Performance pay and low-grade stress: An experimental study

Julia Allan, Keith Bender, Ioannis Theodossiou* (Corresponding Author)

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

2 Citations (Scopus)
16 Downloads (Pure)



Although recent economics literature suggests a link between performance-related pay (PRP) and ill health, this finding is contested on the grounds that this link is plagued by endogeneity between the two variables of interest.


This study investigates the adverse effects of performance-related pay on stress which is an important determinant of physical health. METHODS: Forty subjects were randomly assigned to two equal groups: either being paid by performance or being paid a flat fee. Both objective (saliva samples to measure cortisol elevation) and subjective (self-reported stress level) measures of stress were obtained before and after participation in the experiment. This experimental methodology purges the effects of self-selection into performance pay and identifies the direction of causation from performance-related pay to stress which is measured by cortisol levels.


Those who were paid for their performance experienced higher levels of stress, both in terms of perceived stress and in terms of objectively measured cortisol levels, compared to those who were paid a flat fee for minimum performance.


Performance-related pay induces objectively measurable stress. Self-reported stress levels and the objective stress measure obtained by measuring cortisol move in a similar direction for the PRP and non-PRP groups, but only the cortisol group shows statistically significant differences between the PRP and non-PRP. This also suggests that individuals underestimate the stress caused by performance pay.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)449-457
Number of pages9
JournalWORK: A Journal of Prevention, Assessment & Rehabilitation
Issue number2
Publication statusPublished - 9 Nov 2020

Bibliographical note

Funding Information:
The financial support for this study by the Scottish Economic Society is gratefully acknowledged and appreciated. The authors are grateful for helpful comments by participants at the 2016 Scottish Economic Society Conference and seminar participants at the University of Aberdeen and the Universite Pantheon-Assas as well as Daniel Powell. Help with z-Tree programming from Maria Bigoni is also greatly appreciated. All errors remain with the authors.


  • cortisol
  • Performance-related pay
  • real-effort experiment
  • stress


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