Job insecurity

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Juliet Hassard, Kevin Teoh, and Tom Cox, Birkbeck University of London, United Kingdom.

Introduction

The reduction of employees due to financial savings, mergers and acquisitions, restructuring , changing work practices, and outsourcing positions frequently occurs as organisations seek to remain competitive [1] [2]. Consequently, job insecurity is a major work-related stressor, which affects a growing number of workers [3]. Exposure to job insecurity has been linked to a number of negative health outcomes, particularly mental health [3]. The article begins with defining job insecurity. Followed by, a review of the research examining the association between job insecurity and various health outcomes. In addition, a reflective discussion will be provided on some practical approaches on how to better manage the issue of job insecurity from an organisational perspective.

Job insecurity: definition

Job insecurity is regarded as the ‘overall concern about the continued existence of the job in the future’ (p. 243) [4]. Although there are variations between different definitions, they all have common ground in that job insecurity is a subjective perception [5]. The same objective event, such as corporate changes or poor financial performance, affects different employees differently. Some might not see this as a threat even though they might end up losing their jobs, whilst others might feel that their jobs are vulnerable when this is not the case.

The subjectivity stems from the insecurity surrounding the future as insecure employees do not know if they will remain in their position or lose it, and hence might struggle between having to plan for a future within their current company or preparing to seek employment elsewhere. As a result, job insecurity differs from employees who have been notified of redundancy, who due to the certainty are able to focus and prepare themselves for unemployment [5].

Job insecurity as a source of stress

As aforementioned, job security stems from the subjectivity of a threat perceived by an employee. Transactional models [6] [7] of stress stress postulate this perception of a threat or additional demands has the potential to become a source of stress towards the employee. The transactional models are built on the employee’s cognitive assessment of the threat or demands being placed on them, and how they perceive their skills, resources and capabilities to cope with those demands. Consequently, stress occurs when perceived capability of the employee cannot cope with the perceived demands placed on them. Transactional models recognise that stress can have detrimental effects on both the individual and organisation as it can manifest physiologically, psychologically, behaviourally and socially.

Losing one’s job has serious economic consequences on the person [8], and consequently employees who face the prospect of job loss may also experience much ambiguity and uncertainty about losing these economic privileges and stability. Workers who face an uncertain future may not be able to effectively cope with the situation which leads to experiencing a higher level of stress [6]. Indeed, research indicates that the consequences of job insecurity can have a more detrimental effect than job loss itself [5]. The importance of this subjective perception is seen in research studies demonstrating that in organisations where employees are facing redundancy, the health and wellbeing of those who have been informed of being made redundant improve in comparison to those whose future remain uncertain [9].

Prevalence of job security

Within the occupational groups, the Fifth European Working Conditions Survey [10] revealed that manual workers (low-skilled: 23; high-skilled: 18%) experienced more insecurity than clerical workers (low-skilled: 16%; high-skilled: 11%), and that low-skilled workers experienced more insecurity than high-skilled ones. Moreover, job insecurity levels in all four groups were observed to have increased from 2005. The Fifth Survey in 2010 also showed that 53% of temporary agency workers had poor employment security, in contrast to 39% of those on fixed term contracts and 11% of permanent employees. This is an increase as the respective 2005 figures were 43%, 35% and 10%.

Impact of job insecurity on health and productivity

As a result, there is strong research evidence indicating that chronic job insecurity is associated with a number of both physical and mental issues [2] [11] [12]. Beyond the negatively associated health outcomes, job insecurity has been linked to issues related to productivity and turnover; although the nature of this relationship is less clear [13]. The current section aims to provide a concise overview of the literature examining the association between job insecurity and worker’s health and productivity.

