long periods of time.

“Stress has well known consequences for health, and measuring workers’ cortisol responses to PRP will give us insight into one of the reasons why PRP might be associated with poorer health outcomes.”


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