In an Unfair Work Situation? It Could Cost You Your Health

Physical ailments and mental health problems can plague employees who believe they are being treated unfairly in the workplace, according to a recent large scale review and synthesis of other psychological studies.

Professors from the University of Albany and George Mason University as well as a representative from the Transportation Security Administration authored the research findings which were published last month in the Journal of Applied Psychology. The team’s results suggested that perceptions of unfairness at work were associated with indicators of physical and mental health.

The study says that until recently, research has largely overlooked how perceptions of unfairness in the workplace are linked to overall health and well being—but the subject is long overdue.

The flagging economy and diminished workforce scale in companies has put many employees on overload, causing burnout, psychological stress and other physical health symptoms including high blood pressure and other problems.

These symptoms have also led to absenteeism, which, according to University of Albany assistant professor of psychology Michael Ford, is an employee’s response of withdrawal from a workplace he or she deems unfair. It is also a function of the physical and psychological outcome of unfairness and general work stress, he says.

The research analyzed justice in three distinct areas and correlated answers to questions in the areas with psychological and physical well-being.

•Distributive justice – The fairness in the outcomes or organizational processes and decisions in respect to what an employee believes he or she was promised, typically at hiring. These include outcomes like pay, other forms of compensation or intangible rewards.

•Procedural justice – The fairness of the processes and policies that led to a workplace decision. For example, was the process transparent and did the employee have a voice?

•Interactional justice – The respect and dignity with which one is treated during the decision process and implementation.

A major area of disconnect involved violation of the psychological contract, the beliefs surrounding expectations both employees and employers maintain about agreements made at the onset of their working relationship, says Ford. Employees sometimes come into a situation and believe they were promised “something” upon demonstrating their worth. Often their self-worth doesn’t match the employer’s perception of their level of performance.

Ford says to some certain extent, people who are dispositionally prone to stress are more likely to see workplace situations as unfair. But, he says anyone could feel the same way or have similar negative reactions to certain types of decisions that are blatantly unfair.

Stuck in a stressful work situation? Here what experts suggest to do:

Turn to human resources. HR is the steward of employee relations process, fairness and objectivity,  says George Boue, executive vice president of human resources at Stiles Corporation. Sometimes a valuable piece of information or insight is missing in a situation and HR can call attention to it. “You may not agree with the decision, but at least you won’t feel singled out.”

Leave your external feelings of stress or malaise at the workplace door. Boue says he’s increasingly seen “the external environment working its way into companies.”  This can negatively color your perception of what’s happening at work and impacts how you perceive your co-workers.

Keep expectations in line with reality. People and budgets everywhere are being pinched economically today. While unpleasant, consider what it’s like to walk in someone else’s—say your boss’—shoes.

Change your work situation to gain more control. In a perfect world with abundant job opportunities, cutting your losses would be a prudent solution, but that’s a no-go in today’s negative job market, says Jeffrey Pfeffer, professor of organizational behavior at the Graduate School of Business at Stanford University and author of Power: Why some People Have It and Others Don’t.

Build a power base, advises Pfeffer, and you’ll build influence. “This takes time and certain skill.”

Don’t wallow—even if the deck is stacked against you. “It doesn’t do any good and doesn’t put you in a good way psychologically,” Pfeffer says. “Unless you have an opportunity to exit now, the only thing to do is forge ahead.

Walk tall and talk firm. This shows confidence and breeds success. A strong voice and good posture go a long way to achieving this.

Engage in upward flattery. Build a social network and strategic relationships to help navigate the organizational landscape and determine who has power and what you have in common with them, Pfeffer says.

Ask for help and advice. People don’t ask for nearly enough help or advice because they think it signals weakness. In fact, asking builds self reliance. What’s more, the person who answers is now invested in you and your career, Pfeffer says.

Switch departments/divisions. This is admittedly easier if you work in a large company and can find a place in which you’re not hampered by negative impressions, Pfeffer says. The company has already invested in recruiting you so they may enable you to move.