Psychology prof honoured for her research on stress

Esther Greenglass, professor of psychology in York’s Faculty of Health, will be the guest of honour at the Stress and Anxiety Research Society’s annual conference in Crete, Greece, July 13 -15. Greenglass will accept the society’s Lifetime Career Award for her research in the areas of stress, coping, emotions and health.

Right: Esther Greenglass

The Stress and Anxiety Research Society (STAR) is a multidisciplinary, international organization of researchers who share an interest in problems associated with stress, coping and anxiety. Its members, from more than 35 countries, meet annually to exchange research findings and clinical applications on a wide range of stress and anxiety related phenomena. STAR is bestowing the lifetime award on Greenglass to celebrate her extensive research and teaching career and her role in studying empowerment and health. 

Greenglass’ international work has resulted in her appointment this month as the first Canadian president of the Division of Health Psychology of the International Association of Applied Psychology.

The theme has travelled with Greenglass over the course of her career relates empowerment and health. “There is a relationship between power and health,” says Greenglass. “And that is the crux, how do we empower ourselves to take control of our own health?”

That interest was evident in her work during her early years at York University. In 1967, she came to York as a post-doctoral fellow. In 1972, she was made an associate professor in the Department of Psychology, Faculty of Arts. Back then, it was a very different world. In March 1972, Canadian journalist Sidney Katz penned an article for the Toronto Star‘s Insight Section that probed a hot button topic of the day — the escalating numbers of children “born out of wedlock.” Greenglass was interviewed for the article and presented her view that counselling and sex talk be made available primarily through family doctors. She also advocated public education through mass media. At a time when contraception was not mentioned in Ontario courses on health, sex and family life, Greenglass told Katz: “If the manufacturers of soap, soft drinks or vaginal deodorants showed as little initiative in pushing their product as we do in promoting birth control, then they would go out of business in a week.”

Throughout her professional life, Greenglass has challenged the status quo. In her early years, serving with the federal government’s Task Force on the Status of Women and the Advisory Council on the Status of Women, she saw a need for change which led her also to serve on the steering committee of the National Ad Hoc Committee on the Status of Women in Canada. That organization is now known as the National Action Committee on the Status of Women in Canada (NAC).

It was in this role in 1977 that Greenglass wrote in a letter to the editor of the Toronto Star that: “Feminists are not three-headed creatures with warts. They are ordinary women who believe in equal rights for women, are willing to work for this cause, and to stand up and be counted.”

Her roots are also reflected in her research on health and the empowerment of health-care workers. During the drastic cuts to health care that marked the Harris government’s restructuring of Ontario’s hospital system, Greenglass undertook research with the Ontario Nurses Association on how nurses have took the brunt of hospital closings and restructuring across Ontario. She was also involved in researching the impact on women who had to travel to other jurisdictions for breast cancer treatment and pre-natal care.

It was this research role that propelled her to take on a project investigating on how health-care workers coped with stress during the SARS outbreak in 2003. Greenglass set out with international colleagues and those closer to home, in the School of Nursing at York University, to probe the psycho-social impact of SARS on nurses in Ontario and in China.

Greenglass is quick to point out that the impact of SARS was predictable. “Pandemic,” Greenglass said, “is a metaphor for the next major assault on our health-care system and my work includes the scientific evaluation of hospital downsizing on nurses. Critical to our response is our understanding of psycho-social factors associated with the delivery of health care.”

Another area of health that Greenglass has been actively researching is coping. In collaboration with Ralf Schwarzer, Greenglass has developed the Proactive Coping Inventory (PCI), a tool which has been used all over the world in relation to work stress, burnout, rehabilitation and test anxiety. She points out that coping proactively is part of a new and exciting area in psychological research, the area of positive psychology.

“There is much work to be done,” Greenglass says, citing as one of many examples “the paucity of research and information on positive coping.”

Greenglass, who completed her doctorate at the University of Toronto, was drawn to York by its “strong commitment to the social sciences,” and looks forward to great things coming out of the interdisciplinary structure of York’s new Faculty of Health. “This is proactive scholarship,” says Greenglass. “Bringing together researchers and teachers in many areas of health whose common interests and differing visions will produce unique and refreshing approaches.”

When pushed to characterize the journey she has undertaken, Greenglass says without hesitation, “Human health, because I believe health is a perspective on the world, on life.”

Photograph and article by YFile graduate assistant Chris Kurata, a York PhD candidate in English.