When studying stress, call a firefighter

Emergency workers can tell us much about the perils of the hectic Nineties, says Stephen Pritchard
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The growth of stress at work, and its consequences for mental and physical health, is the focus of a new national unit at Stirling Universiy for the study of stress and anxiety.

Although researchers at the centre point out that there is no one simple definition of "stress", they agree that there is an increase in the number of patients approaching GPs complaining of stress or stress-related symptoms.

Increased working hours are seen as an important cause of stress. British workers put in the longest hours in Europe. Job insecurity prompts us to work harder, and concerns about the future can be a cause of stress. Changes in relationships can compound stress in the workplace; people with a difficult home life lack the domestic support that can provide a safety valve.

Untreated, stress can have both physical and psychological consequences. It can raise the heart rate, lead to exhaustion and headaches and increased blood pressure. In some people, this can have more serious consequences, such as heart disease and cancer.

The Stirling centre brings together expertise from the university's department of psychology, which has been researching stress and anxiety for 12 years, and health service specialists. The centre's honorary professor, Dr Richard Simpson, is a practicing GP and psychiatrist, and several research programmes are funded by the local Forth Valley Health Board and the Central Scotland NHS Trust.

Work on stress, and occupational stress in particular, grew out of research into anxiety, according to Professor Kevin Power, director of the centre. A large number of patients, referred by GPs to Stirling psychologists for anxiety treatment, were suffering from stress. Research into the subject grew from there. "There is a big overlap," Professor Power explains. "Both stress and anxiety are triggered by life events."

Work to date on occupational stress includes studies of doctors and hospital consultants, police officers and the fire service. Data was obtained through questionnaires distributed in Scotland and the United States. The centre has examined links between stress and the physical health of American firefighters; stress and distress in a Scottish police force; and the effects of occupational stress on the family life of GPs and consultants, also in Scotland.

The findings show that day-to-day problems such as poor communications between management and staff, a lack of resources and time pressures weigh heavily on employees and reduce their productivity. In the police research - the university agreed not to identify the force concerned - Stirling academics found that stress related to "organisational factors" was more wearing than dealing with potentially life-threatening situations while on patrol. Researchers have also examined coping strategies, including the use of humour as a way to deal with stressful situations.

Work with the medical profession and the emergency services stems from the department of psychology's existing connections. But because the research deals with day-to-day occupational stress, it applies to a much wider range of careers.

Plans are under way to examine stress in large organisations, including an NHS trust and the staff of Stirling University itself. In both cases, the projects will span a wide range of occupational groups. These will be on a larger scale than the projects to date, which have involved samples of between 170 and 976 employees.

The centre is also expecting to begin work on post-traumatic stress disorder. This will focus on the aftermath of road traffic accidents, rather than large, headline-grabbing disasters. The trauma project is likely to use individual interviews as the core research method.

The centre is cementing co-operation between medical and clinical researchers. Before, Stirling academics already dealt frequently with the medical profession, especially with local GPs through the Forth Valley General Practice Research Group. Funding for the centre comes from the university's core resources, the NHS, and pharmaceutical companies. Professor Power believes the centre's research should be "something with theoretical value and clinical relevance".