Tuesday, 15 April 2014

Moving offices: what's happening with the Occupational Digest

I’ve been writing and curating The Occupational Digest for over three years now, time that has flown by.

It’s been a voyage of discovery: discovery of valuable journals previously unknown to me, of inspiring talks at the Division of Occupational Psychology’s annual conferences, of new findings and rigorous investigations that I’ve been lucky to cover across in excess of 200 reports.

We’ve always strived to walk a line that informs experts while bringing psychology to life for a general audience, and at times I think we nailed it, in posts about disagreeable men winning the ‘earnings war’ or how negative mood can kick-start the creative process or - our most popular post - how tiredness leads to more online time-wasting.

I take satisfaction in our move towards more systematic coverage of issues, through an increased focus on review and - where possible - meta-analysis, plus our ‘Further Reading’ references that provide the interested reader with a route in to a deeper understanding of the topic.

Most of all I’m pleased with the collaboration between this blog service and that of our parent, the Research Digest: sharing tips, co-hosting content, discussing the future. The Research Digest is a fantastic fixture of the science blogging sphere, virtually an institution, and it’s been fantastic to steer a new venture such as the OD - a specialist-yet-mainstream evidence-based site - using the RD’s success as our guiding light.

So I’m very excited that from next month I’ll be contributing my BPS writing fully to the Research Digest.

The psychology of the workplace will remain a core part of what I do, and it will be great to communicate what I find so exciting about this area to a new audience. Together with this, I will begin to cover other areas of psychology, a return to the kinds of things I tackled at Mind Hacks (in the book and occasionally the blog) and in my research career in cognitive neuroscience. And I’m eager for the chance to get in front of the Research Digest’s much larger readership, in partnership with a new full-time blog editor.

If you’ve been following the Occ Digest via twitter, or through the blog on rss, then please do follow @researchdigest and http://bps-research-digest.blogspot.co.uk if you don’t already.

If you prefer accessing content by email, the subscription for the Research Digest email is here.

This site is now on hiatus, although it will remain as an archive for the time being. Thanks for reading, and find us at the Research Digest.

Tuesday, 25 March 2014

Wellbeing is shaped by your day's little highlights, not merely its mishaps

Wellbeing research has tended to model work-life as a default state punctuated by negative events such as conflicts, mistakes, or unwelcome change. In this way, it follows the broader model of psychological health research that focuses on harmful interruption to normal functioning , a model that Martin Seligman and Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi were contesting in 2000 when they launched the Positive Psychology movement. In a new paper, Joyce Bono and colleagues further this tradition by drawing attention to how positive, as well as negative, daily events have a dynamic effect on our wellbeing.

Their study tested its hypotheses using an impressive array of data types collected across 15 consecutive working days. The 61 female participants completed four two-minute surveys each day, 2,4,6 and 8 hours after arriving at work. In each survey, participants recorded whether within the last period they had experienced any positive events such as socialising or receiving recognition, any negative events such as a work setback, or experienced interference with work by thinking about family duties, as well as how stressed they had been.  Unsurprisingly, experiencing a negative event was associated with more stress in that period. Experiencing a positive event led to less stress in that period – as well as in the following period.

The participants also wore blood pressure monitors at various points across the day. Higher systolic pressure - a good indicator of workplace physiological stress and associated in the long-term with heart disease – was more frequent at the end of days containing more negative and family-conflict events. And systolic pressure was lower in the evenings following days with more positive events. This result makes sense: we wouldn't necessarily expect a positive event to lower blood pressure in the moment, as it could bring about elation, laughter, or other arousing states; it's only later that the lowering could reasonably manifest itself.

Half-way through the study, all participants were offered an intervention in the form of a positive reflection exercise to be completed at the end of the working day. This involved reflecting back on three good things that had happened during the day and recording this in a journal.  Blood pressure was unaffected by this intervention, but the second half of the study saw lower incidence of self-reported health and stress symptoms, such as difficulty concentrating or neck pain, which the participants had been asked to record each evening throughout the study. Perhaps more convincingly, days where participants forgot to do the journalling saw more symptoms than those where they adhered to the intervention.

