Stressful events that occur outside of the workplace can negatively affect work outcomes such as employee stress, job commitment, and turnover intentions. This phenomenon is called negative spillover, because employees are not always able to “check” their personal stress and worries “at the door” when switching from their home environment to their work environment.
Most research has focused on the spillover between an employee’s family role and work role. However, employees can also be affected by non-family experiences that occur in their personal lives outside of work (e.g., housing crises, natural disasters, terrorist attacks, etc.). Examples of negative spillover include being irritable, distracted, or tired at work because of problems at home. These personal experiences can result in work outcomes that negatively impact both employees and organizations.
How Personal Stress May Negatively Affect Work Outcomes
A recent study (Ragins, Lyness, Williams, & Winkel, 2014) of 2,135 employees examined how stressful events that were not related to work (i.e., the fear of home foreclosure) affected home-to-work spillover, and how that eventually influenced employees to experience physical symptoms of stress.
The results showed that employees who were fearful of losing their home to foreclosure had higher levels of negative home-to-work spillover (e.g., were more distracted, irritable, or tired at work) because of home stress. Further, some employees were more likely to feel negative home-to-work spillover than others when experiencing personal stressors. Employees who reported having children or other dependents at home or who had a spouse that was laid off from employment within the last year experienced higher levels of negative work-to-home spillover than those who did not experience these events. This means that employees who must provide for other family members experience higher levels of spillover when their personal lives are stressful.
How Stress Affects Employee Health
Negative home-to-work spillover can also have serious effects on employees’ health. In fact, as employees’ home-to-work spillover increased, so did their reports of physical symptoms of stress. That is, employees who had high levels of spillover were more likely to experience physical symptoms of stress at work than employees with low levels of spillover. The physical symptoms of stress included having an upset stomach, hand tremors, heart palpations, and chest pains.
So, how do these physical symptoms of stress affect employee work outcomes? The results of the study showed that employees who reported high levels of physical symptoms of stress were significantly less committed to their organizations and significantly more likely to think of quitting their jobs.
Putting it all together, the research suggests that employees who face high levels of stress at home are more likely to have this stress spill over into the workplace, which leads to increased physical symptoms of stress and increased negative work outcomes (e.g., lower commitment, higher turnover intentions, etc.). This study specifically studied the fear of home foreclosure on spillover, stress, and work outcomes; however, other stressful events might include the loss of a loved one, a family member losing a job, or other traumatic crises.
Practical Implications for Organizations
It is nearly impossible to predict when an employee will experience a traumatic or life-changing event. However, organizations need to be aware of the negative outcomes that can arise when such events do occur. The authors suggest that organizations implement employee assistance programs (EAPs) to help employees manage stressors that occur in their personal lives. In addition, traumatic events –like losing one’s home – can result in a range of physical or mental problems for employees. Therefore, it is imperative that managers understand how traumatic events impact employees. They can then refer employees for support and counseling services before negative work outcomes, such as decreased commitment, occur.
Most importantly, this study highlights how employees carry over stress from their personal lives into their work environments. However, with proper intervention and resources, employees can manage this stress without also experiencing negative workplace outcomes.