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RR644 - Attention, awareness and occupational stress

Symptoms associated with occupational stress, such as muscular pain and fatigue, are common in the working population. These types of symptoms have been termed idiopathic; in other words, it is difficult to link these symptoms to a definite physical cause. To complicate matters further, idiopathic symptoms are often associated with psychological variables such as anxiety and depression. Despite these difficulties, idiopathic symptoms represent an important index of occupational health and play an significant role in the decision to seek medical consultation. However, the origins of these symptoms are not well understood particularly with respect to the influence of psychological factors.

This project is primarily concerned with the influence of attentional factors on the perception of idiopathic symptoms associated with occupational stress. Attention is fundamentally goal-driven and selective. We attend to a certain category of stimuli to reinforce existing beliefs. If a person has negative beliefs about health, they are inclined to actively monitor bodily signs and symptoms for evidence of illness. A person who is experiencing an uncomfortable or troubling symptom also tends to direct attention internally to the body, at the expense of attending to events in the external world. By directing attention internally, the person experiences a higher level of body consciousness or awareness.

This report and the work it describes were funded by the Health and Safety Executive (HSE). Its contents, including any opinions and/or conclusions expressed, are those of the authors alone and do not necessarily reflect HSE policy.

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Updated 2010-03-19