Stigma and Well-being at Work
A healthy organization is one characterized by intentional, systematic, and collaborative efforts to maximize employee well-being and productivity by providing well-designed and meaningful jobs, a supportive social-organizational environment, and accessible and equitable opportunities for career and work-life enhancement (Wilson et al. 2004, p. 567).
Organizations, whether they be for-profit or not-for-profit, big or small, seek competitive advantages to ensure success. Their employees are a key component of sustaining competitive advantages. Thus, organizations that focus on employee well-being are talking a vital step towards being a healthy organization (Wilson et al. 2004; Pawar, 2016).
The above definition of employee well-being lays out three levels at which employee well-being must be addressed. The first level is individual. Employees must be able to find meaning, and feel that they are being supported and treated fairly in the workplace. The second level is occupational. Here employees are seeking meaningful jobs and career and work-life enhancement. The third and final level is organizational. Organizations must provide the environment in which the first two levels can be achieved. However, employee well-being is impeded if stigmatization occurs at any one of the three levels.
In 1963 Irving Goffman published Stigma: Notes on the Management of Spoiled Identity. Here he defines a stigma as “an individual trait that elicits negative responses from social interactions” (Thomson & Grandy, 2017, p. 1). There are several key concepts at play within this definition. First is the idea that a stigma results in only negative responses from others. The second key concept is that it is the result of social interaction – what is perceived to be a stigma is socially bound. Social identity theory states that people identify themselves by group membership, status or categorizations allotted to us by the society in which we function (Clair, Beatty & MacLean, 2005). This means that what is a stigma can change from one culture to another and can change over time. Thus, due to the mobility of people in today’s world, most nations are becoming far more culturally diverse. Add to that the global reach of organizations today, stigmas are an issue in the workplace that must be dealt with to obtain employee well-being at all levels.
In their edited collection, Stigmas, Work and Organizations, Thomson and Grandy (2017) bring together international scholars to illuminate the impact of stigmatization at the individual, occupational and organizational levels. Individual-level stigmas related to obesity, chronic illness, disability and sexual preference are covered, while at the occupational level the experiences of those who perform “dirty work” are discussed. Dirty work (Ashforth & Kreiner, 1999; Hughes, 1958) is understood to be work that is physically, morally, socially and / or emotionally tainted (e.g. sex workers, bill collectors, waste management workers, hospice workers). Managing taint which emanates from the individual or occupational level can be a complex process with significant negative outcomes for the individual. The book also explores organizational level stigmas attached to a multinational corporation and assesses what symptom caused the stigmatization (tribal [e.g. where they are from] or conduct [e.g. what they have done or doing]). This work clearly illustrates how stigmatization can occur at any of the three levels regardless of culture or geographic location, and the need for a clear strategy to overcome the negative perception.
Employee well-being is at risk when stigma is at play. Engaging human resource (HR) practitioners to better understand the circumstances under which stigmatization occurs and the impact at the individual, group and organizational levels is critical. Only armed with such knowledge and understanding will HR practitioners be able to recognize stigmatization and take steps to combat its negative effects on well-being.
S. Bruce Thomson is Assistant Professor in the School of Business at MacEwan University, Canada.
Gina Grandy is Professor, Research Program Lead and RBC Women in Leadership Scholar at the Hill and Levene Schools of Business, University of Regina, Canada.