Job-loss worries discourage use of support programs

At work, everyone is still feeling the effects of the Great Recession in all sorts of ways, and sometimes in less-than-expected ways.

Employee anxiety about job security came through loud and clear in an academic study seeking employee input on the use of employer-sponsored work-life balance programs.

The study, bearing the title “I Cannot Afford to Have a Life: Employee Adaptation to Feelings of Job Insecurity,” also examined work and non-work “boundary permeance” as well as how job anxiety impacts work-life conflict and emotional exhaustion.

Several university professors collaborated to produce the work, which studied employees at an energy company over a period of time. The study isn’t officially out yet; it will be published in an academic journal shortly. But the University of Illinois issued a news release in advance of its publication, liberally quoting the main author, T. Brad Harris of the U of I.

Harris said the big-picture outcome revealed that employees worried about job security won’t tend to turn to workplace stress-relievers to relieve their stress because they think that doing so might put even more pressure on their efforts to hang on to their jobs.

In other words, the very prescription written to help workers cope is going unfilled. As long as there’s the tiniest perception among workers that participating in a stress-relieving program may get them unfavorably noticed, they’ll avoid them. Some employees actually believe that by participating in these programs, they may be marked as expendable.

As a result, the study said, such anxious workers tend to work harder and longer, putting their personal lives increasingly on the back burner as they simply try to hang on to their jobs.

“Feelings of job insecurity can be harmful to employee well-being. ... It’s a vicious cycle that merits more attention,” Harris said.

But even Harris admitted that concerns about securing tenure and receiving positive performance reviews have led him into poor work-life balance choices.

“I still find myself checking my smartphone late at night, developing lesson plans for class instead of eating dinner with my family, and doing countless other work activities while at home. A lot of this is driven by the enjoyment I derive from my job, but some of it is also driven by my own insecurity and fears surrounding promotion and tenure.

“I find that simply being mindful of work and non-work implications has really helped me to disengage from work while with my family and, by extension, learn about strategies to help me self-monitor. It’s a work in progress, though.”

Harris said companies that offer work-life balance programs are likely the very sorts of employers that would not penalize someone for taking steps to achieve a healthier balance.

“I think organizations that offer support programs are actually on the right path; they just have more work to do,” he said. “Do they want their employee to suffer personally? Do they want the employees’ professional performance to suffer? If the answer is ‘no,’ then supervisors may want to rein in employees who demonstrate out-of-balance behaviors.”

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