MSU prof tackles stress
Posted: December 7, 2005

The State News

An MSU professor has been granted $1.8 million to spend researching stress stemming from work and family.

One of Professor Ellen Kossek's projects looks into these stresses, and another focuses on flexibility policies for unionized employees.

"What happens with grants is you don't expect two pretty big ones, because it's so hard to get one," said Kossek, a labor and industrial relations professor.

Kossek works with Leslie Hammer, a psychology professor at Portland State University in Oregon, on a $1.4-million project to research how stress from balancing home life and work affects people.

Oregon Health & Science University is also involved in the study.

The two professors, who previously worked together at national conferences, are using their specializations to uncover relationships between work-family stress, safety and health.

The project is based out of PSU's Center for Work-Family Stress, Safety and Health, but some of the research is being done at MSU.

The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health is funding the three-year project.

Work-family stress or conflicts occur when the strain of one role affects the other, Kossek said. For example, it happens when someone has to work overtime and miss a child's birthday party, or miss work because the baby sitter didn't show up.

This stress can not only cause health problems, but also create safety issues, Hammer said. Work-related injuries might happen because workers are preoccupied, worrying about how they're going to balance work and family issues.

The professors chose to study employees and supervisors at grocery stores around the country because "those are some of the least family-friendly jobs," Kossek said.

She added that they hope to find better ways to handle work-family stress.

"We would like to develop supervisory training to help them understand how to be more sensitive to workers' work-family needs, and to help them communicate better to workers," Hammer said.

Hammer and Kossek have held focus groups with employees and supervisors at the stores, and plan to conduct surveys and experiments.

Kossek's other project involves a $400,000 grant from the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation to research flexibility for unionized workers.

Flexibility policies can involve scheduling, working from home and working less than full-time, said Peter Berg, a labor and industrial relations associate professor who is working with Kossek on the two-year grant.

"We're hoping to find out what behaviors and practices by unions and management lead to positive experiences for workers, and at the same time, help companies," Berg said, adding that he plans to create training materials to help supervisors and union representatives make flexibility policies work better.

There has been research on such policies in the workplace, but not on what effect unions might have on them, he said.

"Does having union representation make a difference in your experience in flexibility?" Berg said.

Berg and Kossek will interview and survey workers in three labor unions, including the United Auto Workers.