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Surviving and thriving

John Leach works as a psychologist but came to professional practice late in life and his very specialist interests have led to a move to Norway

06 January 2011

I was originally interested in biology, particularly the biological basis of behaviour. During the 1970s and '80s I worked on North Sea oil rigs as a diver. We were pioneering both subsea technology and human exploration, regularly reaching new depths and breaking underwater endurance records. This rapid offshore expansion had clinical and psychological consequences. I was in a unique position to run trials on the psychology of professional diving and looked at the effects of oxygen decompression on working memory, supported by Professor Peter Morris at Lancaster University. This work expanded into areas such as perceptual factors in underwater inspection and the neurocognitive consequences of repeated decompression. That I now specialise in survival psychology and have moved to Norway results from a parallel interest in shipwreck survivors.

A practical interest

I qualified as a military survival officer, completing formal training in combat survival as well as environmental survival in sea, temperate, desert, jungle, Arctic and polar environments. I am now fortunate enough to combine both interests in my appointment as a Survival, Evasion, Resistance and Extraction (SERE – a NATO acronym) psychologist to the Norwegian Armed Forces. My post involves both research and operational support for all aspects of the psychology of human survival including recovery and post-trauma. Our current emphasis is on hostage survival, but I am also addressing cognitive dysfunction in survival situations and, with Dr Sarita Robinson at the University of Central Lancashire (see p.30), the neuroimmune aspects of environmental duress (being coerced by threats). As well as the practical aspects of my work with the Norwegian military I also hold a research appointment at the Center for the Study of Human Cognition, University of Oslo.

The men push the pram

Sixty per cent of my time is spent on research and 40 per cent on operational support. I also have my own annual budget to support my research which was a key attraction for my moving.

The offer of the post of SERE psychologist two years ago was unexpected, but the decision to move to Norway was simple: exciting work; a beautiful country (especially if you like outdoors activities); friendly people; supportive work environments and family-friendly legislation. True, the winters are long (but can be glorious), but so are the summers. There is also freedom and openness here that I feel was lost in the UK some years ago. This includes both academic freedom as well as societal freedom – you have to go out of your way to find a surveillance camera, even in downtown Oslo.

Psychology in Norway is well supported and emphasises clinical research and practice. The priority is on applying psychology to the population's well-being: this is the main stated goal of the Norwegian Psychological Association (Norsk Psykologforening or NPF). The NPF acts as both a professional society and as a trade union for 6000 members, of whom approximately 90 per cent are registered professional (clinical) psychologists.

Living in Norway has taken some adjustments. One of the initial surprises was the working time directive, which states that I am not allowed to work beyond my allocated weekly hours. This is monitored quite rigorously. If breached we are allocated time in lieu. It took me a year to break UK habits and adjust to working fewer hours, but I am now convinced that this is the right approach. This is no doubt one reason Norway frequently tops the international polls for quality for life. No one seems to finish the week as one of the walking wounded.

Norwegian bureaucracy is a big problem, especially when trying to obtain residency and work permits. Being head-hunted for a post funded by the Norwegian government did not cut any ice with officials. The Norwegian system is distributed and insular (different areas do not talk to each other), which meant visiting different offices (immigration, tax, police, etc.) in different parts of Oslo armed with bundles of paper every six months. However, Norway has recently attempted to improve its system (at least for EU nationals) by combining the residency and work permits into one single settlement permit that does not need renewal every five years. But it still took me over a year of battling bureaucracy to obtain what is called a 'D' number. Every Norwegian is given an 11-digit 'D' number at birth and nothing happens without one.

Norwegian has more letters and sounds than English, but learning it is problematic because, when Norwegians discover where you come from, they want to practise their English. English is most Norwegians' second language, and most people speak it reasonably well.

Norway is a very expensive country to visit, and cheaper to live in. Professional salaries are approximately equivalent to those in the UK but income tax is lower. There is no VAT, council tax or water rates. Public transport is very good, integrated and quite cheap. Alcohol is expensive, but this is a deliberate government policy to avoid binge drinking and its related problems. On the other hand, housing is much cheaper than in Britain; expect to pay approximately one-third to one-half the price of an equivalent property in the UK. And property becomes cheaper the further from the city one moves. Also, there is still tax relief on mortgage interest. For families, education is free including at the university level.

In conclusion, while my move to Norway two years ago was unexpected, it has worked out well: the work is exciting and rewarding; the working environment is relaxed; we are not shackled to targets and audits; there is plenty of time for outside interests and the country is family orientated – in Norway, the men push the prams.