Workplace faultlines can ease psychological distress among employees


Psychological distress in the workplace costs American businesses about $193 billion annually, according to the National Mental Health Association.

Therefore organizations need to understand and address employees’ mental health which can have a significant impact upon corporate effectiveness and profitability, said Chester Spell, associate professor of management at Rutgers University.

“Psychological distress is often caused by an injustice, either real or perceived, which can lead to depression, anxiety, irritability, exhaustion and disengagement from fellow workers,” he explained. “Obviously none of these are beneficial to an organization.”

Spell and co-researchers Katerina Bezrukova of Santa Clara University and Jamie L. Perry, a doctoral candidate at Rutgers, undertook a study to determine if the composition of work groups could play a role in reducing psychological distress arising from injustice.

Men and women who held jobs and were enrolled in evening graduate courses were asked to distributed questionnaires to their respective work groups seeking information about injustices, demographics and psychological distress. In all, more than 675 questionnaires were returned from a cross section of industrial groups, including retail or wholesale trade, manufacturing, hospitals, real estate, insurance and transportation.

“Unfairness in the workplace affecting job performance, satisfaction and other attitudes and behaviors has been the subject of considerable research but we looked at psychological distress as an outcome of injustice,” he said.

“Injustice takes on several forms and we focused on four, including 1) procedural, which has to do with the way decisions are made for the workplace group; 2) distributive, the perceived fairness of outcome distributions such as bonuses and pay raises; 3) informational, which is providing adequate and honest explanations for company decisions, and 4) interpersonal, which is the perceived fairness in treating individuals with dignity, respect and courtesy by supervisors or administrators.

Of the four, interpersonal injustice had the strongest effect on psychological distress, said Spell. Distributive injustice was next strongest.

“As expected, our results indicate that employees who feel their supervisors did not support them or look out for their interests were the most distressed,” Spell said. He added that injustices, bullying or abuse directed personally at an employee can hurt to the core, especially if done in front of others. “Such an attack really sticks on a person and affects their mental health in that workplace situation.”

So how can work groups alleviate injustices?

One way, the researchers argue, is through demographic faultlines, which are alignments of group member characteristics (eg. age, gender, seniority, education). “Faultlines are often considered disruptive and can cause rifts within the workplace. In fact, previous research has focused on how faultlines can create an environment of distrust, conflict and other problems,” Spell said.

However, there can be a positive side to these workplace divisions which can be healthy.

“We found that members of subgroups within a group with a faultline can cope with injustice by cooperating with each other and lessen the effects of injustice on psychological distress,” he said.

“For example, take a work group comprised of both senior male engineers nearing retirement as well as young female sales agents who are fairly recent graduates of a business school and who have not had a great amount of work experience. Two distinct subgroups are formed by a faultline based upon members’ differences in age, gender, experience and educational background,” Spell said.

“There could be a rift between the old and young group members that could result in a dysfunctional workplace and hurt productivity. On the other hand, there could be a sense of cooperation involving the older group’s talents and experience combined with the younger group’s eagerness to learn and enthusiasm. Both subgroups could recognize the abilities of each other and use them as leverage to be productive,” he added.

Injustices can vary across groups depending upon their demographic composition. When, for example, office policies seem to affect one subgroup more than others, they will often create an informal pact to address the supervisor about the perceived injustice. “People who are more alike (women, older people, occupational groups, etc.) may do this to protect themselves,” said Spell.

The study found that faultline subgroups tend to support their fellow workers who seem to be the target of unfair treatment. “They can offer their concerns and help make other employees feel better about the interpersonal injustice inflicted upon their co-workers,” said Spell. “This support, in turn, shows how faultlines can be ‘healthy divides’ by providing a potential coping mechanism for workplace injustices.

He said this finding runs counter to the notion that faultlines are dysfunctional.
Spell said managers should be aware of the composition of work groups within the organization since faultlines are common in groups because of globalization and diversification of the workplace. For example, if an organization has gone through downsizing and layoffs and surviving employees are experiencing anxiety about their jobs, managers should recognize that groups with faultlines may actually buffer the effects of workforce reductions on employees’ psychological well being.

This can be accomplished, said Spell, by the employees interacting with each other to discuss their workplace situations, within their respective subgroups.
Often employees dealing with an injustice that is causing personal distress have limited responses. “They can take their grievance directly to their supervisor, go above the supervisor to complain or seek legal recourse, none of which they are comfortable pursuing. Another course is to quit, also not what an employee wants,” Spell said.

People in work groups with faultline subgroup similarities tend to gravitate toward each other based upon their similarities. “I call that a ‘safe harbor’ where employees are comfortable with each other and can confide about office problems. It provides a social support mechanism which can help relieve distress and this is healthy,” he said.

Managers want work groups to be productive and work together, so it becomes important to pay attention to the individual culture of the faultline subgroups as well as the work group as a whole. It is critical for managers to be aware of their work force’s makeup and how natural splits in groups can be leveraged for positive rather than negative outcomes.

Faultline or work group composition can be a fine line and it is the wise manager who recognizes this and can leverage them to the advantage of the work group and the organization.

The Society for Industrial and Organizational Psychology (SIOP) is an international group of more than 7,800 industrial-organizational (I-O) psychologists whose members study and apply scientific principles concerning workplace productivity, motivation, leadership and engagement. SIOP’s mission is to enhance human well-being and performance in organizational and work settings by promoting the science, practice and teaching of I-O psychology. For more information about SIOP, including a Media Resources service that lists nearly 2,000 experts in more than 100 topic areas, visit www.siop.org.

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