Perceived unfairness at work ‘can damage employee health’

Employees’ perceptions of procedural justice – whether they feel fairly treated at work – affects how they rate their own health, a new study has found.

The research by the University of East Anglia’s (UAE) Norwich Business School, in conjunction with Stockholm University, found that when employees’ perceptions of procedural justice at work changed – relating to the processes used to decide on rewards, pay, promotions and workload – so did their assessment of their health. Those reporting a positive change in procedural fairness assessed their health more positively, while those reporting a negative change in procedural fairness gave a poorer evaluation of their personal health.

The findings, which looked at more than 5,800 people working in Sweden, suggest employers could improve employees’ health by implementing more transparent procedures around decision-making relating to aspects such as pay and rewards.

Dr Constanze Eib, who led the study and is a lecturer in organisational behaviour at UAE, said: “Justice is important. People are impacted by their justice perceptions and how they feel their organisation and supervisors treat them. If you feel fairly treated you are more engaged.

“If people feel unfairly treated, they not only decrease their performance – they might become a less good employee by coming in late or taking extended lunch breaks. It is serious from the individual perspective in terms of their health, and for the organisation because it affects business performance and how long people stay in a workplace.”

Sir Cary Cooper, president of the CIPD and a professor at Manchester Business School, agreed a lack of clarity around workplace procedures can impact on an employee’s health.

“If an organisation does not make it clear why someone gets a promotion and why someone gets more pay than another person doing the same job, that is procedural injustice – there is no procedure and we don’t know what is going on,” he said. “It is one of the factors that can create stress, which leads to either mental or physical ill health.

“It is about being transparent about what it will take to get promoted, to get more money, to be allowed flexible working when you apply for it. The more transparent a business is, the more likely it is to minimise the procedural injustice issues.”

Dr Zofia Bajorek, a researcher at The Work Foundation, said: “The employment relationship is very important for employee wellbeing, and so when this relationship appears to have been breached with a perception of unfairness – be that in payment, workload compared to other members of staff, employee voice – this can lead to reduced wellbeing (an increase in depression and anxiety) and employee stress – which are risk factors for both sickness absence and staff turnover.”

However, Cooper added that, while procedural injustice is one cause of workplace ill health, there were other more important stressors too. “The real big factor is how you are managed. If you have an abrasive line manager that can cause you to get ill, and if you consistently work long hours that can cause you to get ill. If you are consistently told your job is not safe, and if there is a lack of flexibility and balance, it can damage your health. These are the real heavyweight issues.”

Eib agreed that supervisors had the potential to cause workplace stress and called for better training for line managers. “We need to train supervisors to learn how to be fair, how to follow these rules that affect people and how to set up procedures to include everyone in decisions,” she added.

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