by Evie Michailidis, Fellow at the Cyprus Centre for Business Research
Embitterment is defined as an emotional response to unjust experiences (e.g., exposure to illegitimate tasks; ITs) that can have a toll on employee wellbeing. Also, previous research suggests that embitterment may promote preservative thinking about work (i.e., work-related rumination) and prevent detaching psychologically from work. However, little is known about the boundary conditions that determine who and when is at a higher risk of feeling embittered, and when embittered employees are more likely to ruminate about work during off-job time. To address this gap in the literature, the aim of this study was to investigate whether employee exhaustion moderates the indirect relationship between ITs and work-related rumination via embitterment. Addressing this research aim is relevant because it will expand our understanding on the antecedents and consequences of workplace embitterment, as well as the conditions under which embitterment is more likely to occur and more detrimental for employees.
According to the “Stress-as-Offense-to-Self” (SOS) theory (Semmer, 2007), 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 considered as unnecessary and/or unreasonable, and, as such, may threaten one’s self esteem and violate justice rules. In line with this theory, it is argued that exposure to ITs may trigger feelings of embitterment that in turn, promote thinking about work during leisure (i.e., affective rumination and problem-solving pondering) and prevent detachment from work. In line with conservation of resources theory (Hobfoll, 1989) we argue that exhaustion may moderate these relationships because it indicates a lack of energetic resources. Exhausted employees have less energy to invest in order to deal successfully with ITs and as a result ITs are more likely to promote feelings of embitterment for exhausted employees. Similarly, exhausted employees are less able to regulate their feelings of embitterment, and this is likely to boost the positive relationship of embitterment with affective rumination and its negative relationship with detachment. In contrast, exhausted employees are less likely to engage in successful problem-solving pondering when feeling embittered. As such, the positive relationship between embitterment and problem solving pondering will be weaker for exhausted employees.
The study hypotheses were tested in a cross-sectional study (Study 1, N = 194) and a daily diary study (Study 2, N = 45), in order to capture within-person variations in the examined processes.
The results of Study 1 indicated that unreasonable tasks related positively to embitterment. Also, unreasonable tasks related positively and indirectly to affective rumination via increased levels of embitterment. Exhaustion did not moderate the proposed indirect relationships. Only a marginal moderating effect was found showing that the positive relationship between embitterment and affective rumination was stronger for those higher (vs. lower) in exhaustion. Results of multilevel analyses (Study 2) indicated that the positive relationship between daily ITs and daily embitterment was moderated by daily exhaustion. Specifically, the positive relationship between daily ITs and daily embitterment was significant only on days employees experienced higher levels of exhaustion than usual. Analyses also indicated that the positive relationship between daily embitterment and daily affective rumination was stronger on days employees experienced higher (vs. lower) exhaustion than usual.
The study findings contribute in better understanding how and under which conditions ITs enact feelings of embitterment and when embitterment is more likely to promote work-related rumination during off-job time. Exhausted employees seem to be at a higher risk to feel embittered when exposed to ITs and are more likely to ruminate about work when feeling embittered. Hence, organizations should make sure to eliminate ITs and unjust work environments.