Gilliland Studies Response to Work Stress

By Wolfe, Lou Anne | THE JOURNAL RECORD, February 19, 1994 | Go to article overview

Gilliland Studies Response to Work Stress


Wolfe, Lou Anne, THE JOURNAL RECORD


Sit around and think up ways to drive people crazy _ that's what Kirby Gilliland does.

What's more, he gets paid for doing it, and has even gotten grants to further his aims. People volunteer to be his research subjects.

Gilliland is an associate professor of psychology at the University of Oklahoma. His special interest is workplace stress, and how individuals respond. For about 10 years, he and a colleague researched the effects of workload on individuals using tests called "human performance task batteries."

These could be as simple as tracking tasks that use motor skills, or mathematical problems, verbal and memory tests, and spatial rotation tasks.

"Some become more and more complex, depending on how you want to combine them," Gilliland said. "We assess the workload in the lab, and begin to analyze tasks and see how hard they are. Then we compare these difficulty ratings to jobs people do in the real world . . . and measure how difficult certain types of jobs are."

The work is important, because technology has reached the point that airplanes could be built with such intricate and complex instruments that a human couldn't fly them, he said. If a weapons system were added, the aircraft would be a greater challenge.

"Conceivably, we could be facing that in other jobs, such as nuclear power plants or air traffic controllers," Gilliland said.

Particularly in safety-sensitive jobs, "we don't want to put people in a job situation they cannot perform because of the workload," he said.

Gilliland has long been interested in the ways people react to stress _ not just the physiological and psychological effects, but how they adapt to it.

Since jobs are a predominant source of stress in people's lives, he came up with the idea of utilizing the workload research and simulating the kinds of fundamental factors that relate to stress in the work environment. Then, he could observe the way people reacted, instead of just asking.

"We can re-create those dynamics in the lab," Gilliland said. "We have more control, and we can measure the response more accurately.

"The value is, we can begin to learn more general ways people respond to stress and adapt _ that may be applicable to a lot of different stressors."

The research also could help psychologists understand some unique ways that individuals respond that might not be typical, he said.

In one task, a group of 12 people was faced with a computer program where they were instructed to keep the machine's cursor in the center of the screen. Four or five of the subjects handled the task very well, while two were almost indistinguishable for performing at a low level, Gilliland said.

"Two were very overwhelmed, and they had great difficulty in the course of 18 minutes, trying to deal with that problem," he said. The research can help psychologists "begin to understand what it is about these situations that allows some people to respond and recruit their skills and abilities, while others have great difficulty," he said.

In addition, the physiological responses of selected subjects are monitored as they take the tests in a soundproof room equipped to inject such additional stressors as noises into the testing situation.

Sophisticated computer programs allow the OU researchers to retrieve data showing exactly what a subject was doing when his or her heartbeat was elevated, eyes were blinking rapidly or respirations had increased.

A subject might be called upon to monitor simultaneously on a computer screen numerous simulated situations, including fluctuating dials and the flow of liquid through storage tanks. …

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