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International Handbook of Work and Health Psychology, 3rd Edition by Marc J. Schabracq, James C. Quick, Cary L. Cooper

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CHAPTER 12Flexibility at Work in Relation to Employee Health

Töres Theorell

Karolinska Institute Stockholm, Sweden

12.1 PHYSIOLOGICAL FLEXIBILITY

From a medical perspective it is important to begin discussions about flexibility at work with the individual physiological mechanisms underlying reaction patterns. A recent development in physiology is the formulation of ‘chaos theory’ (Cotton, 1991; Goldberger, 1991), which can be regarded as the biological basis of flexible coping. It is, accordingly, of fundamental importance to the analysis of flexibility at work in relation to employee health. It postulates that the reactions in the healthy organism are unpredictable by means of conventional ‘linear’ models because there are a large number of possible responses to demanding situations. This is mirrored in the fact, for example, that the healthy human being has a large number of cycles in its variation in heart rate. The most well-known cycle is the one that is associated with breathing: when we take in air the heart rate accelerates and vice versa. As we grow old or develop certain kinds of heart disorders this respiratory ‘sinus arrhythmia’ disappears and so do several of the heart rate variability cycles. Most of our biological functions show variability that follows several cycles at the same time, and it seems to be true that ageing and sickness – for instance, heart disease – are associated with extinction of several of these cycles.

The unpredictable biological variability ...

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