A Daily Diary Study on Workplace Embitterment: The Role of Illegitimate Tasks and their Impact on Counterproductive Work Behaviour and Affective Rumination

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Workplace embitterment affects employees and employer alike

by Dr Evie Michailidis, Lecturer at CIM and Research Fellow at the Cyprus Centre for Business Research

Theoretical Background and Hypothesis

Embitterment is defined as an emotional response to unjust work experiences that can have a toll on employees’ wellbeing. Embitterment is usually assessed as a condition that develops over long periods of time. In the current study, we argue that embitterment is also a state that may exhibit significant within-person variations. To further support the validity of state embitterment we study  it within ‘Stress-as-Offense-to-Self” (SOS) theory (Semmer 2007, 2019) with the aims to understand its proximal antecedents and consequences at work, but also during off-job time. According to SOS theory, threats to one’s self-image (i.e., anything that signals a lack of appreciation and respect), can trigger stress and unfavorable outcomes. Within this framework, illegitimate tasks (ITs) refer to tasks that are perceived by employees as unnecessary and/or unreasonable, and, as such, may threaten their self-esteem and image, and violate justice rules. Also, SOS theory proposes that appreciation by significant others at work such as supervisors and colleagues, may buffer the unfavourable outcomes of ITs.

In line with this theory, we hypothesized that daily ITs will have a positive, indirect relationship with daily embitterment via their negative relationship with interactional justice, and that this indirect relationship will be stronger (vs. weaker) in conditions of lower (vs. higher) appreciation from colleagues and supervisors. We, also, anticipated that embitterment will relate positively to counterproductive work behavior (CWB) as an attempt to restore a sense of justice. Drawing upon the recovery literature, we further argued that employees, who feel embittered and, as a result engage in CWB during work, may end up experiencing more pervasive, recurrent and negative thoughts about work in the hours after work (i.e., affective rumination).

Methodology and Findings

The study hypotheses were assessed using a daily, diary study. In total, 71 employees completed the diary twice a day (i.e., after work and before bedtime) for five consecutive workdays.

Findings indicated that 41% of the variance in embitterment could be attributed to within-person variations, justifying our assumption that embitterment is a state that may vary substantially within-persons as a response to environmental stimuli. In line with hypotheses, ITs (both unreasonable and unnecessary) related positively to embitterment via reduced interactional justice. Appreciation either by colleagues or by supervisors did not moderate this indirect effect. Embitterment did not relate significantly to CWB but was found to mediate the negative relationship between interactional justice and affective rumination. Analyses for the separate dimensions of ITs also showed that appreciation by colleagues buffers the positive relationship between unreasonable tasks and embitterment.

Practical Contributions

Findings of the present study highlight some key practical contributions. The present study supports the toll embitterment can have on employees’ wellbeing. Findings indicated that experiencing embitterment can interfere with employee’s ability to recover from work as they engage in affective rumination and find it difficult to mentally detach from work when not at work.  The detrimental consequences insufficient recovery can have on both physical and mental health have been well documented in the literature (e.g., Sonnentag & Bayer, 2005; Querstret & Cropley, 2012; Cropley et al., 2017). As such, it is essential that colleagues, supervisors and HR managers are attentive and mindful of possible signs of embitterment, so that they can prevent it from escalating by offering psychological resources such as appreciation. 

In this study we showed that colleagues take an exceptional position in buffering employees’ unpleasant emotional reactions (i.e., embitterment) as a response to tasks that are perceived as unreasonable. Practically, this finding suggests that appreciation by colleagues can be an effective means that can alleviate embitterment in employees. Organizations can help employees cultivate skills needed to show appreciation to one another. Simple acts such as acknowledging one’s accomplishments, recognizing one’s hard work, praising, and showing interest in one’s concerns, can eventually enhance one’s esteem and fulfil their need for belongingness (Baumeister & Leary, 1995), and as this study suggest it can also buffer the negative relationship between unreasonable tasks and embitterment.

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