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UC Research Seeking To Confirm Who Is Fit For Work

UC Research Seeking To Confirm Who Is Fit For Work After A Major Event

March 5, 2013

Earthquake-related research by the University of Canterbury (UC) psychology team may have significant implications for assessments of work readiness.

The UC team wants to confirm if it can use objective measures to figure out how fit someone is for work after experiencing a stressful event such as a major disaster.

The UC team, headed by Professor Deak Helton, arranged for people after the September 4 2010 earthquake to perform sensitive computer tasks to assess how much they paid attention and what they were doing.

During the study they also measured the participants’ oxygen levels in their brains.

``We measured changes in the brain tissue as an indicator of the brain’s response to task demands. We also asked participants to report on their depressive, anxiety and stress symptoms in response to the earthquake.

``The main findings showed that people reported moderately elevated symptoms of depression and stress which showed reductions in their ability to sustain their attention. This was in line with well-established psychological theories and our previous research. But there were hints of something more interesting happening.

``The results, although tentative, suggest that people with extremely elevated stress symptoms may be able to be classified by the combination of their brain oxygen levels and performance on the computer tasks.

``If our finding can be replicated in more people then it suggests objective indicators not reliant on a person’s own appraisals or reports of symptoms may assist in determining who is substantially impacted by stressful events.

``Mental health professionals sometimes need additional evidence regarding a person’s condition. This work follows up on some of our previous research which indicated computer based tasks may be a useful way of telling who is fit to work after disasters.’’

Professor Helton’s longer term research project with UC colleagues is seeking to confirm the initial findings. Professor Helton is considered an international leader in the emerging field of neuro-ergonomics, the application of neuroscience work places.

``While many people would rely on someone’s own reports of their symptoms, in some settings the person could be either unwilling or unable to make these self-assessments accurately.

``If you look beyond earthquakes to the broader issue of stressful work such as peacekeeping missions, a significant concern is whether a peacekeeper that experienced a substantially stressful event is fit for redeployment.

``While someone might suggest you could simply ask them, in that context there is probably a culture of not coming forward with these kinds of admissions as soldiering is traditionally a stoic culture.

``We are not mental health professionals and we do not diagnose people. But we see our laboratory work as potentially helpful to those in the mental health community,” said Professor Helton, whose paper with former student Ulrike Ossowski and colleague Dr Sanna Malinen has been published in the Experimental Brain Research journal.

Photo: Deak Helton


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