Thursday, November 21, 2013

The Number One Reason Employees Get Sick....Perceived Unfairness at Work

Guest post from Ken Nowack:

“Sticks and stones can break my bones, but words can never hurt me.”
- Anonymous

Recent studies confirm that emotional hurt and rejection, whether part of social interactions or the perception of inequitable and unjust workplace conditions can actually trigger the same neurophysiologic pathways associated with physical pain and suffering (Eisenberger, Lieberman, & Williams, 2003).
In a nifty study by Naomi Eisenberger and colleagues at UCLA, she was able to use the latest technology to peer into the inner workings of our brain called functional magnetic resonance (fMRI) while a team was involved in a social exercise designed to provoke feelings of social isolation and rejection.

She studied what part of the brain was activated while a group of subjects played a computer game with other individuals they did not know. She created two possibilities of being rejected–either actively or passively (she told them they couldn't not continue because of some technical problems). Comparison of fMRI brain activity in the active exclusion group versus inclusion conditions revealed greater activity in the part of the brain that is associated with physical pain (anterior cingulate cortex). Additionally, the subjects who were rejected also reported feeling psychological distress based on self-report measures (Eisenberger, N., Lieberman, M. and Williams, K. (2003). Does rejection hurt? An fMRI study of social exclusion. Science, 302, 290-292).
Current findings suggest that people report higher levels of self-reported pain and have diminished performance on a cognitively demanding task after reliving a past socially meaningful event than a past physically painful event (Chen, Z., Williams, K., Fitness, J. & Newton, N. (2008).  When hurt will not heal. Exploring the capacity to relive social and physical pain.  Psychological Perspectives, 19, 789-795).

Additionally, interpersonal judgment and social evaluation tends to elicit strong stress reactions with cortisol levels in our system being elevated fifty percent longer when the stressor is interpersonal versus impersonal ((Dickerson, S. & Kemeny. M. (2004).  Acute stressors and cortisol responses: A theoretical integration and synthesis of laboratory research. Psychological Bulletin, 130, 355-391)).  It might take approximately an hour for our cortisol levels to respond to "normal" after dealing with an upsetting interpersonal situation.
Perceived Unfairness and Employee Health

Quite a bit of research supports the idea that when employees experience injustice (distributive or procedural), psychological contract breach (e.g., feeling exploited in our work relationship with the company) or unfairness can negatively impact an employee's health.
In a very comprehensive meta-analysis, 279 studies were reviewed to explore the association between employee perceived fairness at work and diverse health outcomes (e.g., absenteeism, job burnout, unhealthy behaviors, negative emotional states, and physical health problems (Robbins, J. (2012).  Perceived unfairness and employee health: A meta-analytic integration.  Journal of Applied Psychology, 97, 235-272).  Perceived unfairness was significantly associated with indicators of physical and mental health.

Several findings were interesting to note:
1. Although unfairness was significantly associated with poorer health, the results suggested that unfairness was more strongly associated with indicators of strain and psychological conditions, rather than, physical health outcomes.

2. Mental health problems were most pronounced for those experiencing distributive injustice (i.e., the kind of injustice related to distribution of rewards and recognition).
3. Neither age or gender had any impact on the association between unfairness and health.

4. Interactional unfairness (interpersonal interactions) was consistently one of the weaker predictors of employee health.  However, a closer look at the analyses suggested that interactional justice uniquely predict some health indicators such as job burnout and stress above and beyond distributive and procedural injustice.
These findings suggest that perceived unfairness is a pretty significant predictor of employee health and that the experience of interpersonal mistreatment (e.g., disrespect, bullying behavior, evaluative feedback) is highly associated with well-being.
We already know that working for a competent jerk can be a health risk (Nyberg. et al., 2008.  Managerial leadership and ischemic heart disease among employees: The Swedish WOLF study. Occupational and Environmental Medicine, 66, 51-55).
It would seem safe to conclude that both perceived social inequity, unfairness and negative interpersonal interactions might be more important than just impacting disengagement--it might actually directly lead to such health outcomes as job burnout, absenteeism and psychological distress...Be well.....

Kenneth Nowack, Ph.D. is a licensed psychologist (PSY13758) and President  & Chief Research Officer/Co-Founder of Envisia Learning, is a member of the Consortium for Research on Emotional Intelligence in Organizations, and is a guest lecturer at the UCLA Anderson School of Management. Ken also serves on the editorial board of Consulting Psychology Journal: Practice and Research. His recent book Clueless: Coaching People Who Just Don't Get It is available at
Note from Dan - I've gotten to know Ken recently - great guy, he knows his stuff, and I loved his book!

1 comment:

Mark Abrahams said...


This is out-of-date thinking.
The number one reason why employees get sick is
NOT perceived unfairness at work
(&, believe me, I should know because I have
been that sick person).

Across the planet, all the stress and insecurity
and ideas of unfairness (and war and vengeful
actions and depression and anger and
misunderstood reaction, seemingly provoked
or unprovoked) is simply thought ...
.... thought gone amok.

People feel their thoughts ... NOT events,
circumstances or situations.

The thing that I can agree is true is
that employees (and employers) get sick
because they feel their perceptions and
emotions ... all of which are simply thoughts
which, because of our consciousness,
we feel as if they are real even if they are
not based on the truth.

All I am simply pointing to here is
towards the principle of thought, the
principle of consciousness.
All people think ... that is surely and
simply true.
It's not WHAT we think ...
.... it's THAT we think.