Cassandra Chlevin-Thiele, Master’s Degree, Kansas State University Christopher J. Lake, Doctoral Degree, University of Alaska
The present study focused on the potential impact of social comparison on healthcare workers? 1) interpretations of demanding workplace events, and 2) confidence in coping with workplace stress. By proposing a model that integrates major tenants of social comparison literature (e.g., Festinger, 1954) within the framework of Lazarus? (1966) transactional theory of stress, this study helps uncover influential factors of workplace stress. The model hypothesized positive direct effects of both 1) workplace event frequency and 2) perceived coworker stress upon personal stress intensity, and of perceived coworker coping on personal coping confidence. A direct effect of personal stress intensity on personal coping confidence was also posited (whether it would be positive or negative was left open-ended).
Extensive documentation indicates that excessive workplace stress is a costly problem for organizations and a psychophysical hazard to workers (Canadian Centre for Occupational Health and Safety, 2018; Williams, 2003; NIOSH, 2009; Zeller & Levin, 2013). While some sources of stress cannot be avoided or eliminated from certain occupations, they do not always result in stressful experiences for workers (Lazarus, 1999). Facing a demanding event is insufficient to cause stress (see Brough, Drummond, & Biggs, 2018), but the frequency of such experiences is an important contributor to a person?s overall stress and poor health (DeLongis, Coyne, Dakof, Folkman, & Lazarus, 1982). Additionally, feelings of stress can be transmitted between individuals through social interactions and result in negative effects (Wethington, 2000; Omdahl & O’Donnell, 1999; Carnevali et al., 2020). Interactions between people aid with sense-making of shared environments (Salancik & Pfeffer, 1978), and it has been recurringly observed that people dealing with ambiguity (in both clinical and non-clinical populations; see Gump & Kulik, 1997; Locock & Brown, 2010) willfully put themselves into situations where social comparisons can be made and, by extension, social information can be gathered to support cognitive appraisal processes. Rather than conceptualizing social comparison as a coping strategy (e.g., Taylor, & Lobel, 1989), in the present study it is presented as a cognitive mechanism that aides in directing a person?s entire experience of stress?a seemingly novel approach.
This completed project used a self-report, cross-sectional Qualtrics survey, which included portions of Gray-Toft and Anderson?s (1981) Nursing Stress Scale (along with items adapted from this scale?s content). A sample of 139 healthcare workers (recruited via Amazon?s Mechanical Turk; 86% nurses; M = 36 years old; 76% she/her; 80% White/Caucasian; 71% Bachelor?s degree or higher) provided personal information regarding five work-related stressors?patient death and dying, conflict with physicians, workload, lack of support, and uncertainty concerning treatment?along with their perceptions of coworkers? responses to these same stressors.
Path analysis indicated good fit for this model (?2 = 1.85 [1, N = 139], p = .173, CFI = 1.00, SRMR = .02). Workers reported greater personal stress 1) the more frequently they experienced demanding events (? = .66, SE = .05, p < .001), and 2) the greater their coworkers? stress appeared to be (? = .24, SE = .06, p = .001). Confidence in personal coping abilities positively related to familiarity with coworkers? coping tactics (? = .55, SE = .08, p < .001), but negatively with personal stress intensity (? = -.31, SE = .12, p < .01).
This support for the hypothesized model suggests that the process of social comparison may be a contributing factor for 1) the spread of work-related stress, and 2) the bolstering of coping confidence. There appears to be alignment between personal appraisals of stress and reactions from others to demanding workplace events, suggesting that healthcare workers might be using their coworkers as cues for how to appropriately respond to said events. These results speak to the importance of harnessing social information processes that naturally occur in the workplace, which could direct future intervention efforts/programs regarding what to place emphasis upon (e.g., being a ?spreader? of adaptive coping tactics). The study?s design and execution were strengthened by efforts made to detect/deter careless responding and reduce participants? fatigue. Results from supplemental analyses suggested a lack of multicollinearity, multivariate outliers, and monomethod bias. However, all adapted scale items lacked formal validation and the smaller-than-desired sample size prevented analyses at the stressor-specific level.
To expand upon the findings that personal appraisals of workplace stress and coping confidence positively relate to coworkers? behaviors (all based on self-report thus far), future research could investigate such correspondence in dyads and/or teams (incorporating informant-reporting) and further broaden the focus to include coping tactics (not just coping confidence). Continued examination of factors that influence workplace stress is critical if future interventions wish to manipulate such factors in a manner that interrupts the process(es) that lead to experiences of stress, or perhaps turn them into sources of empowerment to aid workers in adaptively and healthily coping with stress.