Persistent job insecurity can negatively alter our personality

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Workplace Behaviour Research Centre

Chia-Huei Wu is a Professor of Organizational Behavior at Leeds University Business School, University of Leeds. His research interests include proactivity at work, work and personality development, and subjective well-being. His work was published in journals including Academy of Management Journal, Journal of Applied Psychology, and Journal of Management, among others. He is the author of the book, Employee proactivity in organizations: An attachment perspective.
Ying (Lena) Wang is a Senior Lecturer at School of Management, RMIT University, Australia. Her research focuses on personality and individual differences, positive organizational behaviour, and diversity management. Her work has been published in journals such as Journal of Applied Psychology and Annual Review of Organizational Psychology and Organizational Behavior.
Professor Sharon K. Parker is an Australian Research Council Laureate Fellow, a Professor of Management at Curtin University, and Director of the Centre for Transformative Work Design. Her research focuses particularly on job and work design and she has published in outlets including Academy of Management Review, and the Annual Review of Psychology on these topics. She is a past AE of the Journal of Applied Psychology and a current AE for the Academy of Management Annals.
Professor Mark A. Griffin is Director of the Future of Work Institute in the Faculty of Business and Law at Curtin University. His research examines the way people contribute to organisational performance and his work has been published in top-tier journals such as Academy of Management and Journal of Applied Psychology. He has managed large-scale organizational projects in areas of safety, leadership, well-being, innovation, and productivity. He has developed assessment tools for use in these industries across Australia, Europe, UK, US, and Asia.

Chiahuei wu_LUBS

We all know that job insecurity is unpleasant, but it is perhaps less well-known that it can have a negative impact on our personality - a long-term consequence that we might not be even aware of.

Personality, which reflects who we are, can shape our social interactions and behaviours in all areas of life – including with family, friends, and at work etc. Below we elaborate on findings in a recent study which shows that job insecurity can drive unfavourable personality change.

Research to date has shown that employees experiencing higher job insecurity than their peers are less satisfied, less committed to their work, and tend to experience a decline in their physical and mental health. Unfortunately, precarious work (jobs that are insecure and unprotected) has been growing due to the trend of globalisation and technology changes such as automation. Job insecurity has become an increasing problem for individuals.

We may think that if precarious work has become the norm, then there is no need to worry about it. Having a secure job could be viewed as a thing of the past; something that isn’t available anymore. Although knowing others are suffering from job insecurity too may relieve some of our uneasiness, it does not help us cope with the different kinds of pressures in our daily life, such as worrying about being able to pay the bills and the inability to make any long-term family plans.

Some may argue that job insecurity could have a positive effect in organisations: employees may work even harder to show their value to their employers, delivering performances beyond expectation in the hope of securing their position. Although there might be an increase in productivity and performance for a short while, this way of working is not sustainble in the long-term.

Human beings are good at adapting to the environment so some may assume that we will become used to job insecurity if it goes on long enough. This, however, is not the case.

In our recent research, we analysed data from 1,046 employees in the Household, Income and Labour Dynamics in Australia (HILDA) Survey, and found that those who experienced higher job insecurity over nine years (or chronic job insecurity) increase their neuroticism and decrease their agreeableness and conscientiousness, traits reflecting emotional, social and motivational stability. Specifically, chronic job insecurity makes our personality development worse. It makes us:

  • Become easily anxious, tense, irritable and depressed
  • Focus on our own negative feelings and prevents us from paying attention to others and building harmonious social relationships
  • Become less motivated to set and achieve goals in an effective way.

From a lifespan perspective, individuals become mature over time, more emotionally stable, agreeable, and conscientiousness. Our finding suggests that chronic job insecurity can undermine one’s maturity, potentially further impacting individuals’ success, health, and even life expectancy. Therefore, the effects of job insecurity on employees can have long-term negative costs for individuals, workplaces and society.

What can we do to reduce the severe impact of chronic job insecurity? The obvious solution is to offer more secure forms of employment. But there are other things that can be done by governments, organisations, as well as individuals themselves. For example, governments may consider providing a stronger social safety-net to protect employees from economic shocks and threats of job loss. For instance, the “flexicurity” policy has been considered in Europe to provide flexibility for the labour market while simultaneously enhancing employment and social security.

Organisations can offer training and development to employees as this will not only help accumulate human resources capitals for the organisations but also help employees acquire skills and knowledge that can improve their career prospects.

Finally, for individuals themselves, in addition to striving to keep the current jobs by putting more effort and showing better performance, individuals could proactively manage their job situations and career tracks. For example, individuals can actively build a network of professional connections, learn new skills and knowledge, and gather information about the different job markets and career routes. Recent research shows that these proactive actions have been found to help cope with acute insecure work conditions when contracts are due to end or when job losses are anticipated.

The negative impact chronic job security can have on something as crucial as our personality development shows the urgency in which job insecurity needs to be addressed.

Read the journal article.

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The views expressed in this article are those of the author and may not reflect the views of Leeds University business school or the University of Leeds.