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Job stress an important area of research

Stress research has told us what a job should not look like, but I want to know what a health-promoting job does look like, says Gunn Johansson. When she became a professor in the Department of Occupational and Organizational Psychology at Stockholm University at the age of 49, it was her first permanent position. She was involved in revealing that there are three key factors underlying stress: a machinecontrolled pace, monotony and multiple divided job steps. Working alone at a monotonous nightshift job is most harmful of all. These insights have led to the replacement of the conveyor belt with more group-controlled processes in industry, and to a greater recognition of the need for collegial support. These changes are based on solid research findings, to which Gunn Johansson has contributed along with others. She has devoted a large portion of her professional life to something known as psychobiological stress reactions, a topic that has become extremely relevant in recent years. What about stress today? Gunn Johansson is not surprised by the increased numbers of people being sick- listed because of stress and burnout. Upheavals in the working world involving downsizing and belt-tightening have increased the pressures on those who still have jobs. We must be flexible enough that we can keep up with developments and continuously assume new job tasks. In addition to our regular job tasks, we have to participate in developmental work, committees and projects. As a result, our work runs in several parallel tracks simultaneously. There is always something left unresolved. Clearly it is a positive development that employees are gaining more influence and opportunities to take the initiative, but it becomes difficult to prioritize if the goals of the enterprise are vague. We stretch out our resources, and the result can be harmful stress. No job security Gunn has herself worked for the greater part of her life with no job security, which is a fairly common situation in academia. But she has never felt insecure. Gunn Johansson grew up in lvsj, outside of Stockholm, in a solid working class environment, where taking ones Alevels and moving on to higher education constituted slightly sensational behavior. Her path to research was not a straight one. She had intended to study to become a doctor, but when the A- levels failed to suffice, she decided to supplement with psychology studies. However, there was never any thought of working as a clinical psychologist. She became discouraged when she was set to intern at Lngbro Hospital and, at a young age, encountered deeply depressed middle-aged patients whom she did not feel should could deal with properly. She felt that she was on firmer ground in the role of assistant to older researchers. She earned extra income by helping them process statistics using a manual Odhner pinwheel calculator (this was in the 1960s, before the computer age). Meeting Marianne Frankenhaeuser, who got her involved in stress research in earnest, proved to be decisive. What attracted her was the scientific approach. IDA study

The method used was to combine the current questionnaires and interviews with objective data, i.e. measurements of stress hormone levels in urine. Gunn Johans son became an assistant to American developmental and social psychologist William Lambert in what was known as the Solna Project. Two of the questions answered with a cautious affirmative were 1) is there a family pattern with respect to the secretion of stress hormones? and 2) can this in turn be dependent on methods of child-rearing? She continued on to rebro, where she studied stress in school children within the framework of the so-called IDA study. The project was an ambitious one, and involved an entire age group, i.e. those born in 1955. It was expected that stress hormone levels would rise during a math test and fall when the children watched a nature film. On the other hand, it was newsworthy that girls exhibit physiological signs of less stress than boys while taking an arithmetic test. However, this does not affect the final results. The girls were as capable as the boys. Studied a sawmill When Gunn Johansson was convinced to take her doctorate following her licentiate dissertation, she fo und further use for the rebro material, supplementing it with two occupational field studies concerning the importance of rest and relaxation after a stressful work period. These studies gave her insight into the extent to which people differ in terms of their stress patterns. This resulted in our now allowing each individual to function as their own control person, and in our often proceeding on the basis of a rest value. She was then appointed to coordinate a project intended in part to study the effects of solo and monotonous job tasks, and which included Marianne Frankenhaeuser and Bertil Gardell, among others. Gunn Johansson and Gunnar Aronsson traveled to a Swedish sawmill to study the relationship between stress and the work environment. They were given a positive reception, although the management sometimes exhibited a degree of suspicion. The corporate managers laughed at us when we proposed that they try to abandon paying workers on a piecework basis during a recession. If our workers get a chance to try that out, how do you think well ever get them to go back to doing piecework, was the response. She was also among the first researchers to study the connection between VDT work and stress. She found at an insurance company in Gothenburg that those who were most severely affected by stress were the office workers (often women) who were inputting data at terminals connected to a main computer in Stockholm. When that computer would go down, there would be an involuntary break in the work, which increased the level of stress. The workload continued to grow, and the pile of material that had to be input would not shrink by itself. These women also had a harder time relaxing during their free time than did salaried employees engaged in higher- level tasks at their display screens. Gunn and her colleagues are eagerly awaiting the results of the IDA study, in which the girls from the rebro study were followed up. The preliminary findings indicate that many of these roughly 560 women have had varied professional lives in which studies and continuing education have relieved periods of parental leave, unemployment and different jobs. What is interesting is that very few of these middle-aged women consider themselves to have finished their education. Half of them say that they have not yet realized the career choices they have made, and that they plan on additional studies in the future.

Gun Leander (January 2003)