Cover Story

Researchers have discovered a new link between work stress and infectious disease. After believing for years that employee stress and health improve when workers have a sense of control over their jobs, new research indicates that this assumption may not be true for all employees.

Organizational/management researcher John Schaubroeck, PhD, of Drexel University, along with James R. Jones, PhD, of the University of Nebraska at Omaha, and Jia Lin Xie, PhD, at the University of Toronto, looked at job demands, control and individual differences to find out if they affected an employee's susceptibility to upper-respiratory disease.

By collecting questionnaires and saliva samples from 217 full-time employees of a U.S. survey research organization, the authors found that at similar responsibility levels, workers' immune systems responded differently--their levels of immunoglobulin-A antibodies, which help fight upper- respiratory infections, differed depending on the individual's proclivity to assign self-blame for negative work outcomes.

Organizational researchers have generally believed that it's important "to be able to choose situations in your job in order to be more effective and to use your skills," since "having control reduces the stress you experience," says Schaubroeck.

But Schaubroeck and his colleagues' findings reveal that there is a subpopulation to be considered--those who may prefer not to have control. According to this research, these people tend to consistently view negative work outcomes as being their fault. For these employees, "control can actually exacerbate the unhealthful effects of stress," write the authors.

Schaubroeck and his colleagues found that efficacy--in this study, how employees feel about their ability to do their work--is an important determinant of how one uses control at work.

"A lot of people with error-prone attributional styles--the way people assign blame or credit to themselves--tend to have low self-esteem," says Schaubroeck. He points out that it could be useful for organizations to "train in terms of attribution style."

The study, "Individual differences in utilizing control to cope with job demands: effects on susceptibility to infectious disease," appeared in APA's Journal of Applied Psychology (Vol. 86, No. 2).