The effect sizes due to the intervention were small, and against hypotheses there were no interactions with the impact of positive or negative effects, meaning its action wasn’t about buffering from bad moments or magnifying great ones. However, it did reduce the impact of family preoccupation upon blood pressure and the evening measurement of mental health symptoms. Bono's team did some further analysis, revealing that almost half of the positive reflections referred to a family member, suggesting that the intervention might have helped participants consider that, whatever responsibilities they may impose, family are something to be grateful for.

This study shows us the importance of both positive and negative events in shaping our work wellbeing. Noting larger negative effect sizes, the authors note that "although the effects of bad may be stronger, the effects of good may be longer, at least with respect to employee perceptions of stress" And positive events can be actively created, such as through the use of the reflection exercise, to moderate and influence longer-term health states.

ResearchBlogging.orgBono, J., Glomb, T., Shen, W., Kim, E., & Koch, A. (2012). Building Positive Resources: Effects of Positive Events and Positive Reflection on Work Stress and Health Academy of Management Journal, 56 (6), 1601-1627 DOI: 10.5465/amj.2011.0272

Further reading:
Seligman, M. E., & Csikszentmihalyi, M. 2000. Positive psychology: An introduction. American Psychologist, 55: 5–14.

Never the earner, always the bride: How male breadwinners view women in the workplace

Across a series of studies, a new article demonstrates that married men who have a more traditional 'breadwinner role' at home tend to have more negative views on women in the workplace.

Across their studies, Sreedhari Desai, Dolly Chugh and Arthur Brief defined traditional marriages as those where the wife was not employed, contrasted with couples that were dual-earning.  Firstly they employed data from US national surveys. In the first data set - 282 married men in 1996 - those in more traditional marriages showed some discomfort with a gender-mixed workplace, being more likely to disagree with statements such as 'if a mother chooses to work, it doesn't hurt the child.' Does this abstract opinion dissolve when it meets the reality of the workplace? The second dataset from a 2002 survey suggests it does not, as of the 89 men analysed, traditionalists were less likely to see their workplace as running smoothly when it had a higher composition of women.

Turning to experimental work, Desai's team showed that compared to those in a dual-earning marriage, traditionally married undergraduate students rated recruitment literature intended to attract job applicants as less effective when it contained cues of high female involvement in the company, such as all-female (vs all-male) recruiter names and an equal opportunity reference that included the note 'For example, representation of women on our board of directors far exceeds the average representation of women in Fortune 500 companies.'

The next experiment found managers just as susceptible; when traditionally married, managers were less likely to recommend a fictional candidate for an MBA program if they were a woman. This is noteworthy because managers wield substantial influence, Interestingly, dual earners as a group gave higher ratings to the female than the male applicant.

Returning to survey data, the researchers were able to gather data across two data points of the British Household Panel Survey. 304 men were surveyed in 1991 prior to marriage, and 1993 following marriage, using the same scale as study one used on attitude to women in the workplace. Desai's team didn't find these attitudes to predict the marriage structure men ended up in - other factors appear to have more real influence, with older and more educated men more likely to end up in one-income marriages (this may reflect opportunity rather than preference). But the type of marriage did affect subsequent attitudes to women at work, with a traditional set-up leading to less sympathy for women being represented in the workplace.

This last study gives the strongest evidence of causality in this relationship. So why might marriage be shaping these attitudes? Status construction theory suggests that we tend to use our own social conditions to extrapolate how the world works more generally. If every day you engage in work duties while your wife focuses on home life, not only are you incentivised to believe that this is a sensible division of labour, but increasingly it will seem true to you, as your differential experiences give you more work-related resources such as contacts, influence, knowledge and competence. This can lead to the false conclusion that 'men are just more suited to work.'

