Workplace Health, Injustice, and Your Mother

By | April 28, 2016

Be FairYour mother always told you life wasn’t fair. In few places did her words ring truer than workplaces where favoritism, bullying, discrimination, or broken promises rule the day.

But if life’s not fair, it may be no small consolation that, when facing an unjust and uncivil work environment day in and day out, life may not be very long either.

One study has shown that workers who felt they were treated unfairly at work — compared to well-treated workers — had a 55% greater risk of heart disease, even after controlling for other risk factors.

Organizational Injustice

Organizational unfairness, or injustice, refers to a pattern of exposure to inequitable conditions that undermine workers’ dignity and self-respect. It runs the gamut from being ignored… to being spoken to rudely… to being bullied… to being assaulted.

In addition to its link to heart disease, which includes documented cases of heart attack and angina — organizational injustice has been associated with a variety of physical and mental health problems.

In one study, 8% of workers reported being harassed within the previous 12 months. These workers were significantly more likely to be obese; sleep less; smoke more; and experience psychosocial distress, pain disorders, and lost work days.

Another study showed that men who felt their workplaces had a high level of justice had a 25% lower risk of developing metabolic syndrome than those working in unfair conditions.  And a review of several studies revealed a consistent association between organizational justice and mental health.

The exact definitions may differ depending on which expert you talk to, but generally workers experience unfairness via four categories of organizational injustice:

  • Procedural injustice — Processes for the employer to interact with employees aren’t created or conducted in an equitable manner. For example, effective systems are absent to assure that workers in comparable circumstances are treated equally when decisions are being made about job performance issues, schedules, promotions, and transfers.
  • Interactional injustice — Workers aren’t treated respectfully and their value isn’t recognized. Bullying and hostile work environments are examples of interactional (also called relational) injustice.
  • Distributive injustice — Benefits, compensation, and other rewards aren’t extended equally to employees doing comparable work, or generally aren’t appropriate for the demands and expectations of the job. Workers who earn less due to discrimination based on race, gender, or religion experience distributive injustice.
  • Psychological breach — Promises are broken. This includes the expectations the organization sets — including those related to pay, responsibilities, job demands, opportunity, and job security — when workers are hired or assume a new role. This category isn’t always included in classical definitions of organizational injustice, but is a process that may amplify the other categories.

Failure to communicate accurate, timely information to workers and to offer conduits for meaningful input are common denominators of organizational injustice.

Manage Fairness for Better Health

A 2011 meta-analysis confirmed that organizational injustice is associated with physical health problems and mental health problems, especially depression, anxiety, and burnout. Interestingly, the study also found that the strength of the association with specific kinds of health problems depended largely on the type of organizational injustice:

  • Workers experiencing procedural injustice were most likely to have physical health issues
  • Those encountering distributive injustice mostly reported mental health problems.
  • Psychological contract breach was associated with burnout.

Reviewing the meta-analysis, the online publication I/O At Work proposed strategies employers can consider if they genuinely want to promote worker health:

Organizations have a great deal of control managing fairness (and unfairness) perceptions. To increase feelings of distributive justice, organizations should strive to make policies with outcomes that are the same for all employees regardless of gender, race, and tenure. Increasing perceptions of procedural justice can be accomplished by insuring that decision-making processes treat all employees equally. Finally, to increase perceptions of a sturdy psychological contract, openly and clearly communicate to employees, provide them with information, direction, and support in times of change, and treat employees with respect.

Your mother may have been right: Life’s not fair. But that doesn’t mean the workplace can’t be.

Our society of hard knocks may scoff at the notion of fairness at work — dismissing it as the product of a self-entitled workforce. And it may be hard for traditionalists to believe that justice and other organizational strategies are an avenue toward improved workforce health.

But sometimes it’s the employer that feels entitled or plays the victim. And the observational evidence that connects the dots from fairness to health is no less solid than that cited by the wellness industry to sell behavioral change.

Ultimately, organizational change and individual change are likely to complement each other in cultivating a healthier workforce. Of the various solutions to choose from, a combination of organizational and behavioral strategies may be the fairest of them all.