Purpose - The paper aims to demonstrate the efficacy of the qualitative occupational stress diary as a means by which to attain additional depth of insight into the way people experience stress, to foster individual reflection and self-assessment, and as an aid to the development of context sensitive interventions. Design/methodology/approach - Using a free response format, a critical incident diary was completed by 15 clerical workers, employed in a higher education organisation, over five consecutive working days. Findings - The factors constituting causes and consequences of occupational stress were cognitively framed differently from one day to the next and it is unlikely that these insights would have been attained had we employed a series of preformed quantitative response scales. The diary facilitated self-reflection and was reported to have cathartic qualities. Research implications/limitations - There is a need for context specific, tailored intervention measures. Accumulation of corroborating descriptions of how people respond to specific stressors will contribute to the development of such measures. The work reported now needs to be extended to larger groups and over longer periods to identify the most frequently used coping strategies, and which are most efficacious in a given situation. Practical implications - The qualitative occupational stress diary is a simple but powerful self-reflective tool, which may lead to therapeutic outcomes. Originality/value - A growing number of researchers are critical of the practical influence of quantitative measures of occupational stress and coping. The study illustrates how the qualitative occupational stress diary might usefully complement traditional methods for research and intervention purposes.