Nurses working in an accident and emergency department reported that their anxiety levels fell dramatically when they were given aromatherapy massages while listening to music, according to research in the September issue of the UK-based Journal of Clinical Nursing.
Two 12-week alternative therapy sessions were provided over the course of a year. 86 nurses participated in the study, with 39 taking part in both the summer and winter sessions.
Researchers found that 60 per cent of the staff - 54 per cent in summer and 65 per cent in winter - suffered from moderate to extreme anxiety.
But this fell to just eight per cent, regardless of the season, once staff had received 15-minute aromatherapy massages while listening to relaxing new-age music.
The study also sought to examine whether there were any seasonal differences in stress levels.
"There's always been a perception that staff feel more stressed in the winter months - when they deal with more serious respiratory and cardiac cases - and the stress levels we recorded would seem to support this" says Marie Cooke, Deputy Head of the School of Nursing and Midwifery at Griffith University, Queensland, Australia.
"But when we analysed the workload figures and case distribution we found little difference between winter and summer patient levels during the study periods. Staff dealt with just over 10,700 patients each season and the number of deaths and the percentage of patients in each triage category (which determines how quickly people need to be seen) was fairly consistent between the seasons.
"However the fact remains that providing alternative therapy was more effective during the winter months. During both study periods the number of staff feeling stressed fell to eight per cent, but there was a greater reduction in winter, when the number fell from 65 per cent, than in the summer, when the pre-massage score was 54 per cent.
As well as measuring staff's anxiety levels before and after aromatherapy massages, 68 responded to a detailed occupational stress survey - 33 who had taken part in the summer sessions and 35 from the winter sessions.
The survey - which included measuring occupational stress factors such as pressure of responsibility, quality concerns, role conflict, job satisfaction and self esteem - was carried out before and after each 12-week period.
It revealed that occupational stress levels were consistent between the summer and winter trials.
Staff who took part in the study had an average age of 38 and had spent just over seven years working in the emergency department. 80 per cent were female and 60 per cent worked full time. Comparisons with national statistics showed that the sample had more male and full-time staff than national averages.
Massages were provided by a qualified therapist who sprayed aromatherapy mist above the heads of participants and then massaged their shoulders, mid back, neck, scalp forehead and temples, while they listened to relaxing music on headphones.
Participants, who were seated in a quiet room, were able to choose the essential oil used, from rose, lavender, lime or ocean breeze - a combination of lavender, ylang ylang, bergamot and patchouli.
Sixteen massages were carried out over a two-day work period each week, with the names of all staff working those days put into an envelope and selected at random.
"There is scope for a lot more research into this area" concludes Dr Cooke.
"We would be interested to see if different types of alternative therapy produced different results and whether factors such as age, gender and health status had any effect on the outcome.
"But what is clear from this study is that providing aromatherapy massage had an immediate and dramatic effect on staff who traditionally suffer high anxiety levels because of the nature of their work.
"Introducing stress reduction strategies in the workplace could be a valuable tool for employers who are keen to tackle anxiety levels in high pressure roles and increase job satisfaction."