Sense of Fairness Affects Outlook, Decisions

By Shankar Vedantam
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, June 9, 2008

American workers are hurting. The country is in an economic slump, thousands of people are being laid off, and hundreds of companies are retrenching. With house values falling in many parts of the country and with gas prices soaring, many people are struggling from paycheck to paycheck.

The unfolding shakeout might ultimately be good for the economy, but it can be extremely painful for individuals. For companies, managing change is very important, not only for the well-being of their employees but also because to succeed, they need employees who are engaged, enthusiastic and energized -- and not burned out.

A pair of psychologists recently evaluated hundreds of employees at a large North American university that was in the grip of painful change. The researchers wanted to find out whether there were factors that explained why some employees successfully weathered the transition and reengaged with their jobs, while others spiraled into cynicism and exhaustion -- the classic signs of burnout.

Burnout has been long associated with being overworked and underpaid, but psychologists Christina Maslach and Michael Leiter found that these were not the crucial factors. The single biggest difference between employees who suffered burnout and those who did not was the whether they thought that they were being treated unfairly or fairly.

"These fairness issues can be huge," said Maslach, a social psychologist at the University of California at Berkeley. "Issues around fairness are highly linked to the anger and cynicism that are linked to burnout."

When a worker suffers burnout, she added: "You feel you have been treated with disrespect. It generates enormous personal anger for small things because of what it implies."

Affected workers report more mental health problems. Their work can suffer, creating a vicious cycle of a shrinking workplace, burnout and poor work. One study showed that nurses suffering burnout provided their patients with inferior care.

Leiter, co-author of the study, which looked at 992 employees at the troubled university, said people who sensed they were being treated unfairly were twice as likely to burn out as employees who did not. Leiter and Maslach were particularly interested in people who showed some risk factors for burnout but not others: people who were enthusiastic but exhausted, for example, or who felt energetic but psychologically disconnected from their jobs.

Leiter, an organizational psychologist at Acadia University in Nova Scotia, said participants in the study were concerned about downsizing and afraid of being assigned to a job they would not like. The situation was volatile, and people were extremely alert to signs they were being treated worse than others.

"The people who were confident they were working for a fair employer went in a positive direction," he said. "The people who did not have confidence in the employer's fairness tended to go toward burnout."

Maslach and Leiter published their study, "Early Predictors of Job Burnout and Engagement," in the most recent issue of the Journal of Applied Psychology.

Their research on fairness dovetails with work by other researchers showing that humans care a great deal about how they are being treated relative to others. In many ways, fairness seems to matter more than absolute measures of how well they are faring -- people seem willing to endure tough times if they have the sense the burden is being shared equally, but they quickly become resentful if they feel they are being singled out for poor treatment.

One classic way to study fairness is an experiment known as "the ultimatum game." The game involves one person offering to divide a sum of money, and the second person deciding whether to accept or reject the deal.

If the sum is $100, for example, the first person might offer to give away $25 and keep $75 for himself. If the second person agrees, the money is divided accordingly. But if the second person rejects the deal, neither one gets anything.

If people cared only about absolute rewards, then Person B ought to accept whatever Person A offers, because getting even $1 is better than nothing. But experiments show that many people will reject the deal if they feel the first person is dividing the money unfairly.

Such thinking may be universal. In a 2006 paper published in the journal Science, Joseph Henrich, an evolutionary psychologist who is now at the University of British Columbia, found that people in Ghana, Kenya, Tanzania, Ecuador, Bolivia, Siberia, Papua New Guinea and Fiji all placed a very high premium on being treated fairly.

In every case, people were willing to forgo money in order to keep someone else from dividing it unfairly. Henrich and his colleagues argued that this apparently universal impulse suggested an evolutionary mechanism; the willingness to make personal sacrifices to punish unfair people, they argued, helps make fairness the norm. And over time, a species that enforces fairness might be more successful than a species that allows or encourages disparities. An evolutionary mechanism might also explain why people have very forceful reactions to unfairness -- not merely disappointment but rage.

"When you are treated unfairly or disrespectfully, the organization is excluding you from being a real member of the community," Leiter said. "There is something about that that makes people feel really insecure.

"When loyal employees are treated in a way that is not fair, they feel betrayed in a very deep, emotional way," Leiter added. "When you do a lot of work you get tired, but it does not have the same emotional impact as being treated unfairly."

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