Study: Diverse Employee Work Groups Can Reduce Workplace Psychological Distress

Dec. 28, 2010
Psychological distress in the workplace costs American businesses about $193 billion annually, according to the National Mental Health Association. Organizations therefore must understand and address employees’ mental health, which can have a significant impact upon corporate effectiveness and profitability.

“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,” explained Chester Spell, associate professor of management at Rutgers University. “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.

“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,” Spell said.

Injustice and Faultlines

Researchers focused on four forms of injustice in the workplace:

  1. Procedural – 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 – providing adequate and honest explanations for company decisions; and
  4. Interpersonal – 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.

According to researchers, work groups can alleviate injustices through demographic “faultlines,” which are alignments of group member characteristics such as age, gender, seniority or education. While faultlines traditionally are considered disruptive in the workplace, these workplace divisions may also have a positive, healthy side.

“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,” Spell explained. “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.”

While a rift could emerge between the old group and young group, there also 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. If both subgroups recognize the abilities of each other, they could use them as leverage to be productive, Spell explained.

A Safe Harbor

The study found that faultline subgroups tend to support their fellow workers who seem to be the target of unfair treatment. “This support, in turn, shows how faultlines can be ‘healthy divides’ by providing a potential coping mechanism for workplace injustices,” said Spell.

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 actually may buffer the effects of work force reductions on employees’ psychological well being.

Often, employees dealing with an injustice that is causing personal distress have limited responses – they can take a grievance to a supervisor, seek legal recourse or quit, none of which employees may desire or feel comfortable with. But people in work groups with faultline subgroup similarities tend to gravitate toward each other based upon their similarities in what Spell calls a “safe harbor” where employees are comfortable with each other and can confide about office problems. This can help relieve distress.

Managers want work groups to be productive and work together, so they must 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.

The Society for Industrial and Organizational Psychology (SIOP) is an international group of industrial-organizational psychologists whose members study and apply scientific principles concerning workplace productivity, motivation, leadership and engagement.

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