Interview with Paul E. Spector

Paul Spector.jpg

by Alexandra Ilie

Our interviewee is Paul E. Spector, PhD in I/O Psychology, University of South Florida (USF), Professor of I/O Psychology and Director of the I/O graduate program. His research interests include the impact of jobs on the behavior and well-being of employees, including counterproductive behavior, job satisfaction, job stress, and withdrawal behavior. Professor Spector published in many journals in the field, including Journal of Applied Psychology, Journal of Management, Journal of Organizational Behavior (JOB), Journal of Occupational and Organizational Psychology (JOOP), and Psychological Bulletin. He has written books on both methodology (research design and SAS programming) and content, including an I/O psychology textbook (Industrial and Organizational Psychology: Research and Practice). Professor Spector’s most active interests now are counterproductive behavior at work and cross-cultural job stress.

Alexandra Ilie: You are a scholar who has focused a large part of his academic work on the organizational stress field. We all know there are many definitions and models of job stress which have been proposed by researchers over time. What is your own framework of organizational stress?

Paul E. Spector: I consider emotional reaction to be a required element in the stress process. Working conditions are stressful when they result in a negative emotional response. This allows for a distinction between something that is stressful versus something that just requires effort. Doing a lot of work or doing something difficult isn’t in and of itself stressful. It only becomes stressful when it elicits negative emotions, perhaps because the person becomes frustrated at having more to do than can be done, or anxious about not being capable of performing adequately.

Alexandra Ilie: The moderator models of occupational stress provided information on the impact of many moderator variables such as: social support, hardiness, optimism, negative affectivity, locus of control, and so forth, on the stressor-strain relationship. What variable do you consider would most buffer the relationship between the two and what are the mechanisms which could explain that?

Paul E. Spector: I’ve spent a lot of time studying control, so obviously I think that is very important. It is a critical element in the demand-control model, but this model has been difficult to support empirically. I think it is because of methodological limitations in how research has tried to test it, including studies we’ve done. Such studies measure broad categories of chronic stressors and general control. To be effective though, control has to be over the specific stressor, and so much more episodic methods need to be used to give the idea a good test.

Social support is also important, although this may well depend on matching the type of stressor to the type of support. Although she was looking at coping, one of my doctoral students, Liuqin Yang, has done research showing stressors may differ in how they can best be dealt with.

Alexandra Ilie: Although researchers have largely addressed at the theoretical level the importance of applying the transactional paradigm of stress, empirical research has been achieved so far using a moderator framework. What methodological issues do you think should be improved so that the dynamic nature of job stress might be satisfactorily captured?

Paul E. Spector: Our studies have tended to focus on chronic conditions, asking people how often or how much of certain stressors and strains have been experienced. This assumes that the effects of stressors on strains is cumulative over time, which is not necessarily true in all cases. What has been neglected are more episodic methods that might look at the impact of specific events on strains. Experience sampling methods might be used to look at specific events. Another method that has been used in only a handful of studies is the Keenan and Newton Stress Incident Record. The idea is to collect stressful incidents from people and then content analyze them. One of the things this line of research has suggested is that the stressors researchers study are not necessarily the ones that employees find most stressful. For example, this line of research has shown that interpersonal conflict is one of the most frequent incidents people report, yet there have been very few studies of conflict as a stressor.

Alexandra Ilie: What are the differences between individualist and collectivist countries regarding the work locus of control (the belief that one has control at work) – well-being relationship?

Paul E. Spector: There are very large differences between individualist and collectivist countries in their work locus of control. Individualists believe they have far more control at work than collectivists. What is interesting in our work, is that the relationship between work locus of control and job satisfaction is universal—those who are more internal tend to be more satisfied, and relations with other measures of well-being held in most countries. This suggests to me that the relative level of control belief is important. If you tend to believe you have more control that most people in your country, you will likely have better well-being than the average person.

Alexandra Ilie: The concept of “control beliefs” has expanded and includes primary control, secondary control and socio-instrumental control beliefs. In which cultural context each type of control belief has a positive impact on worker’s well-being and what could be the explanations?

Paul E. Spector: There’s been very little research using these new control beliefs—we developed scales that were used in only one study. Primary control is like locus of control, so we found that it relates to well-being across many different countries/cultures. Secondary control concerns controlling one’s response to the environment rather than the environment itself. We found that it related to job satisfaction in China and the U.S. However, for work anxiety, it related only in the U.S. and not in China. Socioinstrumental control concerns controlling the world through social relationships, and we found little relationship with well-being. Of course, this is a single study that looked at a limited number of countries, and measures of well-being. We need to do more work with these constructs/measures before firm conclusions can be drawn.