Desai emphasises that the bulk of their studies don't speak to this causality argument and that more research is needed. Also, we should bear in mind that some of the survey data is now fairly odl, and attitudes may have shifted somewhat. However, the repeated finding is clear: men in traditional marriages have a smaller appetite for women-heavy workforces. The researchers conclude that as well as seeking a diverse workforce, where traditional views do not crowd out other perspectives, attention could be given to "the challenging psychological position that men in traditional marriages face when alternating between their two daily realities", and find ways to illustrate to these people that their personal life decisions may be driving their workplace attitudes, possibly in an unconscious fashion.

ResearchBlogging.orgDesai, S., Chugh, D., & Brief, A. (2014). The Implications of Marriage Structure for Men's Workplace Attitudes, Beliefs, and Behaviors toward Women Administrative Science Quarterly DOI: 10.1177/0001839214528704

Further reading:

Bolzendahl, C. I., and Myers, D. J (2004). Feminist attitudes and support for gender equality: Opinion change in women and men, 1974–1998. Social Forces, 83: 759–789.

Thursday, 20 March 2014

The toll we take from caring for our elders

'Just as there was a postwar baby boom, society is now in the midst of a senior boom.' While all organisations offer parental support at or beyond that mandated by the state, provision for employees involved in eldercare is far more hit and miss. In the article that provides our lead quote, Lisa Calvano of West Chester University takes us through the literature on the psychological impact of eldercare.

Calvano’s literature review reveals a clear consensus on one point: psychological strain is substantial for people caring for elders, and higher than that experienced by those who care for children, for a number of reasons. We are less likely to plan ahead for a period of eldercare: we are flung into responsibility by a deterioration, slip, or diagnosis which is often impossible to anticipate.

In addition, the demands of childcare tend to lessen as the cared-for child becomes increasingly independent, whereas eldercare involves escalating challenges and typically a bleaker conclusion. Moreover, the role-reversal of caring for someone who was once your source of care can be a disorienting experience that is hard to process, involving a range of emotion and guilt for feeling those emotions rather than 'getting on with it'.

It's less clear whether this strain results in negative impact on workplaces. Studies disagree as to whether eldercarers take more leave from work. In addition, there is evidence that carers are as committed to and derive as much satisfaction from work as non-carers, because work offers a respite and source of accomplishment.  Eldercarers are also less likely to desire shorter working hours than those caring for children.

Not in doubt, however, is the fact that eldercare can force people, especially women, out of the workforce; the conditions that are most likely to do so are where carers are living with an elder who is experiencing cognitive impairment as part of their condition. Women are also more likely to experience poorer emotional health and depressive symptoms due to higher hours of eldercare.

Finally, the evidence suggests that a more supportive work environment - including but not limited to the presence of eldercare benefits - reduces stress, workplace disruption, and the amount that strain erodes workplace engagement. So although more remains to be understood about the degree and nature of the impact of eldercare, workplaces should feel sufficiently informed to take action to support their employees and generate a conversation about what is often a hidden burden that can be difficult to share.

ResearchBlogging.orgCalvano, L. (2013). Tug of War: Caring for Our Elders While Remaining Productive at Work Academy of Management Perspectives, 27 (3), 204-218 DOI: 10.5465/amp.2012.0095


Further reading:
Pinquart, M., & Sörensen, S. (2003). Differences between caregivers and noncaregivers in psychological health and physical health: A meta-analysis. Psychology and Aging, 18(2), 250–267. 

Monday, 17 March 2014

Gamers find it easier to relax and detach from work

A new study suggests digital gaming during leisure time is associated with better recovery from working stresses, particularly when that gaming involves online interaction with other people. Contrary to prior research, time spent gaming is not an influential factor upon the findings. This suggests that rather than game play steadily replenishing personal resources, the act – or mere availability – of gaming can be beneficial in a range of forms, from a quick zap to longer immersive sessions.

