Stress

Are You Being Treated Fairly at Work?

New research shows how unfair treatment in the workplace can affect health.

Posted Oct 05, 2015

How much stress do you have to deal with at work?

While we all have to face a certain amount of stress in the office, the physical and psychological costs of too much workplace stress can be enormous.  Stress can occur for many reasons, whether it's caused by a fear of being laid off, an increased workload due to staff cutbacks, or facing greater pressure to perform by employers, people who are overworked or facing greater uncertainty on the job can find themselves developing health problems that can only get worse over time.

According to the allostatic load model of workplace stress, chronic stress can lead to greater "wear and tear" due to frequent activation of the body's natural defenses against acute dangers.  Whenever we face a new threat, stress hormones such as cortisol and epinephrine are released into our systems to prepare us for dealing with the threat.  Ordinarily, our system returns to normal afterward following a period of rest. Still, when there is no opportunity for rest or if we are faced with repeated threats with minimal rest periods in between, the body can become overwhelmed as the allostatic load reaches a critical point.  This is when the strain begins to cause significant damage to many of the body's organs, including the heart.   

Too much stress in the workplace can result in a significant rise in medical problems: increased absenteeism, increased risk of substance abuse or emotional problems, and can even be life-threatening.  In Japan, there is even a term used for it:  karoshi which literally means "death from overwork."  But there are other factors that can come into play with the stress people experience in the workplace.  

Along with the stress of the job, the way people interact with co-workers and their employers can play a powerful role in how daily stress can affect health.  Workplace bullying is far more common than you realize and can often take the form of active harassment due to gender, sexual orientation, ethnic background, and even physical appearance.   While this kind of harassment is illegal (at least in most places),  it is usually subtle enough to avoid getting reported.  

But harassment also relates to another form of workplace stress that has often been ignored by researchers up to now: workplace injustice.  According to psychologist Jerald Greenberg, organizational justice refers to how fair employers are felt to be towards their employees.  This sense of fairness is usually determined by whether employees are fairly paid for their work, whether hiring practices are fair and impartial, whether promotions are deserved, and whether employees are treated with the respect they feel they deserve.  Studies looking at emotional burnout, absenteeism, and health problems linked to workplace stress are finding more evidence linking these kinds of issues and perceived injustice in the workplace.  

Part of the reason why perceived injustice in the workplace can lead to health problems is that people who feel they are being treated unfairly are more likely to be preoccupied with work-related problems leading to a greater allostatic load than people who view themselves as being treated fairly. This sense of injustice can lead to poor self-esteem, feeling persecuted or otherwise unappreciated, and general frustration over not getting the rewards people feel they deserve for their efforts.  As a result, employees dealing with perceived injustice become more vulnerable to the kind of problems linked to stress because of the sense of exhaustion that comes with chronic frustration.  

Along with the health problems that can come with stress, people dealing with injustice in the workplace also experience conflicts balancing their work and their family life.   Being more focused on work often means becoming emotionally distant towards family members. That can include being absent from important events and becoming consumed with work-related concerns rather than less emotionally-charged topics. As this conflict between work and family life grows worse, employees can find themselves in a downward spiral, since they lose the emotional support they might otherwise get from family members and their ability to cope is compromised even further.  And the stress doesn't end with employees.  Even family members can find themselves experiencing emotional problems as a result.

A new research study published in the Journal of Occupational Health Psychology helps highlight how perceptions of workplace injustice can undermine the mental health of employees, as well as their family relationships.  A team of Swedish psychologists led by Constance Eib at the University of East Anglia sent mail surveys to over 700 employees of a large Swedish accounting firm. The questionnaires were administered a second time a year later.  Over 400 employees, 60 percent of whom were women, completed both surveys.

The surveys included items measuring how fairly employees felt their employers treated them, how much control employees felt they had over their lives in general, whether or not there was conflict between their work and family life, and recent problems with stress or depression.  The researchers also looked at overall mental health history, level of education, age, and gender to see whether they made a difference in terms of results.

Analyzing the responses they received, Constance Eib and her fellow researchers found that employees who felt they were treated unfairly at work were much more likely to experience mental health problems and were also much more likely to allow preoccupation with work to affect their relationship with their family.  These results were especially significant for employees who felt that they didn't have a lot of control over their own lives.  

Along with matching previous research into workplace injustice and health, these results also provided support for the allostatic load model of workplace stress showing that being preoccupied with work and brooding over unfair treatment can lead to greater health problems over time due to wearing down the body's natural ability to cope.  Looking at how perceived injustice can affect mental health is especially important because it is directly linked to the enormous financial costs that mental health problems can have on organizations and society as a whole.

So, what are the implications of this research study?  In describing their conclusions, Constance Eib and her co-authors suggest that perceived unfairness in the workplace has often been overlooked as a major source of job stress.  To help reduce the health problems that can occur, as well as helping balance work and family life, employers and employees need to be more aware of the impact that unfair treatment can have and develop ways to reduce its impact.  For employers, it can be useful to provide employees with a voice to allow them to be heard whenever they feel unfairly treated.   Simple courtesy and respect should be an essential part of any workplace culture and can do much to reduce the friction that can occur on a daily basis.  

For employees who feel that they are trapped in jobs in which they are not being treated fairly, job stress can be reduced by participating in outside activities.  These activities can be essential to allowing employees to "recharge their batteries" through the kind of positive experiences that can reduce allostatic load.  Whether it involves greater involvement with family activities, physical exercise, or spending more time with hobbies, employees can learn to develop more control over their own lives and keep themselves from being overwhelmed with what is happening at work.

Though there is much more research that needs to be done on the impact of workplace injustice on health, both employers and employees need to be aware of the health consequences of unfair treatment in the workplace.  Learning to deal with unfairness, whether through improved workplace policies or recreational activities when away from the job, can be the key to healthier and happier lives for all employees.