Psychological research on coping is mostly focused on life stressors such as illness or loss of a loved one and rarely focused on how employees cope with stress at work. Work environments are unique because they have two types of stressors: challenge stressors and hindrance stressors. Challenge stressors provide opportunity for gains (such as pay increases or promotions), and examples include time pressure, task complexity, and multitasking. Hindrance stressors pose threats of losses (such as loss of job or compensation) and examples include role ambiguity, red tape, and interpersonal conflict.
There are also two different types of coping strategies that employees can take in the face of stressors: promotion-focused and prevention-focused. Promotion-focused coping is an attempt to accomplish more and attain advancement. Examples include planning, taking direct action, and seeking emotional support. Prevention-focused coping is an attempt to merely complete work correctly and secure one’s job. Examples include denial of issues, spending less time on other activities to have more time for work, and avoiding problems.
In this study, researchers (Zhang et al., 2019) examined the two types of coping strategies along with the two types of stressors. The authors conducted a meta-analysis, or statistical combination of many previous studies. They analyzed 156 samples that included 75,344 employees. The researchers only included field studies conducted in actual workplaces (as opposed to laboratory studies or those using students) and also ensured that the studies included three specific highly stressful professions: nursing, teaching, and law enforcement.
STRESS AND COPING STRATEGIES
The researchers found that when employees were presented with challenge stressors (those that provide opportunity), they were more likely to use promotion-focused coping, such as taking action rather than avoiding issues. The authors also found that when employees were faced with hindrance stressors (those that pose threats of loss), they were more likely to use prevention-focused coping, such as denial of problems or giving up other activities to have more time for work.
JOB PERFORMANCE, JOB ATTITUDES, AND WELLBEING
The researchers found that employees who used promotion-focused coping had better task performance, meaning performance on the formal parts of the job. Organizational citizenship behavior (OCB) means going beyond the strictly defined requirements of a job, to making a positive contribution to an organization’s social and psychological environment (e.g., mentoring new employees, assisting coworkers). The researchers found that employees who used promotion-focused coping performed more OCB in addition to their job duties.
The authors also found that promotion-focused coping was positively related to job attitudes. That is, the more that employees used promotion-focused coping, the higher their job satisfaction and commitment to their organization.
Prevention-focused coping was negatively related to task performance and OCB. This means that employees who were focused only on completing their duties and keeping their jobs had lower task performance compared to those who were motivated to accomplish more. Those who relied more on prevention-coping also performed fewer OCB, had lower job satisfaction, and lower organizational commitment.
Personal wellbeing includes physical as well as psychological health. The researchers found that employees who used more promotion-focused coping were more likely to experience better personal wellbeing. Those who used more prevention-focused coping experienced lower personal wellbeing.
Overall, the researchers found that employee coping strategies were influenced by the types of stressors they faced and, depending on the type of coping strategies used, there were positive or negative impacts on job performance, OCB, job attitudes, and personal well-being.
As a result, the authors recommend that managers highlight challenge stressors and their potential gains. They also suggest that managers try to understand how their employees are coping and encourage promotion-focused coping strategies whenever possible.
Zhang, Y., Zhang, Y., Ng, T.W.H., & Lam, S.S.K. (2019). Promotion- and prevention-focused coping: A meta-analytic examination of regulatory strategies in the work stress process. Journal of Applied Psychology, 104(10), 1296-1323.