Do work relationships matter?

Dissertation: Do work relationships matter?

By K. Mastroianni

This exploratory instrumental qualitative case study adopted the position that health and health behaviors were complex social constructs influenced by multiple factors.

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Link to the following Abstract:


MASTROIANNI, KAREN. Do Work Relationships Matter? An Instrumental Case Study on Characteristics of Workplace Interactions That Enhance or Detract From Employee Perceptions of Well-Being & Health Behaviors. (Under the direction of Julia Storberg- Walker).

This exploratory instrumental qualitative case study adopted the position that health and health behaviors were complex social constructs influenced by multiple factors. Framed by the social ecological model, the study explored how work relationships enhanced or detracted from perceptions of well-being and health behaviors. Despite the fact that previous studies indicated that the social workplace environment contributed to employee health behaviors and well-being, there was little information about the characteristics of the social environment. Specifically, little was known about how employees perceived the connections between workplace relationships and health, or how social interactions enhanced or detracted from an employee’s sense of well-being and health behaviors.

The research participants included 19 volunteers recruited from 4 companies, who shared experiences and perceptions of workplace relationships through interviews and journaling. The study found that feelings of well-being were enhanced by perceptions of work relationships that were trusting, collaborative, open, positive, and social, as well as when participants felt valued and respected. The study also found that work relationships could detract from perceptions of well-being and health behaviors. These detracting types of relationships lacked the aforementioned characteristics, and also included relationships that were perceived to be lacking justice and empathy. The enhancing and detracting relationships generated physical symptoms, as well as influenced sleep and eating patterns, socializing,

physical activity, emotional well-being, personal relations, career decisions, and energy levels.

In addition to the social ecological model, the communities of practice (CoP) model provided an additional lens to explore workplace interactions. Data analysis using the CoP framework found that meaning, learning, and identity emerged when participants discussed detracting interactions with colleagues. These discussions helped minimize the influences to well-being and health behaviors. The findings support the importance of the social workplace environment expressed by other authors and researchers, and begin to identify the characteristics of the workplace social environment that influence perceptions of health and well-being (DeJoy & Wilson, 2003; L. Linnan, Weiner, Graham, & Emmons, 2007; L. A. Linnan, Sorensen, Colditz, Klar, & Emmons, 2001; MacDermid et al., 2008; Quick, Macik- Frey, & Cooper, 2007). Future studies can extend this line of inquiry by developing a survey instrument to measure the types and frequencies of enhancing or detracting social interactions as one way towards expanding our knowledge base in this domain.

Surprisingly, the study found that regardless of how broadly participants defined health and well-being (including spiritual and emotional aspects, for example), when they were asked to rate their health participants uniformly rated their health on physical attributes alone. The exclusive consideration of physical attributes suggests that participants may have unconsciously adopted the typical western medical view of health—that it is an individually determined physiologic characteristic. Despite extensive research suggesting health is more than biology, and despite explicitly defining health to include emotional and/or spiritual components, participants uniformly adopted the traditional medical view when asked to rate their own health. This contradiction offers an interesting research question for future studies.

Finally, the study offers human resource development professionals with evidence that supports interventions aimed at minimizing workplace incivility and disrespect. Interventions designed to improve employee engagement, communications, and collegiality could be developed as one way to minimize the financial and human cost of negative social interactions at work. The bottom line is that a workplace should be physically, socially, emotionally, and psychologically safe in order for well-being and healthy behaviors to flourish – for employees, as well as organizations to flourish.

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