Being treated unfairly at work leads to illness

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Staff who feel they are treated unfairly at work are at increased risk of being off sick more frequently and for longer, according to new research by a team from a number of universities in Europe and the US.

What the researchers say: Increasingly important contributing factors to mental and physical illness—and therefore sick leave—are found in the work environment. For example, low job control and few decision-making opportunities have previously been shown to increase the likelihood of sick leave.

A relatively new discovery is that a determinant of employee health is their perception of fairness in the workplace, known as organizational justice. The new study, published in BMC Public Health, focused on one element of this, called “interactional justice,” which relates to the treatment of employees by managers.

Interactional justice itself can encompass informational justice—defined as receiving truthful and candid information with adequate justifications—and interpersonal justice, concerning respectful and dignified treatment by the manager.

Using data from more than 19,000 employees in Sweden the researchers investigated the relationship between interpersonal and informational justice and long and frequent illness-related absence. They also explored whether these times of high uncertainty at work, including, for example, perceived job insecurity, had an effect on sick leave.

The team found that lower levels of justice at work relate both to an increase in shorter, but more frequent sickness absence periods, and to an increased risk of longer sickness absence episodes, irrespective of job insecurity and demographic variables of age, gender, socio-economic position and marital status. Also, higher levels of job insecurity turned out to be an important predictor of long and frequent sickness absence.

“While shorter, but more frequent periods of sickness absence might be a chance for the individual to get relief from high levels of strain or stress, long-term sickness absence might be a sign of more serious health problems, the lead author said. “Our results underline the need for fair and just treatment of employees irrespective of perceived job insecurity in order to keep the workforce healthy and to minimize lost work days due to sickness absence.”

The study analyzed data from participants in a long-term biennial survey—the Swedish Longitudinal Occupational Survey of Health (SLOSH)—that focuses on the association between work organization, work environment, and health. It used data from the 2010, 2012, and 2014 waves of the survey, with the final sample consisting of 58,479 observations from 19,493 employees.

“Perceived fairness at work is a modifiable aspect of the work environment, as is job insecurity,” the researchers noted. “Organizations have significant control over both and our results suggest that they may gain by investing or improving their policies and rules for fair treatment of their workforce and by improving job security.

“Organizations might also gain from the selection of managers for their qualities associated with fair practices, training them in justice principles, and implementing performance management practices for them that consider their use of organizational justice. Indeed, training in justice principles has been shown to be successful in different organizational contexts.”

So what? This is not the first time that perceptual unfairness at work has been shown to be harmful. What is new is the finding that it is clearly related to absence due to illness.

In human design terms a workplace is a series of three things: cultures (most largish workplaces have a number of cooperating or competing cultures, silos etc.), agreements (mostly unspoken or unwritten and often not all that clear), and finally (and most importantly) relationships. Cultures allow internal groups to collaborate because culture exists to facilitate collaboration. Put any number of people together as a workgroup of any kind and they’ll form a culture. As time goes on that culture will become more set and exclusionary—that’s the way human genetics work.

Being treated unfairly often means the other person is going against the group’s cultural norms in their treatment of you and also violating the agreements that underpin that culture. It means that the relationship between the victim and the abuser has been fractured, and probably broken.

Any exclusion from a tribe or a workplace group leads to stress which reduces the effectiveness of the immune system and thus to illness. This is why death so often follows swiftly (especially among men) on retirement or retrenchment. Forced retirement or job loss is perceived by the victim as an unfair work practice, just like bullying, preferring others and so forth.

What now? We must look at workplace practices and management styles that lead to people perceive that managers and leaders are acting unfairly just as closely as we look at overt bullying and reorganize our workplaces to eliminate as much of it as we can.


By Dr Bob Murray