Employee perceptions of the work environment and mental health: A suggestive study

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  • Journal of Vocational Behavior, 6, 217-234 (1975)

    Employee Perceptions of the Work Environment and Mental Health: A Suggestive Study

    JAMES F. GAVIN Colorado State University

    The purpose of this study was to examine a model for investigating employee mental health in industrial environments and, more particularly, to determine the extent to which a workers perceptions of the environment covaried with mental health criteria. The managerial segments of two divisions of a 35,000 employee company were represented in this study. Jn general, it was found that employees who perceived the environment as having clarity in the organizational structures, little administrative inter- ference in work processes, equitable reward systems, and trust and con- sideration for employees tended to have more favorable scores on mental health indices. Also, some differences between the two work environments, as well as between male and female employees, were noted and discussed.

    The past decade has evidenced a significant redirection of studies concerning the mental health of industrial workers. Beginning with the works of Kornhauser (1965) and Kahn and his associates (Kahn, Wolfe, Quinn, Snoek & Rosenthal, 1964), attention seems to have shifted from an emphasis solely on the person (cf. Heron, 1952; Peck & Parsons, 1956; for examples) to one which viewed the organizational environment as an important determinant of workers mental health.1 Kornhausers study, for example, argued strongly for situational determinants of mental health-independent of the workers personality make-up. Kahn et al. also noted the importance of such job characteristics as role ambiguity and role conflict as causative influences on the job-related strains of industrial employees.

    Representative of this current trend in industrial mental health research is the premise that the psychological well-being of workers in a function of both person and environment variables and their interaction (cf. Kahn &

    The author expresses his appreciation to John Hamilton for his assistance in the data analyses and to Jacob Hautaluoma and Terry Dickenson for their helpful critique of an earlier draft of this paper. Requests for reprints should be addressed to Dr. James F. Gavin, Department of Psychology, Colorado State University, Fort Collins, CO 80523.

    1A notable exception to this statement can be found in the emphases of Michigans Institute for Social Research on environmental factors dating back to the early 1950s.

    217

    Copyright @ 1975 by Academic Press. Inc. All rights of reproduction in any form reserved.

  • 218 JAMES F. GAVIN

    Mental Health

    Fig. 1. A model for the study of industrial mental health.

    Quinn, 1970; Levinson, 1965; Neff, 1968). Perhaps one of the more cogent presentations of this point of view can be found in French and Kahns (1962) remark that, . . .the objective environment influences behavior only via the psychological environment, which is, in turn, . . .mediated by attributes of the person (p. 30).

    The present study takes as its starting point an employees psychological representation of the work environment as having causal significance for his or her mental health. Stated another way, the manner in which the individual perceives the objective environment is believed to have consequences for behaviors and attitudes related to mental health. These perceptions may not be veridical with the objective work situation, since they are believed to be influenced by attributes of the person as French and Kahn (1962) have noted. (Figure 1 attempts to portray the relationships described above.)

    The centrality of the employees perceptions in this conceptualization is underscored by a number of recent works on the topic of organizational climate (cf. Pritchard & Karasick, 1973), as well as by more theoretical arguments concerning perceptions. Stern (1964), for example, points out that while a genuine disparity may exist between the perceived situation and the veridical one, . . .if the consequences of a percept are real, then the percept must have been real [p. 1621. In direct support of Sterns contention are the findings of Lawler, Hall, and Oldham (1974), who report that perceptions of the work environment are more closely related to behavioral and attitudinal outcomes than are the objective environmental characteristics.

    With this framework in mind, the purposes of the present investigation will now be presented. Perceptions of employees in two subsystems of a large organization were examined in regard to their possible implications for mental health. Since these subsystems differed in that one was a line organization operating in a relatively autonomous fashion while the other was a corporate staff division, it was hypothesized that employees of the two subsystems

  • WORKENVIRONMENTANDMENTAL HEALTH 219

    would differ significantly in their perceptions of the work environment, as well as on mental health measures (Hypothesis 1).

    A second area for investigation had to do with the relationship of employee perceptions to criteria of mental health suggested by the work of Jahoda (1958) among others (French & Kahn, 1962; Indik, Seashore & Slesinger, 1964; Zander & Quinn, 1962). A rather broad hypothesis underlying this aspect of the study was that perceptions of the work environment would have significant relationships with mental health criteria (Hypothesis 2). A further interest of this research concerned possible differences between the two work environments in correlations of employee perceptions with the mental health criteria (Hypothesis 3). Underlying this exploration was the assumption that the implications for mental health of employee perceptions might tend to differ depending upon the nature or characteristics of the organization, i.e., the setting.

