Employers need to consider the psychological risks of an unstable job market.
By the time you reach a certain age, you might think you’re unlikely to experience any radical changes to your personality. Sure, as a teenager (and sometimes into your 20s) you were all over the place as you figured out the parts of your personality that you wanted to highlight or pare back, but as you grow older and those darn hormones settle, you emerge as a fully formed adult with a fixed personality.
But this isn’t necessarily true.
“A lot of things can change our personalities. It’s not as set in stone as people think and it’s only in the last few years that we’ve started to challenge that thinking,” says Dr Lena Wang, senior lecturer, School of Management at RMIT, and co-author of a new research paper.
That research, published in the Journal of Applied Psychology, suggests that job insecurity can have a fundamental impact on our personality as an adult. The other co-authors of the report are professor Chia-Huei Wu of the University of Leeds (UK), and professors Sharon Parker and Mark Griffin from Curtin University.
“In a workplace context, your job characteristics, such as autonomy levels and your workload, can all change your personality,” says Wang.
Becoming more neurotic
When looking at the consequences of chronic (long-term) job insecurity, the researchers found links between it and increases in neuroticism and decreases in agreeableness and conscientiousness.
It wasn’t a huge personality shift, says Wang, as they didn’t expect individuals’ personalities to be dramatically changed by their jobs, but it’s still a “significant and meaningful” change.
Interestingly, the researchers weren’t focusing on those actually experiencing job insecurity, although some of them could have been. The perception of instability alone led to these negative shifts.
The findings in this research are based on archival data from the Household, Income and Labour Dynamics in Australia (HILDA) Survey – an annual survey that has been interviewing thousands of Australians since 2001. This particular study relied on 1,046 participants who had recorded data every year over a nine-year period, from 2005 to 2013.
In this dataset, job insecurity and other job-related variables (i.e. job control, time demand, and job stress) were measured each year, and personality factors were measured in the first, fifth and ninth years.
Job insecurity isn’t just about unstable work, such as contract and casual/temp work, it also encapsulates the perceptions of insecurity in the job market due to, for example, an increase in offshoring/outsourcing, company restructures, increases in automation or cost-saving measures.
The fears around an unstable job market don’t just pertain to finances either. A job has an impact on your social and psychological resources, such as a routine, structure, social interaction. It can also give you a sense of identity.
Breaking down the Big Five
The researchers used a well-established personality model called the ‘Big Five’, which is often used in workplaces for personnel selection and staff development.
According to Big Five theory, our personalities can be captured by five fundamental traits:
- Extraversion – how sociable and lively someone is.
- Openness – how open-minded and imaginative someone is.
- Emotional stability – how emotional, moody and temperamental someone is.
- Conscientiousness – how reliable, organised and detail-oriented someone is.
- Agreeableness – how warm, friendly and sympathetic someone is.
The researchers found links between chronic job insecurity and conscientiousness, emotional stability and agreeableness. In a workplace, these are the traits that would affect someone’s ability to achieve goals, cope with a stressful situation and get along with other people.
The perception of job insecurity had no effect on the other two traits – extraversion and openness.
It’s interesting that your perception of your environment can have such a profound effect on your sense of self. But the consequences aren’t solely negative. For example, other research suggests having more autonomy at work can boost employees’ sense of control and confidence, Wang says.
On a similar note, HRM has previously reported on research that shows that allowing employees to have a voice in the workplace can encourage them to become more politically engaged. On the other side of the spectrum, other studies have found that having a low level of control over your work is linked to higher mortality rates.
So, are these personality shifts for good? While Wang isn’t able to provide a definitive answer, she says “it could have a lasting impact on a person”.
“But people are changed by their environments all the time, so if you’re exposed to a different [more stable] environment, that could change your personality slightly again. We don’t rule out that possibility.”
Stop short-term thinking
HRM has previously reported on research which suggests job seeking decreases and discretionary efforts increase when there is uncertainty about the economy. Wang thinks her research has relevance here as well.
“Some might believe that insecure work increases productivity because employees will work harder to keep their jobs… When people are exposed to that shock [and feel their jobs might be threatened], they’re likely to do a lot of things to compensate for that. But our research suggests this may not be the case if job insecurity persists for a long time.”
Wang and her co-authors found those chronically exposed to job insecurity are “more likely to withdraw their effort and shy away from building strong, positive working relationships, which can undermine their productivity in the long run.”
How should employers react to this research? Wang believes there are ways an organisation can have a positive impact on employees’ personalities.
Where possible, she suggests employers try to create as much stability and consistency in roles as possible.
“For example, in higher education, we do see a lot of casual teaching jobs, but some universities are creating fixed-term contracts with a reasonable length (e.g. three or four years)… if it’s possible to create a certain level of security in employment opportunities, that would help a lot of people.”
It also turns out that unions can improve workers’ sense of security. Wang points to the recent Foodora example in Canada where couriers were allowed to join the Union of Postal Workers as an example.
Finally, Wang says that giving staff the opportunity to hone and develop professional skills will boost confidence and help allay fears about job loss.
“If people feel more confident about their knowledge and skills, they have confidence that they could be mobile [in a new working environment]. In this instance, they might not perceive job insecurity as such a bad thing.”
It takes a skilled HR professional to guide a team through unstable times. Ignition Training’s one-day course Building Effective Teams will provide participants with the skills to build functional and high-performing teams.