Thursday, 21 July 2011

Dirty work jobs call for low expectations

You may have a job that you sometimes personally resent; maybe your work draws hostility from others from time to time. But how about a job that automatically earns you the animosity of your entire society? That's the reality for those employed in dirty work occupations, defined as work that is seen as physically, socially or morally tainted: think sewer workers or morticians. The stigma of this work threatens identity, pushing notions like ‘sick’ or ‘creepy’ where we would prefer nice and desirable. A recent article explores how this affects incoming workers, and what makes some of them stick at dirty work.

Erika Lopina and her team from the University of North Carolina spent two years collecting survey data from 102 people starting animal care roles that involved some contact with the dirty work task of euthanasia. After two months, 28% of these individuals had left their organisation – contrast this with the better retention in mainstream jobs, where turnover within two months sits at somewhere under 10%. Lopina's team were most interested in the remaining 72%: what factors encouraged them to stay?

Firstly, those who remained had initially received more information about the type of work they were getting themselves into, which would lessen any unexpected shocks to identity. Secondly, higher turnover was associated with maladaptive coping strategies such as blaming yourself for problems, denial, or substance use as a support or escape. Clearly, the demands of these sorts of jobs require you to effectively maintain your own well-being, or be overwhelmed by their negative features.

Thirdly – and a little bleakly – those who began with generally poor expectations for life tended to stay longer in their role. This was measured in the survey using a construct called negative affectivity (NA), rating the general level of states like afraid, distressed, and upset; it seems that if these labels already apply to your life then the adjustment to the negative perceptions and reality of dirty work isn't such a wrench.

Two further factors appear to have some influence: turnover was lower when the new hire expressed a commitment to the career (of animal care worker) and emphasised their belief in the value of the job. However, it turns out they don't significantly contribute anything beyond the influence of the previous three variables when the data was combined into a predictive model. As the authors comment, the differentiator is less about pride or drive, but open eyes coming into the job, pragmatism within it, and a fairly low bar for what life offers.

ResearchBlogging.orgLopina, E., Rogelberg, S., & Howell, B. (2011). Turnover in dirty work occupations: A focus on pre-entry individual characteristics Journal of Occupational and Organizational Psychology DOI: 10.1111/j.2044-8325.2011.02037.x

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