    The final area of inquiry in this study dealt with the issue of possible sex differences in work environment perceptions and mental health. Few studies in the literature of industrial mental health have reported data on sex differences (cf. Meltzer, 1964, for one exception), a possible side effect of employment practices favoring male workers. However, a reasonable argument could be made that males and females will differ in their frames of reference regarding work (cf. Alper, 1974; Helson, 1972) and, therefore, will vary in their perceptions of the work environment (Hypothesis 4). Further, it might be reasoned that these perceptions will have different implications for mental health, depending upon the sex of the worker (Hypothesis 5). These issues, then, were to be explored within the context of this study.

    METHOD

    Settings. Two subsystems of a 35,000 employee domestic airline partici- pated in this study. One was a regional center for the airline, while the other was the corporate management information and data processing organization; both employed approximately 3,000 members. The divisions of the airline represented different systems functions in that the first was a production or line organization, while the other served more of a staff or adaptive/mainte- nance function (Katz & Kahn, 1966). In subsequent sections, they will be referred to as the Line (L) and Staff(S) organizations.

    Participants. In both organizations, research was conducted on the managerial employees only. Management in L and S differed in the following ways: Those in L were slightly older (XL = 40; 2s = 35), had more years in the company (yL = 12; & = 6), and had somewhat less formal education. These differences are consistent with the professional orientation of the

  • 220 JAMES F. GAVIN

    staff organization vis-a-vis that of the line division. Of the 257 participants in L, 54 were female (21%); 33 (or 15%) of 214 were female in S.

    Instruments. Three sets of measures were relevant to this study: Work environment perceptions, mental health criteria as described by the worker, and mental health criteria as evaluated by an individuals supervisors.

    Work environment perceptions. A 106-item questionnaire was used to measure six dimensions derived from a principal-axis analysis and varimax rotation (cf. Gavin & Howe, 1974, for additional details).

    A brief description of these dimensions is provided below; the figure in parentheses is coefficient alpha based on those items which loaded .35 or higher on the dimension.2

    1. Clarity and Efficiency of Structure (.89): The degree to which organizational policies and guidelines are clearly defmed; responsibility is assigned; methods and procedures are kept current; and decisions are timely and appropriate.

    2. Hindrance (.83): The extent to which inefficient work procedures and administrivia interfere with successful completion of tasks.

    3. Rewards (.90): The extent to which employees feel that rewards are adequate and fair, and that sufficient opportunities exist for growth and advancement.

    4. Esprit (.84): The degree to which employees express feelings of pride, loyalty, cooperation, and friendliness in their work activities.

    5. Managerial Trust and Consideration (.91): The degree to which management places trust and confidence in subordinates by allowing them sufficient latitude in their work. This dimension also concerns the extent to which management encourages innovation in employee work behaviors.

    6. Challenge and Risk (.67): The extent to which policies and practices encourage high standards of work performance and reasonable risk-taking among employees.

    Dimension scores were computed by weighting the standardized item scores with factor loadings. It should be noted that although Hindrance is described in a negative manner, high scores on this as well as the other dimen- sions indicate more favorable perceptions, -e.g., less hindrance in this instance.

    Since the method of deriving these dimensions included an orthogonal rotational procedure, the intercorrelations among the dimensions are understand- ably low. The range of correlations between dimensions was from - .15 to .20.

    Mental health criteria, Four dimensions of positive mental health (Jahoda, 1958) suggested by previous investigators were assessed in this study;

    2The decision to use .35 as a cutoff for including items in reliability estimation was based on the criteria of simple structure and psychological meaningfulness. That is, by using the .35 level interpretable factors could be described whose items tended to have loadings of .35 or more on only one factor.

  • WORK ENVIRONMENT AND MENTAL HEALTH 221

    they were: (a) growth, development and self-actualization (French & Kahn, 1962; Jahoda, 1958; Maslow, 1943); (b) environmental mastery, including measures of performance and job strain (French & Kahn, 1962; Indik, et al., 1964; Zander & Quinn, 1962); (c)interpersonal relations (French & Kahn, 1962; Jahoda, 1958; Zander & Quinn, 1962); and (d) satisfaction (French & Kahn, 1962; Gurin, Veroff, & Feld, 1960; Zander & Quinn, 1962). These dimensions were operationalized in instruments administered to the workers, as well as to their supervisors.

    The self-report measures which were obtained through responses to a survey questionnaire included the following (the letter in parentheses refers to one of the above mental health dimensions believed to be assessed by the scale):

    1. Self-Development Scale (a): The five items in this scale were assessed along five points ranging from strongly agree to strongly disagree. Sample items include: I am getting valuable experience on my present job, and I have adequate opportunity to use my special skills and talents. The internal consistency estimate (coefficient alpha) for this scale, as well as for the others, is reported in the main diagonal of Table 1.

