The Fairness Factor

Published: June 21, 2008

By Jim Lichtman
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I know the world isn’t fair, but why isn’t it ever unfair in my favor?”

This insightful piece of absurdity comes courtesy of Bill Watterson’s “Calvin and Hobbes” cartoon strip.

I thought about this while reading the results of a recent study by a pair of psychologists entitled, “Early Predictors of Job Burnout and Engagement.”

Christina Maslach, a social psychologist at the University of California at Berkeley and Michael Leiter from Acadia University in Nova Scotia “recently evaluated hundreds of employees at a large North American university that was in the grip of painful change,” the Washington Post reported. “The researchers wanted to find out whether there were factors that explained why some employees successfully weathered the transition and reengaged with their jobs, while others spiraled into cynicism and exhaustion — the classic signs of burnout.

“The single biggest difference between employees who suffered burnout and those who did not,” researchers found “was whether they thought that they were being treated unfairly or fairly.

“…fairness issues can be huge,” said Maslach. “Issues around fairness are highly linked to the anger and cynicism that are linked to burnout.”

“Affected workers report more mental health problems. Their work can suffer, creating a vicious cycle of a shrinking workplace, burnout and poor work. One study showed that nurses suffering burnout provided their patients with inferior care.

“When loyal employees are treated in a way that is not fair, they feel betrayed in a very deep, emotional way,” Leiter added. “When you do a lot of work you get tired, but it does not have the same emotional impact as being treated unfairly.”

An east coast friend of mine works hard for a large company…too hard.  In spite of friends and family telling her to cut back, she marches on without complaint because she believes in nothing less than excellence no matter the number of projects or the deadlines placed in front of her.

While sitting through a production meeting, an attending executive announced that the manager overseeing her work was doing such a great job that he would be receiving dinner for two at a fancy restaurant and Broadway tickets to a popular show.  Suddenly, the mask of the dutiful worker dropped to reveal a genuine sense of anger and contempt.

“You know,” she confided, “it’s not even about the dinner or the tickets.  It’s the fact that they didn’t even acknowledge the time and effort I put into these projects over the last two months!”

Sound familiar?

Almost overnight, her hours dropped off.  Two weeks later, however, with new project deadlines, she’s back to her regular routine.

Psychologist Michael Leiter points out that “…people who were confident they were working for a fair employer went in a positive direction. The people who did not have confidence in the employer’s fairness tended to go toward burnout.”

Message to employers: treat your staff with respect and fairness and they will be more inclined to reward you with loyalty and excellence.


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