Too much stress is a problem we all face, however stress isn’t always a bad thing. Sometimes, feeling stressed can lead to more motivation and greater focus. If we overdo it, however, it can have a bad impact on our mental health. This can range from having a short temper, to headaches, to having trouble sleeping, to even becoming unwell.

According to the APA, 75 percent of adults will go through some stress on any given month. In spite of how many people is affected by stress only a few of them will get any help. This may be due to lack of time, worrying about what others may think, thinking we should be able to get over it on our own or simply not being able to afford help. A way to make accessing help more convenient, more private and cheaper is through digital technology, but can web-based treatments really help?

As a lot of the stress we face comes from our jobs, employers are also interested in the answer to that question. Less stressed employees are happier in their jobs, less likely to burn out or quit, and more productive. Companies are learning that investing in the wellbeing of employees is good for business and it is the right thing to do. Contrary to popular belief, they can do well by doing good.

Elena Heber and colleagues conducted a study which tested how useful web-based stress management in adults is. The study was a meta-analysis of 23 studies. As there are many studies published and sometimes they contradict one another a meta-analysis pools together the results of other studies and does the math to work out what the conclusion really is from all those other pooled studies. Web-based stress tools can differ in terms of what techniques they offer and what sort of program they run, but they all met a standard of good quality that Elena and her colleagues set. The important thing to remember is that all the interventions included in this meta-analysis had been designed by experts and that they had all been tested to the highest standard. This is worth noting as many stress-busting tools available online have not gone through this type of thorough testing. Even in this selected group of studies things that may change from one study to the next include what intervention was offered, whether professionals were helping people go through the program or not and the length of the program. These may all impact the effectiveness of treatment.

One of the most common approaches used by the studies included in the analysis is cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT). CBT is a technique which allows people to change the way they think. This is done by, learning about how the body reacts to stress, challenging negative thoughts and changing what we do when we feel stressed, from things that may make the problems worse to things that will help us cope better. Another approach which is used in web-based interventions is called ‘third-wave cognitive behavioral intervention’ (TWC). This is behavioral therapy with a focus on mindfulness. Mindfulness is being more aware of the things around you and what you are doing. Other methods may include physical exercise programs. In terms of the length, this again can vary. Elena and her colleagues reported in the analysis that a web-based intervention can range from 2 weeks to a couple of months. The third thing which may impact the user’s experience is whether the sessions are guided or not. This includes the amount of support and guidance given to the user.

The results showed:

  • TWC was the most effective when treating stress.
  • CBT was also beneficial, leading to reduced stress.
  • The use of alternative methods (such as written feedback with no further support) did not show benefits
  • Guided interventions work better than unguided, although it is not clear if this is just because you get more people to do the program if there is a coach involved.
  • Short-medium interventions (6 weeks on average) had small to medium benefits. Longer interventions had less impact.

Elena and her colleagues concluded  that web-based interventions for stress can be effective. The right type of intervention should be based on TWC or CBT, guided if possible, and lasting around 6 weeks. Web-based interventions are more affordable and accessible than face to face interventions, the barrier to seek help is lower and they may well prove to be an important component for an employer’s strategy on how to improve work-related stress.