“Sticks and stones can break my bones, but words can never hurt me.”


Recent studies confirm that emotional hurt and rejection, whether part of social interactions or the perception of inequitable and unjust workplace conditions, can actually trigger the same neurophysiologic pathways associated with physical pain and suffering ((Nowack, K. (2014). Taking the Sting Out of Feedback. Talent Development Magazine, Volume 68, pp. 50-54)).

A nifty study by Naomi Eisenberger and colleagues at UCLA used a new technology called functional magnetic resonance (fMRI) to peer into the inner workings the brains of each team member who was involved in a social exercise designed to provoke feelings of social isolation and rejection. She studied what part of the brain was activated while a group of subjects played a computer game with other individuals they did not know.

She created two possibilities of being rejected–either actively or passively (she told them they couldn’t not continue because of some technical problems).  Comparison of fMRI brain activity in the active exclusion group and the inclusion group revealed greater activity in the part of the brain that is associated with physical pain (anterior cingulate cortex). Additionally, the subjects who were rejected also reported feeling significantly more psychological distress based on self-report measures ((Eisenberger, N., Lieberman, M. and Williams, K. (2003). Does rejection hurt? An fMRI study of social exclusion. Science, 302, 290-292)). 

Interestingly, other research suggests that people report higher levels of self-reported pain and have diminished performance on a cognitively demanding task after reliving a past socially meaningful event than a past physically painful event ((Chen, Z., Williams, K., Fitness, J. & Newton, N. (2008). When hurt will not heal. Exploring the capacity to relive social and physical pain. Psychological Perspectives, 19, 789-795)). 

Additionally, interpersonal judgment and social evaluation tends to elicit strong stress reactions with cortisol levels in our system being elevated fifty percent longer when the stressor is interpersonal versus impersonal ((Dickerson, S. & Kemeny. M. (2004). Acute stressors and cortisol responses: A theoretical integration and synthesis of laboratory research. Psychological Bulletin, 130, 355-391)). It might take approximately an hour for our cortisol levels to return to “normal” after dealing with an upsetting interpersonal situation.

Perceived Unfairness, Employee Engagement and Health

Quite a bit of research supports the idea that when employees experience injustice (distributive or procedural), psychological contract breach (e.g., feeling exploited in our work relationship with the company) or unfairness that it can negatively impact an employee’s health.

In a very comprehensive meta-analysis, 279 studies were reviewed to explore the association between employee perceived fairness at work and diverse health outcomes such as absenteeism, job burnout, unhealthy behaviors, negative emotional states, and physical health problems ((Robbins, J. (2012). Perceived unfairness and employee health: A meta-analytic integration. Journal of Applied Psychology, 97, 235-272)). Perceived unfairness was significantly associated with indicators of physical and mental health.

Several findings were interesting to note:

  1. Although unfairness was significantly associated with poor health the results suggested that unfairness was more strongly associated with indicators of strain and psychological conditions rather than physical health outcomes.
  2. Mental health problems were most pronounced for those experiencing distributive injustice (i.e., the kind of injustice related to distribution of rewards and recognition).
  3. Neither age nor gender had any impact on the association between unfairness and health.
  4. Interactional unfairness (interpersonal interactions) was consistently one of the weaker predictors of employee health. However, a closer look at the analyses suggested that interactional justice uniquely predict some health indicators such as job burnout and stress above and beyond distributive and procedural injustice.

These findings suggest that perceived unfairness is a significant predictor of employee health and that the experience of interpersonal mistreatment (e.g., disrespect, bullying behavior, evaluative feedback) are highly associated with well-being. 

We already know that working for a competent jerk can be a severe health risk as an independent contributor and predictor of heart disease after controlling for other known cardiac risk factors like smoking, obesity and physical activity ((Nyberg. et al., 2008. Managerial leadership and ischaemic heart disease among employees: The Swedish WOLF study. Occupational and Environmental Medicine, 66, 51-55)).

Finally, two studies of 3205 men and 1204 women followed for 15 years by Professor Marko Elovaino at the University of Helsinki have shown that employees who report working for toxic bosses and who report unfair treatment at work experience significantly higher levels of poor sleep and elevated inflammation (C-reactive protein and IL-6) in men. Increasingly, both poor quality of sleep and inflammation seem to be strong contributors of fatigue, absenteeism, lower productivity and important long-term health outcomes.

It would seem safe to conclude that both perceived social inequity, unfairness and negative interpersonal interactions might be more important than just impacting talent disengagement and high turnover–it might actually directly lead to such health outcomes as job burnout, absenteeism and psychological distress…Be well…..

Kenneth Nowack, Ph.D. is a licensed psychologist (PSY13758) and President & Chief Research Officer/Co-Founder of Envisia Learning, is a member of the Consortium for Research on Emotional Intelligence in Organizations. Ken also serves as the Associate Editor of Consulting Psychology Journal: Practice and Research. His recent book Clueless: Coaching People Who Just Don’t Get It is available for free for a limited time by signing up for free blog updates (Learn more at our website)

Posted in Engagement, Relate, Talent Management

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