Workplace stress and fear of lay-offs can lead to increased rates of worker illness and injury

April 15, 2001

Results of two new studies have practical implications for workers in companies that are downsizing

WASHINGTON -- Modern workplace realities, including the threat of layoffs and working long stressful hours, may be taking more than just a mental toll on your body -- they could be putting your health and safety at risk, according to two studies published in this month's Journal of Occupational Health Psychology, a journal of the American Psychological Association (APA).

In the first study, researchers found that the threat of lay-offs can put workers at risk for workplace injuries and accidents. In this study of 237 food-processing plant employees, employees who feared they might be laid off showed decreased safety motivation and compliance, which are related to higher levels of workplace injuries and accidents.

Psychologist Tahira M. Probst, Ph.D., and Ty L. Brubaker, B.S., of Washington State University Vancouver, surveyed workers at two plants of a large U.S. food processing company which had recently undergone major organizational changes affecting the job security of the company's employees. In the first plant, an entire shift of workers was laid off in preparation for what was rumored to be the eventual shut down of the entire plant. At the other plant, the swing shift was being eliminated in favor of a night shift. Those employees who could not work the night shift, like single-parent employees with no day-care alternatives, were expected to lose their jobs. Employees at both plants were asked to take part in the study at two time periods, immediately after the shift changes were announced, and six months following the organizational restructuring.

The researchers found that those employees who were worried about losing their jobs showed less safety motivation and compliance on the job, which in turn were related to higher levels of workplace injuries and accidents. For the plant workers, that meant an increase in wrist, hand and arm injuries, the most common type of injury associated with food processing plants.

It is possible, the authors explained, that employees who have to juggle competing job demands of production, quality and safety may feel pressured to cut safety corners to keep their production numbers up, especially if they fear losing their job and are not actively rewarded for safe behavior.

"These results suggest that organizations not only need to consider the effects that employee job insecurity has on the job satisfaction, health and turnover intentions of employees, but also need to consider the possibility that job insecurity can have potentially dangerous implications for employee safety attitudes and behaviors," said the authors.

In the second study, 2,048 workers from across the country were questioned about the impact of their job on their physical and mental health. Researchers Susan L. Ettner, Ph.D., of the University of California, Los Angeles and Joseph G. Grzywacz, Ph.D., of the University of Northern Iowa found that serious on-going work stress and job pressure or working long hours and more shift work resulted in more negative reported effects of work on physical and mental health.

Specifically, those who worked nights or more than 45 hours per week (compared with 35 - 45 hours per week) were more likely to report that their job undermines their health. Individual personality characteristics also were related to workers' perceptions of how their jobs affect their health. Those workers with higher levels of neuroticism (emotionally unstable traits such as anxiousness, nervousness and sadness) and a lower level of extraversion were more likely to believe their job had a negative affect on their health.

According to the authors, policies related to job design may be undermining the health and well-being of their workers. "When a company is faced with decisions to meet production demands in the workplace, running 'lean and mean' could have unseen costs that might be avoided by allowing workers to avoid working chronic overtime and hiring additional temporary help."
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Articles: "The Effects of Job Insecurity on Employee Safety Outcomes: Cross-Sectional and Longitudinal Explorations," Tahira M. Probst, Ph.D., and Ty L. Brubaker, B.S., Washington State University Vancouver; Journal of Occupational Health Psychology, Vol. 6, No. 2.

Full text of the article is available from the APA Public Affairs Office or at http://www.apa.org/journals/ocp/ocp62139.html.

Lead author Tahira M. Probst, Ph.D., can be reached after April 11 at (360) 546-9746 or by e-mail at probst@vancouver.wsu.edu.

"Workers' Perceptions of How Jobs Affect Health: A Social Ecological Perspective," Susan L. Ettner, Ph.D., University of California, Los Angeles and Joseph G. Grzywacz, Ph.D., University of Northern Iowa; Journal of Occupational Health Psychology, Vol. 6, No. 2.

Full text of the article is available from the APA Public Affairs Office or at http://www.apa.org/journals/ocp/ocp62101.html.

Lead author Susan L. Ettner, Ph.D., can be reached at (310) 794-2289 or by e-mail at settner@mednet.ucla.edu.

The American Psychological Association (APA), in Washington, DC, is the largest scientific and professional organization representing psychology in the United States and is the world's largest association of psychologists. APA's membership includes more than 155,000 researchers, educators, clinicians, consultants and students. Through its divisions in 53 subfields of psychology and affiliations with 59 state, territorial and Canadian provincial associations, APA works to advance psychology as a science, as a profession and as a means of promoting human welfare.

American Psychological Association

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