NPR/RWJF/Harvard School of Public Health Poll Finds Health Most Common Major Stressful Event in Americans’ Lives Last Year

NPR/RWJF/Harvard School of Public Health Poll

Princeton, N.J.—A new NPR/Robert Wood Johnson Foundation/Harvard School of Public Health (HSPH) poll released today that examines the role of stress in Americans’ lives finds that about half of the public (49%) reported that they had a major stressful event or experience in the past year. Nearly half (43%) reported that the most stressful experiences related to health.

More than half of those who experienced a great deal of stress in the past month say too many overall responsibilities and financial problems were contributors (54% and 53% respectively). More than a third of those with a great deal of stress say the contributors include their own health problems (38%) and health problems of family members (37%). 

“It is not widely recognized how many Americans have a major stressful event over the course of a year, or how often health problems are the cause,” says Robert J. Blendon, ScD, Richard L. Menschel Professor of Health Policy and Political Analysis at HSPH.

“Stress touches everyone. Unfortunately, many of those feeling the most stress get trapped in cycles that can be very unhealthy. If we are going to build a culture of health in America, one big step we can take is recognizing the causes and effects not just of our own stress and the stress of those closest to us, but of others we encounter in our day-to-day lives. That recognition can go a long way in helping us create healthier environments in our homes, workplaces and communities,” says Risa Lavizzo-Mourey, MD, RWJF president and CEO.

High Levels of Stress in the Last Month

About a quarter reported having a “great deal” of stress (26%) over just the past month. People in poor health are more than twice as likely as the public as a whole to report a great deal of stress in the past month (60%).

People who are disabled are also much more likely to report a great deal of stress (45%). Other groups likely to report a great deal of stress include those with a chronic illness (36%), those with low incomes (<$20K) (36%), those who face potentially dangerous situations in their jobs (36%), single parents (35%), and parents of teens (34%).

Significant Impact on Lives

Bad effects on emotional well-being (63%) are the most common health effects reported by those with a great deal of stress in the last month, followed by problems with sleep (56%) and difficulty in thinking, concentrating, or making decisions (50%). About half of those with a great deal of stress as well as a chronic illness or disability say stress made the symptoms worse (53%) or made it harder for them to manage their chronic illness or disability (52%).

In addition, many report significant impacts from stress in other spheres of their lives. More than four in 10 of those under a great deal of stress in the last month report that this stress made it harder to get along with family members (45%) and prevented them from spending time with family members (44%). Half of those who experienced a great deal of stress in the last month and are employed say stress made it harder to concentrate at work (51%), and 41 percent say it made it harder to take on extra responsibilities that could help advance their career.

Efforts to Manage High Levels of Stress

Those who have experienced a great deal of stress over the past month tried to reduce their stress in many ways. Most who had experienced a great deal of stress in the last month and taken steps to manage it say each of the things they did to reduce stress were effective. More than nine in 10 say that regularly spending time outdoors (94%) or spending time on a hobby (93%) was effective. About seven in 10 (71%) said they regularly spent time with family and friends to reduce stress, while just under six in 10 say they regularly prayed or meditated (57%), spent time outdoors (57%) or ate healthfully (55%). However, less than half of respondents took certain steps to reduce their stress that are often recommended by experts, such as regularly exercising (51% did not) or regularly getting a full night’s sleep (54% did not).

Methodology

This poll is part of an ongoing series of surveys developed by researchers at the Harvard Opinion Research Program (HORP) at Harvard School of Public Health, in partnership with the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and NPR. The research team consists of the following members at each institution.

Harvard School of Public Health

  • Robert J. Blendon, professor of Health Policy and Political Analysis and executive director of HORP
  • Gillian K. SteelFisher, research scientist and assistant director of HORP
  • Kathleen J. Weldon, research and administrative manager
  • John M. Benson, research scientist and managing director of HORP, and Mandy Brulé, research specialist

Robert Wood Johnson Foundation

  • Fred Mann, associate vice president, communications
  • Carolyn Miller, senior program officer, Research-Evaluation-Learning
  • Ari Kramer, communications officer

NPR

  • Anne Gudenkauf, senior supervising editor, science desk
  • Joe Neel, deputy senior supervising editor, science desk

Interviews were conducted via telephone (including both landline and cell phone) by SSRS of Media (Pa.), March 3 – April 8, 2014, among a nationally representative sample of 2,505 adults age 18 and older. The interviews were conducted in English and Spanish. The margin of error for total respondents is +/- 2.4 percentage points at the 95 percent confidence level. Of the total sample, 633 said they have experienced a great deal of stress in the past month. The margin of error for this group is +/- 4.6 percentage points at the 95 percent confidence level.

Possible sources of non-sampling error include non-response bias, as well as question wording and ordering effects. Non-response in telephone surveys produces some known biases in survey-derived estimates because participation tends to vary for different subgroups of the population. To compensate for these known biases and for variations in probability of selection within and across households, sample data are weighted by household size, cell phone/landline use and demographics (sex, age, race/ethnicity, education, marital status and census region) to reflect the true population. Other techniques, including random-digit dialing, replicate subsamples, and systematic respondent selection within households, are used to ensure that the sample is representative.

About NPR

NPR is an award-winning, multimedia news organization that reaches 26 million radio listeners each week, and 23 million people monthly on digital platforms. In collaboration with more than 900 local radio stations nationwide, NPR strives to provide the public with a deeper understanding and appreciation of events, ideas and cultures. To find local stations and broadcast times, visit www.npr.org/stations.

About Harvard School of Public Health

Harvard School of Public Health brings together dedicated experts from many disciplines to educate new generations of global health leaders and produce powerful ideas that improve the lives and health of people everywhere. As a community of leading scientists, educators, and students, we work together to take innovative ideas from the laboratory to people’s lives—not only making scientific breakthroughs, but also working to change individual behaviors, public policies, and health care practices. Each year, more than 400 faculty members at HSPH teach 1,000-plus full-time students from around the world and train thousands more through online and executive education courses. Founded in 1913 as the Harvard-MIT School of Health Officers, the School is recognized as America’s oldest professional training program in public health. For more information on the school, visit www.hsph.harvard.edu.

About the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation

For more than 40 years the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation has worked to improve the health and health care of all Americans. We are striving to build a national Culture of Health that will enable all Americans to live longer, healthier lives now and for generations to come. For more information, visit www.rwjf.org. Follow the Foundation on Twitter at www.rwjf.org/twitter or on Facebook at www.rwjf.org/facebook.

Media Contacts

Melissa Blair

Robert Wood Johnson Foundation (609) 627-5937

Additional Media Contact: Catherine Arnst

Robert Wood Johnson Foundation (609) 627-7511

Marjorie Dwyer

(617) 432-8416

Watch and Listen as Noted Experts Delve Into the Issue of Stress

An online Forum at Harvard School of Public Health, presented in collaboration with RWJF and NPR, explored the issue of stress, its causes, solutions—and how working to address it can help build a Culture of Health.

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Reporting on Stress in America

NPR is scheduling several stories this week and next, in conjunction with the release of the report, "The Burden of Stress in America."

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