Impact on physical and mental health

The increased ambiguity and lack of control has been observed to have a psychological toll on those who perceive job insecurity [13]. The stress and anxiety associated with job insecurity can lead to biological regulation of the release of stress hormones being disrupted, jeopardising the body’s immune system, and affecting the health and wellbeing of workers [2] [14] [11]. A number of reviews [4] [15] [16] have consistently found job insecurity to be associate with poorer mental health in studies ranging from 1980 to 2005. Sverke and colleague’s [4] review also found that job insecurity was associated with low job satisfaction, poor psychological wellbeing, and increased physical health symptoms. Quinlan and Bohle [17] reviewed 86 studies, 25 of which were longitudinal, investigating the link between job insecurity or downsizing with health and safety outcomes. An estimated 85% of the studies demonstrated that job insecurity/downsizing lead to an increase of negative health outcomes on a variety of measures, such as: self-rated wellbeing, objective health measures, injury measures and workplace violence.

At a national level, Meltzer and colleagues [18] examined the UK national psychiatric survey on morbidity and found that among a sample of 3851 working adults, those with poor job security were 1.6 times more likely to develop depression. This relationship remained even when gender and age were controlled for. At a European level, Laszlo and colleagues [19] examined cross-sectional data from three population based studies consisting over 23,000 workers across 16 European countries. Job insecurity was observed to be associated with increased odds of developing poor health in 14 countries. When data was combined and examined at the European level, those who perceived their jobs at risk were 1.4 times more likely to have poorer health.

Although health is often based on self-report measures, poor health has also been observed when biological markers (i.e., hormone levels) and physiological measurements (i.e. blood pressure) are used [20] [21]. Research has also usually controlled other factors commonly linked to health outcomes (such as, age, gender, sociodemographic status, prior health status and smoking behaviour), showing that job insecurity itself has a continued detrimental impact on health (e.g. [3] [18])

Examining job insecurity and health from a longitudinal perspective

The aforementioned studies provide growing evidence that job insecurity is related to reduced employee health. However, due to the cross sectional nature of these studies (examining data at one given time point) does not provide an insight to the direction of this relationship: i.e., causality cannot be determined or established. Longitudinal studies are, therefore, important to establish if job insecurity does have a long term impact on employee health [5].

A longitudinal study conducted by Hellgren and Sverske’s [22] observed job insecurity had a detrimental impact on worker’s mental health, but not on physical health one year on. Crucially, when the variables were reversed, health levels did not have an impact on job insecurity. This is important as it provides supporting evidence of the nature and direction of this relationship; and, moreover, that job insecurity predicts health and not vice-versa. However, the author postulates that the lack of a relationship with physical health might be due to the one year lag being too short a period to lead to an increase in physical health complaints.

Burgard and colleagues [3] analysed data from two national representative U.S. longitudinal surveys: the Americans’ Changing Life (ACL) Survey and the Midlife United States (MIDUS) Survey. In the MIDUS Survey, participants feeling insecure about their jobs also reported more depressive symptoms, in comparison to those who did not feel their jobs were at risk. In both surveys, job insecurity was related to significantly poorer self-rated health. Despite this, the impact on mental health was not found in the ACL Survey. However, the researchers attributed this to a longer follow up period in MIDUS (10 years) than in the ACL (3 years). This lead the authors to conclude, contrary to Hellgren and Sverske [22], that not a shorter (up to 3 years), but only a chronic and long term exposure to feeling insecure about one’s job was associated with the manifestation of mental health indicators.

A Danish cohort study [23] found that when 3727 adults who completed a questionnaire in 1995 were followed up in 2000, women who had reported job insecurity at time of the first measurement (i.e., baseline) had a significant decline in health during follow up. This effect was more pronounced among women under the age of 50 who had felt they would have difficulty finding new employment. In terms of men, only those under the age of 50 who felt they were not employable were found to have an association between job insecurity and poor health. In the United Kingdom, data from the Whitehall II cohort study involving white collar civil servants revealed that poor health and psychiatric issues were predicted by job insecurity levels with a two and half year follow up period [24]. Associations between job insecurity and poor health have also been found in longitudinal studies set in Australia [25], the United States [3] [20], Sweden [22] [26] and China [27].

Therefore, examining job insecurity’s temporal impact, longitudinal studies have revealed it to be a chronic stressor which impacts on employee short and long term health. Van Vuuren [28] found that employees who had low job security at two periods of measurements reported lower wellbeing than employees who did not report job insecurity or only did so at one time period. In addition, in a one year longitudinal study of 207 manufacturing employees, job insecurity was observed to relate to more physical symptoms as measured using the General Health questionnaire. This study by Heaney and colleagues [29] also revealed the potency of job insecurity increased over time, as an extended period of insecurity had a greater impact on symptoms reported than isolated measurements of insecurity.