UCL researchers Emily Cox and Anna Collins conducted their study with 491 adults with ages up to 70, approximately half of whom were women. 216 were non-gamers, and the remainder reported how much time they spent playing what type of games, as well as whether it provided access to online social networks. Gamers reported more psychological detachment from, and greater ability to relax after work, which are key components of the recovery experience. Online social support magnified those positive relationships. Note that two other components of recovery, having mastery experiences and a sense of control, were not higher in this sample of gamers; a little surprising, as other studies have predicted and found such relationships

Gamers who spent more time on their hobby did not show differences in recovery, but were more likely to believe that their home life affected their work, in ways both bad (draining or impairing their operation at work) and good (generating skills that have relevance to the workplace). Note that we can't draw conclusions about causality: perhaps more intensive gamers are more likely to have rich and/or demanding home lives aside from their hobby.

A few wrinkles in the study merit a mention. As mentioned, we shouldn’t guess at the direction of effects in what is a correlational study. Adults were recruited from online forums, so an amount of self-selection going on. Also, I haven't given much focus to one of the 'sells' of the study - a breakdown of effects by type of game – because the First Person Shooter (FPS) type dominated the sample, replicating most of the effects described above, whereas the remaining categories had very small n-sizes and consequently non-significant effects that are hard to interpret with any great meaning.

Ubiquitous access to work-related digital technology has a negative association with detachment and recovery from work, but as this study highlights, evidence increasingly suggests that use of recreational digital tech has the reverse effect. Such contrasts shouldn’t surprise us, as digital technology isn’t a single phenomenon but a substrate to our lives, composing manifold activities, experiences and processes that influence us in very different ways. We're in the early stages of understanding how it is transforming our leisure time, and how that in turn influences our readiness and capability to work.


ResearchBlogging.orgCollins, E., & Cox, A. (2013). Switch on to games: Can digital games aid post-work recovery? International Journal of Human-Computer Studies DOI: 10.1016/j.ijhcs.2013.12.006

Further reading:
Reinecke, L. (2009a). Games and recovery: The use of video and computer games to recuperate from stress and strain. Journal of Media Psychology: Theories, Methods, and Applications, 21, 126-142. 

Monday, 10 March 2014

How the green-eyed monster colours our perceptions


The flush of envy - pain at another's good fortune - is a common experience in many a workplace. This emotion can disrupt wellbeing, heighten turnover, and contribute to poorer group performance. John Veiga and colleagues felt that existing models for evaluating workplace emotions give an incomplete account of envy, which is intimately linked to cognition and social standing. In a new article, they propose a new take on the green-eyed monster.

Veiga's model begins with a felt appraisal triggered by a situation: a painful feeling that may not be understood, but is certainly unwelcome. On its heels follow a pair of cognitive processes, social comparison and a memory search for existing schemas. Social comparison takes that felt appraisal and asks what it means for the person’s environment: does another person's success threaten my own social standing? When an individual’s own standing is particularly vague or precarious, then this is likely to be a primary focus.

Schemas, meanwhile, are the maps of reality that we organise and live by, from 'how to deal with bureaucracy' to ‘I’m always the bridesmaid, never the bride.' As envy-inducing events reoccur - as they surely do for all but the most enlightened - we are presented with opportunities to fold them into schemas such as 'the newcomers always get more recognition for work I do just as well'. As the events are emotionally charged, the schema into which they coalesce is a powerful thing that fuses past experience with interpretation. When the schema is activated its reading of the world floods into awareness to colour the existing moment, making it harder to see things as they are, rather than as validation of 'the way things must be.'

After thoughts, action. Affect-driven behaviours are the spontaneous ways we relieve the tension of a painful emotion, and include a sudden outburst or muttered curses. Another way to manage the emotion is through delayed, premeditated actions like spreading malicious rumours, engaging in plots or sabotage; these are especially shaped by schemas, which cry out for you to make good on your long-standing fantasies of turning the tables. Bad news for the person, the relationship, and the organisation.

