A stressed-out business woman with her head in her hands in front of a laptop, doing low-paid work.
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The stress of low-paid work and how employers can be better

18 Feb 2019

A lower salary does not mean lower stress levels.

We’ve all heard the sayings and phrases that come from the basic idea of “more money, more problems”.

People often equate higher salaries to more seniority, more responsibilities and therefore, higher stress levels.

Of course, we’re all aware of the extremely high-paying jobs that don’t include a lot of stress, but for the most part, you’d be forgiven for assuming that in your office, the higher up the chain you go, the more money you will get, but it will also come with more work, bigger projects and, yes, more work stress.

But the truth is, there are a lot of nuances to workplace stress, such as what the main causes actually are. While a higher-paying job can come with a bigger and more important workload, research shows that’s not necessarily where stress might be coming from.

Sarah-Jane Cullinane is an assistant professor of HR and organisational behaviour at Trinity Business School. She is also the founder of ‘The Place to Be’, a mindfulness-based training consultancy for businesses and leaders.

She says that a lot of research shows that the job demands that most strongly predict stress are emotional demands, time pressure, physical demands and exposure to bullying and harassment.

“The strongest in predicting stress by far are emotional demands which include dealing with angry clients or customers or having to hide your emotions at work,” she said. “This is why workers in the health sector and public administration came out as having the most stressful jobs.”

While this can be a feature at both ends of the pay scale, a differentiating factor is how much control an employee has over their work. “While managers and professionals in higher paid roles often have greater time pressure or emotional demands, they also often have more control over how they do their job which is an essential resource in reducing stress,” said Cullinane.

Of course, a major stress on those in low-paid work is to do with financial stability. In fact, a University of Manchester study published in 2017 indicated that people in low-paid work were more stressed than those who were unemployed.

According to Cullinane, this is a broader issue relating to the cost of living for those in low-paid work, particularly in countries such as Ireland, “where such workers have neither the benefits of higher-paid roles such as healthcare, insurance, further education nor state supports”.

More than financial stress

While financial worries will always play a role in increasing workers’ stress levels, Cullinane believes there is more at play when it comes to those in low-paid work.

“For a number of lower-paid jobs the bigger issue is a scarcity of job resources necessary for wellbeing such as job control, getting support or coaching from managers, getting regular and constructive feedback on performance or opportunities for learning and development,” she said.

“The lack of such resources is not a necessary condition for low-paid work but is unfortunately and unnecessarily commonplace for many.”

There is an added issue of how different tasks affect stress levels at work. Once again, this has less to do with the level of responsibility one might expect from higher-paying jobs and more to do with the level of significance or meaning attributed to a particular task.

In fact, a study from the United Nations’ International Labor Organization last year delved into the horrifying psychological impact of microtask work, when platforms such as Amazon Mechanical Turk, Clickworker or Crowdflower recruit humans to do the rating, tagging, review-writing and poll-taking work that can’t quite be automated with an algorithm yet.

The study found the work on these platforms was often menial, tedious, badly compensated and would often take longer than stated. While the study specifically examined microtask platforms, the same traits can be applied to certain tasks within full-time work that can be doled out to lower-paid employees and the psychological toll might not be much different.

‘If your employees feel undervalued, they won’t stay very long’

“The level of significance or meaning attributed to the task has a big impact on how enjoyable it is for the person doing it. This doesn’t mean that a task needs to be life-saving to be meaningful, it just needs to be seen as a valuable contribution to the final product or service,” said Cullinane.

While many such microtasks and administrative work might seem meaningless, they can often be an essential part of a bigger picture, which, if properly communicated, could reduce the stress that comes with it.

“Unfortunately however, in many jobs, those carrying out microtasks and admin duties are not included in decision-making and therefore can lose the felt significance of their work.”

How to reduce the stress of low-paid work

The financial struggles that can come with low-paid work is a difficult one to navigate, but having healthy, happy workers is an essential part of improving your bottom line.

It’s important to regularly evaluate the pay scales in your business and assess the value you’re putting on some of the roles within your organisation. There is a lot of information out there in terms of industry averages and what other companies are paying, and if you can find out what a worker is worth, so can they. And if your employees feel undervalued, they won’t stay very long.

Once you move on from the salary question, the other causes of stress in low-paid work mentioned above should also be addressed. No matter what the nature of the work is, measures should be put in place to compensate for the stress that might be an inevitable part of the role.

“For those working in public-facing roles where there is potential for exposure to bullying, harassment and violence. Strong policies and a supportive working environment is essential to alleviate the stressful impact of these emotional demands,” said Cullinane.

“Where the job has high demands, it’s important to balance it with resources and demonstrate trust by giving employees the opportunity to get involved in decision-making, providing support and training opportunities and constructive feedback on how their contribution is valuable to the overall picture.”

From an employee point of view, workers should focus on building personal resources such as resilience and self-esteem to help them better cope with the demands of the role. “Such interventions can be free or low-cost within communities or workplaces, such as mindfulness courses,” said Cullinane. “These are not remedies for a poorly designed job but can help to cope with some of the inevitable or unexpected demands that can come our way at work.”

Overall, when it comes to low-paid work, financial stress can be extremely serious and sufficient pay is necessary for wellbeing to a certain point. However, rather than chalk stress of lower paid staff up to finances, employers should look at the other ways they can reduce work-related stress for their employees.

Jenny Darmody
By Jenny Darmody

Jenny Darmody became the editor of Silicon Republic in 2023, having worked as the deputy editor since February 2020. When she’s not writing about the science and tech industry, she’s writing short stories and attempting novels. She continuously buys more books than she can read in a lifetime and pretty stationery is her kryptonite. She also believes seagulls to be the root of all evil and her baking is the stuff of legends.

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