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Employees who fear their jobs are at risk are more likely to stay engaged with their work colleagues than those who feel more secure, according to research from a team led by Mays Business School Management Professor Wendy Boswell.

The fallout from working virtually around the clock varies, from stress to burnout to work interfering with the home life.

In a recent study, Boswell and her colleagues on the project, Julie Olson-Buchanan of California State University, Fresno, and Brad Harris of University of Illinois (a former PhD student at Mays), focused on the role of the context in shaping how employees manage their work and family boundaries. Boswell described the cycle in a simple illustration: Job insecurity leads to lower use of family support program and more willingness to integrate work into an employee’s personal life (i.e., blur boundaries). These behaviors in turn lead to higher burnout as well as more work-family conflict.

The study has been accepted for publication by the journal Personnel Psychology.

“Drawing on an adaptation perspective, we expect employees feeling greater job insecurity to engage in adaptive work behaviors, including less use of work-nonwork support programs and greater willingness to let work permeate into one’s personal life, which in turn will associate with greater work-nonwork conflict and emotional exhaustion,” Boswell explains.

Data were collected from employees within a large energy company at two points in time. Results support the model, offering important insight on employee behavioral responses to job insecurity and key mechanisms through which insecurity may foster diminished employee well-being. It also offers firms with important practical insight on how, when faced with job insecurity, employees may engage in behaviors that are ultimately detrimental to their well-being and long-term effectiveness. Boswell emphasizes: “It is during such unstable and stressful times when employees need to utilize organizational support resources the most and strike a balance among their multiple work and personal demands; yet our results suggest that employees may be hesitant to do so, likely out of fear of further risk to their job and a desire to be seen as a valuable – perhaps even indispensable – contributor.”

Boswell’s latest study is related to earlier research that focused directly on the role of communication technology in blurring the boundaries between work and family. Published in January 2012 in Journal of Vocational Behavior, “Communication technology: Pros and cons of constant connection to work” was one of the first studies to specifically examine the predictors and consequences of using communication technologies (e.g., email, cell phones) for work purposes “after hours.” The findings revealed how employees who strongly identified with the job and/or were ambitious were particularly likely to stay connected after hours and that doing so associated with greater work-nonwork conflict.

Boswell’s research targets managers and organizations by examining how to best manage and develop policies around the work-nonwork interface, although the topics of work-family boundaries, burnout and work-family balance are definitely interesting to individuals.

She says her interest in work-family issues began when she started a family a decade ago. “I know first-hand the challenges of balancing demands, but I also know there are tradeoffs and choices we all must make. Understanding how people make these choices, how they can be more effective in balancing demands, and the various outcomes (personally and for a firm) has real practical importance,” she explains.

“I’m fascinated with how people manage multiple demands (and we have many in our lives!), and how individuals vary in managing these demands (e.g., different needs, preferences, goals). Certainly, technology has changed how and when we work, and I always like to ground my research in fairly practical and timely issues. “The stress of job insecurity and balancing one’s life and work demands is a very practical, timely and important one for our society.”

She says she is interested in observing “somewhat counterintuitive things” and wanted to explore an area that the literature so far has not offered a clear answer for: Why would people who are stressed by their employment situation (e.g., feel insecure) work harder/more?

“Much of the literature suggests insecurity should make you ticked off at your company, yet anecdotally, we were seeing employees put their heads down and dive in to work in the face of a poor economy,” she explains. “And, then, what would be the longer-term outcomes of this – that is, isn’t it likely that this behavioral adaptation to insecurity could actually have long-term deleterious effects for the individual?”

Boswell teaches courses on human resource management at the undergraduate, graduate (master’s and doctoral) and executive levels. She is the holder of the Jerry and Kay Cox Endowed Chair in Business and she received the 2004 Center for Teaching Excellence Montague Scholar Award.

Her research focuses on employee attraction and retention, job search behavior, workplace conflict and the work-nonwork interface. Her work has appeared in such journals as Academy of Management Journal, Academy of Management Review, Journal of Applied Psychology, Personnel Psychology, Human Resource Management, Journal of Vocational Behavior, and Journal of Management. She serves on the editorial boards of the Academy of Management Review, Journal of Applied Psychology, International Journal of HRM, and Journal of Management, and is an incoming Associate Editor for Personnel Psychology. She served as the 2012-13 Chair of the HR Division, Academy of Management.