Job insecurity climate: On shared perceptions of job insecurity

Imagine that there is a general feeling of anticipating job loss at your work place or in your work group. Maybe something dramatic happened, for instance that the company you work for lost their biggest customer or client account. Or maybe there is just a sneaking suspicion in the work group that the company is not doing too well and that people might be let go. How would this affect you as a person, and how would it affect your work group?

With increased global competition in business and ever higher demands of flexibility, job insecurity is something that most employees will experience sooner or later. Anticipating job loss is an agonizing state of mind. In fact, experiencing insecurity related to the continuity of one’s job is regarded as more stressful than actually losing it. However, job insecurity perceptions do not arise out of nothing. They are of course embedded in a social context. Consider the ‘second great contraction’, the financial crisis that started in 2007 and the recession that followed it (e.g. Reihart & Rogoff, 2009): Watching the news and hearing about negative trends in employment rates, hearing about friends or family worrying about their future income, worrying about the future of your own job – it does something to you. Add to this picture that job insecurity can be shared within an organization, for instance amongst your coworkers. It thus becomes a shared perception, a climate of job insecurity. The aim of this article is to give a brief description of existing research on job insecurity, and to introduce the job insecurity climate construct to a broader audience.

Job insecurity as a work stressor

Leonard Greenhalgh and Zehava Rosenblatt defined job insecurity as “the perceived powerlessness to maintain desired continuity in a threatened job situation” (1984, p. 438). In addition to the worry of job loss, which is referred to as quantitative job insecurity, research has also considered the qualitative aspects of job insecurity, namely the anticipation of losing valued job features such as working conditions, promotional opportunities, and pay development (e.g., Hellgren, Sverke, & Isaksson, 1999).

An important point to be made here is that psychological research on job insecurity focuses on the subjective perception of insecurity, not the actual occurrence of an objective threat to the job or its content. For instance, downsizing can create perceptions of uncertainty in an organization even for those employees whose jobs are not being threatened (e.g., Spreitzer & Mishra, 2002). Research has shown that the anticipation of potential job loss or job insecurity is a work stressor which has short term negative effects on work attitudes like job satisfaction and turnover intention, and in the long term it may even affect well-being and health (Cheng & Chan, 2008; Sverke, Hellgren, & Näswall, 2002).

Social perceptions of job insecurity

Research on job insecurity has typically focused on insecurity perceptions at the individual level. However, by focusing solely on the individual level determinants, researchers have generally overlooked the role of the social context of job insecurity perceptions. Beatriz Sora, Amparo Caballer, José Maria Peiro and Hans De Witte were the first to introduce the job insecurity climate construct (2009). They defined it as “a set of shared perceptions of powerlessness to maintain the continuity of threatened jobs in an organization” (p. 130). There are several good arguments for why the social context has relevance for perceptions of job insecurity.

Generally, frameworks that take the social context into account allow for more complex descriptions of, for example, how stressors like job insecurity are perceived. Specifically, social cognitive theory explains how behavior, cognition or other personal factors and context interact in a reciprocal relationship (Bandura, 1986). That means that an employee’s perception regarding the continuity of the job is influenced by his or her personality, behavior and the social context, which includes the social climate at a work place. At the same time, this person is an agent in other employees’ social context, which again explains how shared perceptions or climate can emerge.

A second theoretical perspective that considers a role for the social context is the social information processing approach (Salancik & Pfeffer, 1978). This approach simply holds that social information, which may originate in the context or from past experiences, predicts how events are interpreted. Thus, how the organization has tackled similar situations in the past influences both individual job insecurity perceptions and the extent to which such perceptions are shared among an organization’s employees.

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