Despite these findings, what is less clear is whether job insecurity impacts physical or mental health first. Some [22] argue that job insecurity being a cognitive state may have a stronger effect on mental than physical health; whilst others [3]argue that mental health issues take longer to manifest and that physical symptoms are an early manifestation of job insecurity [13]. Regardless of this debate, it is clear that job insecurity is detrimental to both the physical health and mental wellbeing of employees.

Summary of findings: job insecurity and health

Reviews of multiple studies investigating the impact of job insecurity have also shown that increased job insecurity is detrimental to both physical and psychological health [13] [15] [16] [17]. Furthermore, the long term negative impact job insecurity has on health has been observed to occur over long periods of time.

Job security and organisational performance

Numerous studies have found negative relationship between job insecurity and job satisfaction: i.e., as job insecurity increases this is associated to an overall decrease in job satisfaction [4] [30]. What is less clear is the relationship between job insecurity and productivity. Depending on the approach taken, there is evidence that job insecurity leads to both increased and decreased levels of productivity [13].

The psychological contract perspective argues that when a worker begins employment with an organisation, an unwritten contract is formed between both parties promising to look after the best interests of each other [31]. In exchange for a salary and job security, the employee provides loyalty, dedication and hard work. Consequently, when an employee’s job security is threatened this can be perceived as a violation of the psychological contract, resulting in the employee no longer upholding their end of the bargain [32]. This is evident through the numerous research studies demonstrating that job insecurity is associated with reduced productivity [30] [33] and increased turnover behaviour [34].

However, there is also evidence that job insecurity is linked to improved productivity[13] [35]. This is explained by employees working harder in order to stand out from their colleagues, and trying to increase their value to the organisation [13]. This is also seen with a reduction in productivity once workers’ status becomes secure [36]. Further evidence of this is seen by the reduction in short-term sickness absence behaviour amongst employees who have high job insecurity as they seek to demonstrate their commitment to the cause [37]. However, research evidence also indicates that in the long run this leads to increased long term sickness absence [37], and that creativity and problem solving ability decreases with job insecurity[35]; which ultimately suggests job insecurity to be detrimental to an organisation’s performance.

Practical approaches on managing organisational issues on job insecurity

Despite the clear link between job insecurity and wellbeing, unfortunately actions that can be taken by organisations to prevent job insecurity may be limited as preventing the reasons often stem from the factors which are beyond their control, such as a poor economy and the need to make financial savings [25] [38]. However, as definitions of job insecurity (with their emphasis on the role of subjective appraisal) imply a lack of control and predictability, organizational attempts should instead focus on improving both control and predictability [38]. This could be accomplished in four ways: improving communication, participative decision making, employability and social support. Theoretically, these approaches can provide better control and predictability, and each respective approach has received some evidence towards their efficacy[13][38].

Communication

When workers do not receive sufficient information about organisational changes that threaten job security it fuels rumours and increases insecurity regarding the position that they are in. Here, subjective threats are perceived from objective events, whereby a lack of official Communication from the organisation creates vagueness about the security of an employee’s position which may, in turn, increase levels of job insecurity [39] [40]. Therefore, having honest, early and open communication between employees and their management/ organisation may help to improve perceived predictability and controllability of future occurrences, whilst at the same time allowing employees to feel that they are valued and respected by their organisations [38].

The relationship between poor organisational communication and employee job insecurity has received considerable support. In one such study [41], organisations that do not communicate effectively with their employees lead to employees feeling more insecure about their jobs. In another [42], university staff in the United States who perceived that their organisation provided sufficient and accurate information also felt lower job insecurity. Similar results were found in employees from Belgian organisations [39]. Crucially, a communication programme in an organisation undergoing a merger was found to reduce uncertainty on various work measures, including job security, demonstrating the real life applicability of communication programmes [43]. However, longitudinal studies [44] have also found communication to have no impact one year later on job insecurity, although this has been attributed to the prolonged period between both measurement points.

