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Collective feelings matter

Study co-authored by Dr Jochen Menges of Cambridge Judge Business School says employees feel worse at work in less consumer-centric industries such as manufacturing, with consequences for workplace strain and absenteeism.

Metal grinder patiently practicing his craft on a large metal pipe. With a group of factory employees working in the background. Trying to lift a large metal pipe with a factory crane.

Employees at less consumer-focused industries such as manufacturing feel worse at work, and this has consequences for workplace strain and absenteeism, says a broad study of 24,000 people co-authored at Cambridge Judge Business School.

The study published in the February issue of the Academy of Management Journal finds that organisations in consumer-centric industries such as retail and services tend toward a more “positive affective tone”, whereas less consumer-centric organisations such as manufacturers have a more “negative affective tone”.

Affective tone, or how employees across an organisation feel, can result from certain personnel and organisational policies.

A positive affective tone reduced the number of sick days. A negative tone increased employees’ emotional exhaustion, and there was some evidence that this can increase absenteeism in less consumer-centric organisations, said the study.

Dr Jochen Menges

“The study links affective tone to the type of industry that an organisation is active in, and it shows that affective tone is in part brought about by how centralised an organisation is and by how much human resources practices take emotion into account,” says study co-author Dr Jochen Menges, University Lecturer in Organisational Behaviour at Cambridge Judge Business School, University of Cambridge.

“By drawing some connection between affective tone and sick days, the study also has bottom-line implications for companies owing to the big cost of employee absenteeism.”

A report by the CDC Foundation of the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found that productivity losses linked to absenteeism cost US employers $226 billion annually, or $1,685 per employee.

The connection between positivity and consumer-centric organisations has several possible explanations – including a greater emphasis on emotions in such industries and a closer connection to consumers who bring value creation, the Academy of Management Journal study says.

“If less consumer-centric organisations such as manufacturers would be less centralised and if their human resource managers would be more concerned with how employees feel, then employees’ health both psychologically and physiologically would likely benefit,” suggests Menges.

The study was based on 161 different firms in Germany with an average of 344 employees. It includes data from six different sources within each firm: human resources, top management, and sets of employees asked about four factors – positive and negative tone, how openly employees can express emotions, the firm’s design in factors such as centralisaton, and emotional exhaustion.

Positive and negative tone, for example, is measured with nine emotion-linked responses including whether employees across the organisation find work “inspiring” or “exciting”, and whether employees are “angry”, “afraid” or “fed up” at work. Workplace strain was measured on both physiological and psychological components, with respondents asked about factors such as number of sick days and whether they “feel already tired when I get up in the morning and have to face another day on the job.”

The study found that personnel policies on recruitment and promotion that are “emotion-focused” can influence the positivity of an organisation’s tone, as can the “centralisation” of some decision-making. “Formalisation” such as more written procedures had little effect.

The study – entitled “Organizational affective tone: a meso perspective on the origins and effects of consistent affect in organizations.” – is co-authored by Dr Andrew P. Knight of Washington University in St. Louis, Jochen Menges of Cambridge Judge Business School and WHU – Otto Beisheim School of Management, and Professor Heike Bruch of University of St. Gallen.