58% of 278 survey respondents from hundreds of companies had experienced an envy-eliciting event with detrimental consequences, and this model helps us understand why this is so common. Notable is the role of social comparison, which helps the flash of envy become something more serious. At work, your social standing isn't just an ego issue, but can involve the way you are treated by others, what you are paid, and potentially even your survival within your organisation. What's more, organisations like to make successes as visible as possible, through prizes, employee of the month schemes, bonuses and mentions. Much research attention is paid to the benefits of this for recipients, but less so for the deleterious effects on those who are passed over.

This new model helps us get serious about understanding the impact of envy, and could help us understand why in some instances a low level of envy can be useful. Further research would need to look at how we may compensate for threats to social standing by demonstrating fair and legitimate means to restore standing, such as by ensuring that rewards, ratings and recognition are made transparent and understandable to all.

ResearchBlogging.orgVeiga, J., Baldridge, D., & Markóczy, L. (2014). Toward greater understanding of the pernicious effects of workplace envy The International Journal of Human Resource Management, 1-18 DOI: 10.1080/09585192.2013.877057

Tuesday, 4 March 2014

Conference roundup: Cultures of test-taking, a life less stable and how family helps you cope at work

To complement our coverage on the DOP conference, here's a roundup of some of the short presentations that offered food for thought.

Danny Hinton (Aston Business School)  presented another fascinating foray into racial bias in selection tests, an area where two positions dominate the debate. ‘Hereditarians’ insist that test difference reflect some real ability difference due to genetic variation, whereas the ‘culture-only’ view charges that tests are not culture fair in terms of their content or processes. ‘Culture-only’ proponents point out that the gap between cultures has closed over the decades, suggesting a non-genetic origin.

Hinton's sophisticated theory charts a slightly different course. He suggests that however culture-fair test content may become, we may still see racial differences. However, these don't reflect innate differences, but rather another cultural layer. This is related to how people approach tests: how familiar they are with completing them, and how anxious they feel about them.

His ongoing research uses IRT techniques to understand how people perform on tests given their true ability – how they ‘deserved’ to do. The data so far suggests a chain of influence where higher social status leads to test-taking familiarity, which influences test-taking style, leading to some people doing better than others even when they have the same level of ability. As we know that in most societies race and class factors are highly interlinked, it looks very possible that this can explain one component of racial differences on test performance, and give us some tools to break this: increasing accessibility of ability tests across society.

I also found fascinating Nicola Payne and Gail Kinman's presentation on work-life factors in the fire service, specifically because of the way it foregrounded work-life enhancement. We hear a lot about how work can disrupt home-life and vice versa, but this study (a collaboration between Middlesex and the University of Bedfordshire) of around 200 staff in three fire services showed that fire fighters who identified their work as something that gave sense to their home life reported higher work wellbeing. And those who saw their home life as enhancing their work had better quality of sleep.

Payne and Kinman also found disruptive effects, but the benefits of enhancement were stronger than the penalty of conflict. Work can provide skills, status, and psychological energy that feed into how you are at home, and the support and fun in a family can make you a better worker. These enhancement effects have been documented in other samples but it's useful to be reminded of the positive potential of the multiple roles we can hold in life

Finally, Rob Bailey and Tatiana Gulko of OPP took us on a whistle-stop tour of various ways in which a lack of emotional stability presents difficulties. One data set of over 1,200 people suggested that individuals whose personality profile includes a lower emotional stability tended to see themselves as unluckier, unhappier, less healthy, and more prone to taking time off. A study looking at 4,500 couples suggested that satisfaction with your romantic partner is lower if they are less emotionally stable. And a smaller study suggested that less emotionally stable people are also likely to feel more helpless, more defenceless, and less powerful in general.

As always, the conference was a feast of ideas, investigation, and debate. Plenty of things to tackle in the year to come.