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

post from Ken Nowack:

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,

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.

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.

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

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!