Sarina M. Maneotis, PhD, Kansas State University

This study seeks to replicate prior research by examining if employees who have been categorized as essential view their work has having more prosocial impact and social worth than those who do not (H1- H2). The study extends prior research by testing if having an essential job offers any buffer against the relationship between role overload, emotional exhaustion, and turnover intentions (H3-H6). A moderated mediation approach is used to test the overall mode (H7). See Figure 1. This study was pre-registered on OSF.

The ongoing pandemic presents a unique way to understand the boundary conditions of relational job design (Grant, 2007). “Essential” workers have been commended for their work and have even been elevated to hero status (Cox, 2020). Prior research suggests that communicating to employees the prosocial effects of their jobs can increase perceived prosocial impact and social worth (Grant, 2008a) and that focusing on the prosocial may also buffer against emotional exhaustion (Grant & Sonnentag, 2010). At the same time, the demands being place on essential workers lay a great burden on their shoulders and may lead to significant levels of burnout, especially if resources are not adequate (Demerouti et al., 2001). Additionally, workers may find labels such as ?essential? or ?hero? to be inauthentic and hollow after being repeatedly put in harm?s way for their work (Cox, 2020). As such, the extreme conditions of essential workers may present a boundary condition and a potential downside to prosocial job design, compared to otherwise positive findings in this area (Bolino & Grant, 2016). In fact, recent research in healthcare workers suggests prosocial impact may actually exacerbate stress (Calas et al., 2021). Additionally, it is important to acknowledge that burnout can be an antecedent to turnover (Kim & Stoner, 2008). It is not yet understood if prosocial mechanisms can also buffer the burnout-turnover relationship. This study builds on prior work by testing this specific interaction, as well as the stressor-burnout-turnover intentions process.

Data was collected from student workers and MTurk. Participants must have been employed outside of MTurk and had to meet a knowledge check question and several attention questions to participate (Meade & Craig, 2012). The overall sample (N=184) was 55.4% male, worked full-time (70.7%), was generally White (74.5%), was 31 years of age, and had been working in their current position for nearly 4 years. See Table 1 for a summary of the measures.

Hypotheses 1 and 2 that essential workers would report more perceived prosocial impact and social worth were not supported (t=.09, p=.537, d = .015, 1-tailed test; t=.28, p=.612, d = .047, 1-tailed test). Hypothesis 3 that role overload would be positively related to emotional exhaustion was supported. Hypothesis 4 that role overload would interact with essential status to predict emotional exhaustion was not significant. See Table 2. Hypothesis 5 that emotional exhaustion would be positively related to turnover intentions was supported, as was Hypothesis 6 that essential status would buffer (lessen) the positive relationship between emotional exhaustion and turnover intentions was supported. See Table 3 and Figure 2. Finally, hypothesis 7 testing the moderated mediation using methods suggested by Edwards and Lambert (2007). As supported by the previous regression results, essential status moderates second stage of the mediation process, but not the first. The lack of total direct effects and sign change between significant direct and indirect effects suggest inconsistent mediation (MacKinnon et al., 2007). See Table 4.

Overall, these findings suggest that employees who identify as essential workers do not perceive to have more prosocial impact or social worth at work than non-essential workers, nor does being an essential worker buffer the stressor-burnout relationship. This provides important evidence showing potential limitations and boundary conditions for the relational job design literature (c.f., Grant, 2007). On the other hand, being an essential worker did help buffer the relationship between emotional exhaustion and turnover intentions, such that the relationship was weaker for essential workers. This study further demonstrated that being an essential worker moderated the mediating effect of burnout on the relationship between role overload and turnover intentions. This study is limited by its use of cross-sectional self-report data. The data was collected from multiple sources, however, and an effort was made to access a broad variety of workers across many industries. Workers in essential positions should be monitored for burnout. Though being an essential worker makes an employee with increasing emotional exhaustion less likely to turnover, it does not dampen the stressor-burnout relationship.

Though prior research has demonstrated that communicating how one?s job affects others facilitates perceived social impact and worth, being designated as an “essential” employee is either not clear enough to reproduce this finding or comes with too many other complications. Being an essential work does, however, buffer the emotional exhaustion and turnover intentions relationship.

Tags: Applicable to all occupations/industries, Comprehensive Approaches to Healthy Work Design and Well-Being, COVID-19, Empirical study, Workplace Stress; Outcomes; and Recovery