Positive thoughts reduce stress at work, new study reveals
The study, entitled Evidence that brief self-affirming implementation intentions can reduce work-related anxiety in downsize survivors, led by Dr Jim Morgan, Principal Lecturer in Psychology at Leeds Beckett, has been published online this week in the journal Anxiety, Stress and Coping.
In the UK alone, according to Labour Market Statistics, between the second quarter of 2008 (the start of economic recession) and the fourth quarter of 2011, 2.68 million workers were laid off or made redundant through “downsizing” strategies. Additionally, British businesses are estimated to lose £26 billion per year as a result of work-related stress, showing that failure to effectively manage the negative effects of downsizing may incur more cost to businesses.
Speaking about the study, Dr Morgan commented: “Downsizing is a strategy almost universally-adopted by companies during difficult financial times. There are underlying consequences for those who remain in post – the ‘downsize survivors’. The negative outcomes experienced by downsize survivors can include a heightened perception of job threat, the burden of taking on the responsibilities of departed colleagues, and an overall increase in reported stress and anxiety.”
The research focused on 66 employees of a further education college during a period of organisational downsizing, with half of the employees being asked to create a work-related ‘self-affirming implementation intention’ and half of the employees being asked to form non-self-affirming implementation intentions. All employees were asked to record their feelings of anxiety and depression, before and after the research period.
Dr Morgan explained: “The concept of self-affirmation is that people are motivated to defend their sense of self-worth. Self-affirmation in one domain (e.g., by recalling past acts of kindness) should reduce the need to be defensive when threatened in another domain (e.g., by job uncertainty). In other words, if a person’s self-image can be ‘affirmed’ in a domain that is important to them, this should act as a buffer against threats to the self.
“‘Self-Affirming Implementation Intentions’ are kinds of ‘if…, then…’ plans that work by encouraging people to link in situations (e.g. feeling threatened or anxious at work) with appropriate self-affirming behavioural responses (such as reflecting on one’s successes). Research has shown that forming implementation intentions can have a significant impact on future behaviour over the longer-term.”
Results of the study revealed that compared with the control group, workers who had created self-affirming implementation intentions experienced an immediate reduction in anxiety. This reduction was also observed in their appraisal of job-related anxiety three weeks later.
Dr Morgan said: “Our findings, that anxiety can be decreased in both the short and longer term, suggest that the integration of brief health psychology interventions, such as this, into existing organisational practice may be of benefit to the wellbeing of employees in order to buffer the effect of stress, particularly during periods of recession, organisational change, and more specifically, during downsizing.
“A particularly appealing aspect of our research is that our brief intervention is relatively straightforward to implement and therefore it could easily be applied in work settings without placing additional strain on employees or employers.”
The research team are now keen to extend the study to other anxiety-provoking work domains (for example health and social care workers, safety-critical workers, etc.) and to examine the longer-term effects of the intervention on wellbeing.