Participative decision making

Some organisations over the past two decades have tried to reduce dependence on middle management by flattening their hierarchies. However, as a result, this restructuring often involves job reassignments or redundancies, therefore increasing job insecurity amongst workers. However, flatter hierarchies means there are less decision makers in the organization and provide more involvement for employees in the decision making process [38]. Participative decision making allows employees to make decisions on a variety of workplace issues and can range from employees providing possible solutions, being consulted on decisions or even having the authority to make decisions [45]. This process is seen to be an effective antecedent towards job security, because it improves the amount of control that employees have during periods of uncertainty[38]. This could be explained from a stress perspective, where employees who have control use it to reduce or eliminate stressful stimuli in the workplace [39].

In one case study example [38], the impact of participative decision making was examined among employees in six American and Chinese companies. As expected, job insecurity was associated with lower supervisor, co-worker and work satisfaction as well as increased work withdrawal behaviours and turnover intention. However, these relationships were much weaker for employees who were involved in participative decision making opportunities than those who did not have such opportunities. Evidence from studies in Australia and Belgium supporting the beneficial impact participative decision making has on job insecurity further demonstrates its efficacy in various countries [39][46].

Employability

A growing approach in managing job insecurity is the improvement of workers’ employability. This is in relation to how confident an employee is in obtaining alternative employment and transit into a new job or career [47]. The positive impact of employability is based on the simple assumption that employees who believe they are employable are less vulnerable to the negative impact the insecurity as they are more confident in securing future employment [13]. Multiple potential job options may improve the amount of control that the employee has over their own future [48]. Furthermore, employees who see themselves as being more employable are also more likely to believe they are more crucial to their organisation, reducing the feelings of insecurity. By providing employees opportunities to gain and master both professional (i.e. technical or language) and interpersonal (i.e. communication or resilience) skills, not only do employers improve the employability of employees; but at the same time improve the quality of their workforce which can be an asset during difficult periods.

Research suggests that employability can indeed buffer the negative consequences of job insecurity on health. Some of these examples include:

  • Perceived employability having a positive impact on the relationship between job insecurity and life satisfaction in a sample of Belgian workers [48],
  • Workers who believed they had more chances in the labour market had a weaker relationship between job insecurity and psychosomatic complaints[11],
  • Perceived employability to be a coping mechanism towards the negative effects of job insecurity [49].
  • Those having high employability were more likely to leave the organisation to get away from the insecurity [50]

Social support

Social support has long been known to be an important buffer in the stress-health relationship [51]. By becoming an additional resource to help a person cope with stress stress [6], it can mitigate the negative impact that stress (i.e. from job insecurity) can have. Whilst social support can come from different sources, including the workplace (colleagues and supervisors) or from one’s personal life (friends and family); both forms have been found to demonstrate the buffering effect against the detrimental impact of job insecurity [52] [53].

Conclusion

Organisations that are undergoing restructuring or are facing financial difficulties are environments where employees are more likely to feel that their jobs are vulnerable to being cut. This can have serious detrimental impact on their physical and mental health, as supported by meta-analytical reviews and longitudinal studies. However, as job insecurity consists of subjective perceptions it remains difficult to reduce feelings of insecurity amongst employees. Despite this, there is evidence that organisations that communicate well and encourage participative decision making amongst employees may improve levels of control and predictability in their staff, which may, in turn, reduce perceptions of job insecurity. Similarly, employees who are supported and believe they are employable are less vulnerable to the negative effect of job insecurity.

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Links for further reading

Cascio, W.F., ‘Learning from outcomes: Financial experiences of 311 firms that have downsized’, In M.K. Gowing, J.D. Kraft, & J.C. Quick (Eds.), The new organizational reality: Downsizing, restructuring, and revitalization, American Psychological Association, Washington, 1999.

EU-OSHA- European Agency for Safety & Health at Work, ‘Job Insecurity’, Expert forecast on emerging psychosocial risks related to occupational safety and health, 2007, pp. 49-58. Available at: [2]