Chronic exposure to stress has been linked to several negative physiological and psychological health outcomes. Among employees, stress and its associated effects can also result in productivity losses and higher healthcare costs. In-person (face-to-face) and computer-based (web- and mobile-based) stress management interventions have been shown to be effective in reducing stress in employees compared to no intervention. However, it is unclear if one form of intervention delivery is more effective than the other. It is conceivable that computer-based interventions are more accessible, convenient, and cost-effective.
To compare the effects of computer-based interventions versus in-person interventions for preventing and reducing stress in workers.
We searched CENTRAL, MEDLINE, PubMed, Embase, PsycINFO, NIOSHTIC, NIOSHTIC-2, HSELINE, CISDOC, and two trials registers up to February 2017.
We included randomised controlled studies that compared the effectiveness of a computer-based stress management intervention (using any technique) with a face-to-face intervention that had the same content. We included studies that measured stress or burnout as an outcome, and used workers from any occupation as participants.
Three authors independently screened and selected 75 unique studies for full-text review from 3431 unique reports identified from the search. We excluded 73 studies based on full-text assessment. We included two studies. Two review authors independently extracted stress outcome data from the two included studies. We contacted study authors to gather additional data. We used standardised mean differences (SMDs) with 95% confidence intervals (CIs) to report study results. We did not perform meta-analyses due to variability in the primary outcome and considerable statistical heterogeneity. We used the GRADE approach to rate the quality of the evidence.
Two studies met the inclusion criteria, including a total of 159 participants in the included arms of the studies (67 participants completed computer-based interventions; 92 participants completed in-person interventions). Workers were primarily white, Caucasian, middle-aged, and college-educated. Both studies delivered education about stress, its causes, and strategies to reduce stress (e.g. relaxation or mindfulness) via a computer in the computer-based arm, and via small group sessions in the in-person arm. Both studies measured stress using different scales at short-term follow-up only (less than one month). Due to considerable heterogeneity in the results, we could not pool the data, and we analysed the results of the studies separately. The SMD of stress levels in the computer-based intervention group was 0.81 standard deviations higher (95% CI 0.21 to 1.41) than the in-person group in one study, and 0.35 standard deviations lower (95% CI -0.76 to 0.05) than the in-person group in another study. We judged both studies as having a high risk of bias.
We found very low-quality evidence with conflicting results, when comparing the effectiveness of computer-based stress management interventions with in-person stress management interventions in employees. We could include only two studies with small sample sizes. We have very little confidence in the effect estimates. It is very likely that future studies will change these conclusions.