Dysregulated heart-rate variability related to workplace stress may hold the key to understanding how chronic stress decreases the speed and accuracy of decision-making and reaction times, according to research from La Trobe University.
In conjunction with Racing Victoria, more than 80 per cent of registered apprentice jockeys participated in the research led by Dr Brad Wright, a Senior Lecturer in the School of Psychology and Public Health at La Trobe University.
“The findings correspond with research which has shown dysregulated stress physiology has been related with decreases in other psychological constructs such as memory,” said Dr Wright.
“We are not saying that jockeys are highly stressed. Our findings not only apply to jockeys, but potentially to high-stress occupations such as surgeons and emergency service personnel, where poor decision-making can have dire consequences.
“We were surprised by the magnitude of the relationship between chronic stress physiology and decreased decision-making. For jockeys, small decrements in decision-making and reaction times can not only mean the difference between winning or losing, but also serious injury or worse.
“When you consider that jockeys have one of the most dangerous jobs on land, we need to continually explore better ways to protect them and Racing Victoria is committed to doing so by supporting research such as this.”
Researchers collected measures of occupational stress and heart-rate variability; an indicator of the body’s ability to respond appropriately to stressors, over two time-points reflecting low and high stress periods on the racing calendar.
Dr Wright will next be looking at senior jockeys and high-risk occupations. “While we used the best available instruments to access decision-making and reaction times, we have developed virtual-reality software to see if the decrements we observed correspond with actual decision-making and reaction time during a horse race,” he said.
“Racing Victoria are a progressive organisation and continue to invest in this research as they see the long-term benefits for the sport and beyond, and are committed to continually improving jockey welfare.
“Ultimately, our research won’t just be about the multi-trillion dollar business of winning and losing in sport, but other important occupations such as medicine, finance, defence, and law and order, where split-second decisions can have huge implications.”
La Trobe University