Chronic job insecurity can alter the way employees behave both at work and at home. The stress and anxiety associated with this situation may even begin to affect things like a person's personality, research suggests. With the current high levels of unemployment related to COVID-19, these potential negative impacts need to be understood and addressed.
Chia-Huei Wu is a Professor of Organizational Psychology at Leeds University Business School, University of Leeds, U.K. His research interests include proactivity at work, work and personality development, and subjective well-being, and he is the author of the book Employee Proactivity in Organizations: An Attachment Perspective.
JA: How did you first get interested in this topic?
CHW: I am interested in studying how work experiences and environment can shape personality development, partly because I found my life and work experiences in Taiwan, the United Kingdom, and Australia provided different ingredients that gradually shaped who I am today.
I started this research line by looking into the role of job satisfaction and/or job characteristics (e.g., job autonomy) in shaping one’s self-concept and personality. Then I switched my focus to chronic job insecurity (i.e., perceived job insecurity over a long period) as the fear of losing a job could fundamentally influence one’s engagement in her/his work and social life.
If such a worry is persistent, it could result in long-term consequences for how one feels about themselves and the environment, as well as how one interacts with others or our personality in these aspects. My speculation is partly based on my observation in academia that young scholars usually worry about finding permanent jobs or being tenured and secured. Such a worry, usually lasting for many years, could impair one’s work and social life, bringing long-term consequences.
Beyond academia, the increase of precarious employment across all industries, globally, has accentuated the severity of job insecurity, meaning that more individuals could be exposed to job insecurity over the long term. We know very well that job insecurity can undermine performance, health, and well-being. But whether job insecurity, if persistent, would have long term implications for individuals is the question my colleagues and I seek to answer in this study.
JA: What was the focus of your study?
CHW: We analyzed data from the Household, Income and Labour Dynamics in Australia (HILDA) Survey, a national household survey in Australia conducted every year since 2001, capturing representative samples from the population and encompassing employees from a broad cross-section of professions with all forms of employment. The data we used involved employees’ self-reported job security and personality over a nine-year period between 2005 and 2013. The job insecurity measure asked how participants perceived themselves to have a secure future in their job. The personality measure was based on the well-established framework known as the Big Five, which categorizes human personality into five broad personality traits: emotional stability (opposite to neuroticism), agreeableness, conscientiousness, extraversion, and openness.
JA: What did you discover in your study?
CHW: From a total of 1,046 employees across Australia whose data were tracked over 9 years, we found that when employees perceived job insecurity over several consecutive years, this had a negative influence on their personality development. Specifically, chronic job insecurity makes personality development worse, as we found that those who experienced higher job insecurity over nine years increase their neuroticism and decrease their agreeableness and conscientiousness—three personality traits that reflect one’s emotional, social, and motivational stability. In brief, chronic job insecurity makes employees:
- Become easily anxious, tense, irritable, and depressed
- Focus on their own negative feelings, preventing them from paying attention to others and building harmonious social relationships
- Become less motivated to set and achieve goals in an effective way.
Importantly, the above three personality traits represent healthy personality growth because as we age and mature, we become more emotionally stable, more agreeable, and more conscientious over time. Our research thus demonstrates that when chronic job insecurity occurs, it disrupts this normative personality development process, potentially further impacting individuals’ success and health and bringing long-term costs for individuals, workplaces, and society. Our results generally showed null effects of chronic job insecurity with regard to extraversion and openness (the traits that reflect plasticity).
JA: Is there anything that surprised you in your findings, or that you weren't fully expecting?
CHW: While chronic job insecurity can be associated with negative changes in personality, we are curious whether higher chronic job control or autonomy could help buffer the negative effects. We did not find such an effect. Chronic job control cannot help probably because it is a resource for employees to determine their tasks and work activities, which cannot help employees to deal with issues around the sustainability of employment relationships. This null finding suggests that better job design, such as offering more job autonomy, cannot prevent the negative impact of chronic job insecurity. Practitioners should thus be aware of their approaches to mitigate impacts of chronic job insecurity.
JA: How might readers apply what you found to their lives?
CHW: At the moment, we know that the outbreak of COVID-19 has resulted in job losses globally, according to a report by the International Labour Organization. As the job market suffers a strong downturn and we do not know when it will be recovered fully, the threat of chronic job insecurity could become severe. Such a challenge has pushed individuals, organizations, and governments to work even harder to combat job insecurity.
At the individual level, what we can do to reduce the severe impact of chronic job insecurity? In addition to striving to keep current jobs by putting more effort and showing better performance, we could proactively manage our job situations and career tracks by, for instance, actively building a network of professional connections, learning new skills and knowledge, and gathering information about the different job markets and career routes. Making ourselves to have higher job mobility or enhancing the capability to find other employment is a way to protect oneself from being in a precarious position. In the meantime, being aware of how chronic job insecurity could affect us long-term may be equally important as such an awareness can help us be mindful of its negative consequences and find ways to mitigate its influence.
JA: How can readers use what you found to help others?
CHW: We can help others overcome the negative impact of job insecurity or chronic job insecurity. As reported, chronic job insecurity can undermine one’s emotional (i.e., an increase of neocriticism), social (i.e., a decrease in agreeableness), and motivational (i.e., a decrease in conscientiousness) stability. We can help others who are suffering from job insecurity by helping them protect stability in these aspects. They would need emotional support when feeling distressed. They would need to know if they are still cared for. They would also need to know that they are still able to make achievements and not forget to appreciate what they have accomplished despite the worry of job security. Reminding our friends who are unfortunately suffering from job insecurity of our available support can be a small, but important resource for them to be resilient. Our support in those three aspects could mitigate the negative impact of job insecurity on personality change in the long run.
JA: What are you currently working on that you might like to share about?
CHW: I am working with my colleague, Ying (Lena) Wang, who is the second author of the paper, on a book about work and personality development. This book will draw on an increasingly prominent line of research on work and personality development over recent years. In the book, we seek to provide an advanced and contemporary understanding of personality at work, with a particular focus on the changing perspective of personality. Thus far, the majority of research focusing on personality at work takes a more static perspective, assuming that personality is fixed and stable. However, an increasingly prominent research line over recent years have started to indicate that personality is not fixed, and that personality can be changed by work and vocational experiences, such as employment status, career roles, job characteristics, and deliberate training and interventions. We will review the latest research evidence in this area (despite being relatively limited), and draw on research in other relevant fields such as social and clinical psychology to make a new conceptual development of how personality can be changed via work, job-related factors and how individuals can take an active approach in changing their personality at work. The book is expected to be published in 2021 by Bristol University Press.
Wu, C.-H., Wang, Y., Parker, S. K., & Griffin, M. A. (2020). Effects of chronic job insecurity on Big Five personality change. Journal of Applied Psychology. Advance online publication. http://dx.doi.org/10.1037/apl0000488 [OPEN ACCESS].