    2. Job-Related Pressure Scale (b): Similar in nature to the measure reported by Indik et al. (1964), this scale contained six items having the same format as described above. Sample items include: My boss is continually pressuring me to get the job done, and I have too much work to do.

    3. Interpersonal Relations Scale (c): The two items in this scale, assessed in the same manner as described above, were: I have a good relationship with employees in my work group, and All in all, the employees I work with are helpful and friendly to me.

    4. Job Satisfaction Scale (d): The index of job satisfaction was virtually identical to that reported by Gurin et al. (1960) and was assessed on a four-point scale, ranging from very satisfied to very dissatisfied, with no neutral category. It was phrased as follows: Taking all things into considera- tion, I am -with my job.

    The supervisory evaluations were obtained as part of a new, company- wide assessment program for managerial-level employees. The format which was strictly adhered to in all cases is described as follows: Two levels of supervision above the individual being assessed met with a representative of the Personnel Department and completed a 19-item appraisal form. For each of the 19 areas to be rated, a behavioral check-list was provided as an aid to supervisors in discussing relevant job activities. 3 The personnel representative

    3A staff psychologist in this organization helped develop the behavioral checklists from incidents described to him by management personnel. To illustrate, under the category of Resistence to Stress, such behaviorally-oriented items as the following were included on the check-list; Reports headaches once a week or more. Is jittery in meetings (e.g., sweats easily, taps pencil nervously), is sick or absent during peak work periods.

  • TAB

    LE

    1

    Cor

    rela

    tions

    amon

    g Men

    tal H

    ealth

    Cri

    teri

    a fo

    r a L

    ine

    (L)

    and

    Staf

    f (S)

    Org

    aniz

    atio

    n

    Self-

    repo

    rt

    Supe

    rvis

    ory

    1. S

    elf-

    8.

    Per

    - D

    evel

    opm

    ent

    2. P

    ress

    ure

    3. In

    terp

    erso

    nal

    4. S

    atis

    fact

    ion

    5. S

    trai

    n 6.

    Inte

    rper

    sona

    l 7. P

    l/DM

    fo

    rman

    ce

    Self-

    Rep

    ort

    1. Se

    lf-D

    evel

    opm

    ent

    2. Jo

    b Pr

    essu

    re

    3. In

    terp

    erso

    nal R

    elat

    ions

    4.

    Job

    Satis

    fact

    ion

    Supe

    rvis

    ory E

    valu

    atio

    ns

    5. S

    trai

    n Sym

    ptom

    s 6.

    inte

    rper

    sona

    l Rel

    atio

    ns

    7. P

    lann

    ing a

    nd D

    ecis

    ion

    Mak

    ing

    8. P

    erfo

    rman

    ce

    C.6

    5)

    .41*

    **

    .41*

    **

    .43*

    **

    .1.5

    .1

    2 .0

    6 .0

    9 .3

    3***

    (.

    71)

    .29*

    **

    .44*

    **

    .24*

    * .1

    3 .1

    8*

    .19*

    * .2

    9***

    .3

    0***

    (5

    7)

    .33*

    **

    .09

    .17*

    .0

    2 .0

    6 .6

    4***

    .3

    4***

    .1

    1*

    C-1

    .2

    2**

    .15*

    .2

    0**

    .14*

    .24*

    * .2

    9***

    .0

    4 .1

    3 (.

    W

    .58*

    **

    .73*

    **

    .71*

    **

    .16*

    .3

    7***

    .1

    6*

    .26*

    * .3

    4***

    C

    -1

    .54*

    **

    .53*

    **

    .ll

    .31*

    **

    .06

    .13

    .ss*

    **

    .32*

    **

    (.74

    ) .1

    5***

    .2

    4**

    .25*

    * .0

    6 .1

    4 .6

    7***

    .3

    9***

    .6

    5***

    09

    )

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    whi

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    tria

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    ar m

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    pro

    vide

    s cor

    rela

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    for

    the

    Staf

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    aniz

    atio

    n. Th

    e m

    ain

    diag

    onal

    show

    s int

    erna

    l con

    sist

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    estim

    ates

    , whe

    re p

    ossi

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    base

    d on

    the

    com

    bine

    d sam

    ples

    . Als

    o, N

    s fo

    r se

    lf-re

    port

    varia

    bles

    wer

    e 257

    in L

    and

    214

    in S

    ; Ns

    for

    supe

    rvis

    ory v

    a...

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