Psychological Medicine

Response of hostile individuals to stressful change in their working lives: test of a psychosocial vulnerability model

a1 University of Turku, Department of Public Health; Finnish Institute of Occupational Health, Turku; and Institute of Public Health, Department of Epidemiology and Health Promotion, Finland


Background. According to the psychosocial vulnerability model, the health of hostile individuals is at greater risk than that of non-hostile individuals, due partly to lesser ability of the former to cope with psychosocial stress situations. We examined whether hostile individuals were more vulnerable than others to health problems when faced with stressful changes in their working lives.

Methods. Hostility, sickness absence and psychosocial stressors in 866 local government employees over a 5-year period, which included severe economic decline, were investigated. Hostility was measured by a questionnaire. Data on medically certified sickness absence were obtained from the records of the local authority. Information about exposure to psychosocial stressors after assessment of hostility was also derived from these records, and from reports from the subjects.

Results. Exposure to stressors during the period of economic decline was related to increased rates of sickness absence. In men, hostility increased risk of sickness absence after exposure to stressors only in cases of absence because of trauma. In women, hostility increased risk of absence through sickness overall and absence because of musculoskeletal disorders in individuals facing stressors such as severe organizational downsizing, high or increased levels of job demands or negative change in work. Findings were adjusted for sickness absence at the beginning of the decline, socio-economic background and behavioural risk factors.

Conclusions. The psychosocial vulnerability model was partly supported. However, heightened vulnerability through hostility may differ between the sexes, since it was more evident in the women studied than in the men.

c1 Address for correspondence: Dr Mika Kivimäki, Finnish Institute of Occupational Health, Department of Psychology, Laajaniityntie 1, FIN-01620 Vantaa, Finland.