Are your staff fit for work?

by Rose Sneyd02 Apr 2013

From fires to floods, Australia has its fair share of natural disasters. Now researchers are studying means to judge workers’ readiness to return to work. A University of Canterbury (UC) psychology team is trying to develop objective measures that could evaluate an employee’s work readiness in the aftermath of such traumatic events.

These tests could help employers make a reliable and accurate assessment of someone’s fitness for work, rather than having to rely on that person’s subjective and potentially biased self-assessment. “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,” Professor Deak Helton, leader of the research team, explained. In stoic work cultures where no one wants to be perceived as ‘slacking off’, the usefulness of such objective measures is clear.

The UC research team had research subjects perform computer tasks in the wake of the September 4 earthquake in Christchurch. During these tasks, the researchers measured three things: how much attention the participants paid, what they were doing, and their brain oxygen levels.

“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,” Helton said.

The main finding to emerge from the study was that those participants who reported ‘moderately elevated symptoms’ of depression and stress also exhibited a reduction in their ability to maintain attention during the computer tasks. The results also indicated that you may be able to identify those with ‘extremely elevated’ symptoms of stress using the brain oxygen levels paired with the computer task performance.

“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,” Helton said.


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