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Findings: Effort Distress

Marianne Frankenhauser’s effort-distress model has been tested in a number of studies (26, 27). Lundberg and Frankenhauser (1980) reported on a laboratory study in which healthy adults performed two tasks. The first involved a one-hour monotonous vigilance task which induced effort and distress, and the second was a more enjoyable self-paced reaction time task, which required effort but did not induce distress. During the monotonous vigilance task, urinary excretion of both adrenalin and cortisol increased, while during the self-paced task adrenalin increased, but cortisol levels were less than baseline (27).

In a field study, machine-paced assembly line sawmill workers had higher catecholamine levels than self-paced workers (Frankenhauser and Gardell, 1976). In addition, the assembly line workers reported more rush and irritation during work, more psychosomatic disturbances, such as sleep disorders, gastrointestinal disorders, and general nervous symptoms than did workers with less restricted jobs, for example, maintenance and repair men (27).

A field study of computer (VDT) workers, routine high-speed data entry workers had slightly higher catecholamine levels at work than a control group of typists and secretaries with fairly flexible and variable tasks including social interaction (27). The difference between groups increased in the evening at home (between 16:00 and 21:30 hours), with only the control group’s levels returning to baseline. This difficulty in “unwinding” was also seen among the machine-paced sawmill workers.

Another study in which “slow unwinding” was observed was a study of female office workers engaged in an extended period of overtime work. Adrenalin excretion was significantly elevated throughout the overtime period, both during the day and in the evening, compared to values before the overtime period. Elevated evening levels were accompanied by markedly elevated heart rate as well as feelings of irritability and fatigue (27). In another study, such slower unwinding was also observed in a sample of 15 female managers, relative to female clerical workers, or male managers (Frankenhauser et al., 1989).


Frankenhauser M, Gardell B. Underload and overload in working life: Outline of a multidisciplinary approach. Journal of Human Stress 1976;2:35-46.

Frankenhauser M, Lundberg U, Fredrikson M, Melin B, Tuomisto M, Myrsten A-L, Hedman M, Bergman-Losman B, Wallin L. Stress on and off the job as related to sex and occupational status in white- collar workers. Journal of Organizational Behavior 1989;10:321-346.

Lundberg U, Frankenhauser M. Pituitary-adrenal and sympathetic- adrenal correlates of distress and effort. Journal of Psychosomatic Research 1980;24:125-130.

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