It’s been five years since the end of the recession was declared, but economists report that levels of unemployment in many states still haven’t fully recovered to their pre-recession levels. The sluggish economic recovery has kept many workers worried about the potential for layoffs and the risk of long-term unemployment.
Although organizations offer programs meant to help employees cope with workplace stress, a recent study finds that employees who are stressed and anxious about their job prospects are hesitant to make use of these programs.
Psychological scientists Wendy R. Boswell, Julie B. Olson-Buchanan, and T. Brad Harris found that, paradoxically, the very employees these programs are meant to help are the least likely to actually use them.
The study, published in the journal Personnel Psychology, concluded that employees who are worried for their jobs also worry that they’ll be perceived as expendable if others see them as needing help in coping with work-related stress.
“In a sense, the fear of job loss is likely to elicit a need to be seen by the employer as a valuable, perhaps indispensable, worker. Conversely, behaviors that could possibly be seen as contrary to high work effort may be eliminated or greatly reduced by an employee facing job insecurity,” the researchers write.
Thus, job insecurity can trigger a vicious cycle for workers. In an effort to shine at work, these already stressed employees may end up putting in more hours and greater focus on work at the expense of their home lives. This, in turn, can create conflicts at home, resulting in even more stress, burnout, and emotional exhaustion.
For the study, Boswell and colleagues emailed an online survey to a diverse group of 594 employees from an energy company. Participants were sent two online surveys nine months apart assessing their sense of job insecurity, emotional exhaustion, work-life balance, and use of workplace support programs. While the company did not have current plans for layoffs, there had recently been layoffs in one division.
The researchers found that even when workers perceived a small risk for job insecurity, it impacted their willingness to utilize stress management programs at work. As expected, employees who were anxious about job security were not only more likely to take work home with them, but also reported higher rates of emotional exhaustion and work-home conflict.
“The findings indicate employees with perceptions of job insecurity are more likely to allow work demands to permeate into their personal time. Thus, efforts to increase the acceptance and use of organizational programs and establish boundaries to balance work–nonwork demands may be stymied from perceptions that doing so could further undermine job security,” writes Boswell and colleagues.
Employees suffering from emotional exhaustion and burnout are often less productive, which can take a substantial toll on organizations. Thus, companies may improve the usefulness of their stress management programs by assuring employees that it is safe to use these programs, and even coaching supervisors on the potential cost savings to be gained from ensuring employee well-being.
Boswell, W. R., Olson-Buchanan, J. B., Harris, T. B. (2014). I Cannot Afford to Have a Life: Employee Adaptation to Feelings of Job Insecurity. Personnel Psychology, 67(4), 887–915. doi: 10.1111/peps.12061