Alexandra Ilie: In recent years there has been an increasing tendency towards job insecurity and working longer hours in the organizational environment. What impact would have those factors on employee’s well-being, work-life quality and workplace productivity?

Paul E. Spector: We’ve done some work on the connection between working hours and work/family conflict. We find, as might be expected, that working long hours has a detrimental effect on work/family conflict and can be a source of stress, at least in western society. Surprisingly though, work hours has shown relatively little relationship with strains. Going back to question 1, this might be due in part because it isn’t the amount you work, but rather your emotional response to it that matters. If you love your job and enjoy the work, there might be no impact on strain even if you work many hours. On the other hand, if you hate the work, even a few hours per day is too much. I would assume job insecurity would have effects first on anxiety, and then on behavior, but we haven’t done research on it.

Alexandra Ilie: Absenteeism has been a largely researched topic because represents an indicator of a healthy organization. Academic work is now moving towards studying a phenomenon which causes a greater productivity loss than absenteeism and that is – presenteeism (this notion describes employees who are overworking and not performing as well as they could due to stress, burn-out, sickness and injury arising from an excessive pressure in the workplace). What strategies could be addressed by organizations in order to reduce this form of counterproductive behavior at work?

Paul E. Spector: This is an interesting idea, and one that is very relevant to the U.S. as organizations go through almost mindless downsizing, leaving survivors to work excessive numbers of hours. Employees can quickly become demoralized, fatigued and frustrated, leading to all forms of counterproductive work behavior and inefficiency. Organizations need to be realistic in their expectations about how much individuals can do before they begin to show signs of stress. This can involve much more careful planning before downsizing to be sure that critical work is reallocated to individuals in a reasonable way, and that priorities are set so that less important functions can be eliminated if there’s no one to do them. Organizations can also provide additional training to help employees be more efficient if efficiency is a problem.

Alexandra Ilie: Nowadays many organizations increasingly tend to use virtual teams, telecommuting, and electronic brainstorming and so forth because these things open up new opportunities that are moving beyond time and space constraints. What kind of stressors do you think would arise from working in such organizational settings and what skills do people need in order to cope better with this “teleenvironment”?

Paul E. Spector: Two things come to mind. First, some individuals might feel socially isolated if they work alone in a remote location. Second, these technologies require both communication (e.g., writing), and technical skills (computers). Some people have a difficult time communicating through technology, so these skills might need enhancement.

Alexandra Ilie: In your opinion what are the most important stressors which employees would be confronted with at work in this millennium?

Paul E. Spector: This depends to a large extent by the country/culture. In the U.S. and western countries, research suggests that the most important stressors are interpersonal conflict, excessive workload, and lack of control. Lack of control tends not to be an issue in collectivist countries.

Alexandra Ilie: Do you think there is a relationship between the economic development of a country and the preoccupation of organizations operating in that country for employee’s wellbeing?

Paul E. Spector: Research suggests that well-being is better in developed countries. I suspect that in such countries organizations and people have the resources to pay attention to well-being. In very poor countries organizations and people may be entirely focused on subsistence and are less concerned with well-being.

Alexandra Ilie: Stress is a phenomenon which causes negative consequences on people’s well-being. What proactive educational means could be implemented so that today’s children – tomorrow’s employees might develop early stress management skills?

Paul E. Spector: It is certainly possible to provide stress management skills to children in school. In the U.S. schools are like many workplaces with excessive workloads for both students and teachers. In this environment, some attention to stress management might provide skills that would transfer to the job.

Alexandra Ilie: What is SAS programming and how is helpful to students’ and social researchers’ work?

Paul E. Spector: For social researchers, SAS is perhaps the most flexible tool available for data analysis. Not only does it have built-in statistical procedures to do most of the analyses conducted in social science, it also is a complete programming language. The language feature allows flexibility in manipulating data, including the ability to conduct analyses that aren’t part of the built-in procedures.

Alexandra Ilie: Hans Selye once said that being under stress was synonymous with being alive. Could there be positive aspects of stress in people’s lives?

Paul E. Spector: It is impossible to completely avoid stress, and without some of it, I imagine life would be pretty boring. Stress can motivate us in positive directions to improve ourselves and the world. It also can be a signal to us that something is wrong and needs to be either fixed or avoided.

Paul Spector, August 2005

I would like to express my gratitude towards professor Paul E. Spector for his kindness of affording EJOP an interview.