Most of my research focuses on Occupational Health Psychology - the application of theories and methods of psychology to the study of worker safety, health, and well-being. My research is guided by the assumption that efforts to protect and promote occupational health benefit individual workers, their families, employers, and ultimately, society at large. Although this is a simple idea, backed by a large body of research, many organizations engage in practices that reflect a lack of concern with occupational health or a lack of ability to implement occupational health programs. My research program is eclectic, but has a core focus of extending concepts from organizational behavior and organizational psychology to occupational health concerns. Below, I describe some of the common contexts/settings for my research and hte kinds of research topics I am particularly interested in.
As an applied researcher, my research program reflects the pragmatic concerns of the organizations I work with, including private businesses, public sector organizations, non-profits, labor unions, the military, and higher education institutions. Most of my research has been conducted in four contexts: entry-level hourly workers (especially retail), military personnel, health care (especially acute care nursing), and education. My research program reflects the conceptual and methodological diversity necessary to investigate organizational issues in these contexts.
Entry-level Hourly (ELH) workers make up one of the largest segments of the workforce, particularly in the retail and service sectors. ELH workers face many occupational health threats, including undesirable work schedules, unsafe working conditions, poor supervision, and work-family conflict. However, most applied psychology and OB/HR research focuses on selecting ELH workers rather than on understanding their work experiences or addressing their occupational health concerns. In contrast, my research examines many aspects of the ELH work experience, including job attitudes, work schedules, and the work-family interface.
I have studied ELH workers for nearly 20 years, mostly in collaboration with Jim Martin, a management professor at Wayne State University. We study ELH workers in large unionized super-center retailers that combine general merchandise, grocery, etc. Most of our research focuses on the employee-employer and union member-union relationship, although we have increasingly focused on occupational health issues.
Our research challenges two implicit assumptions of past ELH research. First, researchers typically assume that principles of organizational behavior developed in studies of professional and managerial samples readily extend to ELH workers. This assumption remains largely untested, and there are ample reasons to expect research findings from professional/managerial samples not to generalize to ELH workers. One example concerns work-family conflict experiences of working parents in low income families, who face vastly different occupational and personal demands than do many professional employees (limited family and health benefits, low wages, uncertain schedules, etc.).
A second assumption is that the ELH workforce may be treated as a single undifferentiated group, despite the fact that they include diverse groups, including high school and college students, primary wage earners, retirees, and moonlighters. Such diversity has important implications for issues such as retention management. For example, in Martin and Sinclair (2007) we found two-year part-time turnover rates varying between 80% for high school students and 30% for part-timers we might describe as ‘empty-nesters’ – older married workers with no children at whom and for whom the job was a supplemental source of income.
Healthcare organizations face an anticipated future need for qualified nurses and a corresponding challenge in retaining current nurses, who often switch hospitals, transfer to different units, or even leave the nursing profession altogether. Many factors contribute to these retention challenges, but the demanding nature of nursing work is certainly near the top of the list. Nurses face such challenges as frequent interpersonal conflicts with their coworkers, unpredictable staffing demands, and long work hours. However, health care professions also can be very personally rewarding; nurses help people face difficult, even life threatening circumstances and often work in exciting and dynamic environments.
For the last few years, I have been working on a research program called the Oregon Nurse Retention Project (ONRP: www.onrp.webnode.com). This research was sponsored by the Northwest Health Foundation and is a collaborative effort with my co-PI Dr. Cynthia Mohr at Portland State University and the Oregon Nurses Association (ONA). Our research started with three general goals: (1) to document the critical stressors and positive work experiences that influence nurses’ retention, (2) to test a theoretical model that integrated retention research from nursing and organizational psychology with research on work stress and (3) to identify specific workplace interventions that would address particularly stressful working conditions.
This research is perhaps the best illustration of my scholarly identity as it represents a collaborative effort to address an important organizational goal in a socially significant occupation by drawing from research in several disciplines including business, psychology, and public health. Some of the innovative components of the ONRP include (a) considering how both positive and negative experiences affect retention, (b) gathering qualitative and quantitative data about nurses’ work experiences as well as their recommendations about organizational interventions, and (c) using a longitudinal design in which nurses completed assessments of their weekly work experiences each week for 12 weeks, as well as baseline and follow-up measures.
The ONRP website (www.onrp.webnode.com) describes these efforts in detail. So far, our research has generated over 20 conference presentations, several masters’ theses and doctoral dissertations, several articles currently under review, and additional studies in varying stages of completion.
For about 10 years, I have conducted research on military personnel in collaboration with colleagues at the Walter Reed Army Institute of Research (WRAIR). Soldiers on peacekeeping and combat deployments experience ambiguous demands and intense personal threats coupled with increased autonomy and decision-making discretion. Many of these stressors are traumatic, such as seeing dead bodies, having friends wounded or killed in action, and being in firefights. In addition, increasingly frequent deployments and shortages in personnel and resources force military personnel to work longer and harder than in the past with less time for recovery.
Given these challenges, it is hardly surprising that military personnel have relatively high rates of mental health problems, suicide, and other dysfunctional behaviors. Military organizations also face challenges with efforts to retain experienced soldiers. Although these problems are daunting by themselves, as veterans reintegrate into the civilian workforce, it is reasonable to expect further concerns for veterans, as well as for their families and for their employers. On the other hand, combat exposure is not universally bad. Many soldiers view their deployments as personally beneficial and ultimately contributing to their resilience.
In my view, research on both the positive and negative aspects of the deployment experience is incredibly important for the military, as well as for civilian organizations whose employees deal with demanding circumstances. Most of my research concerns how personality traits, such as hardiness, and organizational factors, such as leadership and group dynamics contribute to stress resilience.
I have four active streams of empirical research that encompass most of my interests. Each stream addresses issues faced by members of the occupations discussed above. Moreover, each topic may be viewed as integrating occupational health psychology concerns with traditional organization behavior and organizational psychology concepts. They include the employment relationship, work schedules, economic stressors, and counterproductive workplace behavior.
Since the beginning of my career, I have been interested in psychological aspects of person-organization relationships. I use the term person-organization relationship rather than employee-employer relationship because I have investigated employee-employer, union-union member, and college student-institution relationships. My research applies social exchange theory (SET) as a central theoretical framework. SET conceptualizes the person-organization relationship as a give-and-take relationship in which people exchange certain perceived rights (e.g., fair pay, good treatment, grievance systems) for certain perceived responsibilities (e.g., company/union loyalty, citizenship behavior, reliable attendance). SET assumes that actions of agents of the organization (e.g., supervisors, top management, union stewards, and coworkers) provide information to workers about the quality of their relationship with the focal organization and thus, exert an important influence on workers’ organizational behavior.
The construct of company/union commitment is central to my research (e.g., Martin & Sinclair, 2007; Shore, Tetrick, Sinclair, & Newton, 1994; Sinclair, Hannigan, & Tetrick, 1995; Sinclair, Leo, & Wright, 2005; Sinclair, Michel, & Martin, 1999; Sinclair, & Tetrick, 1995; Sinclair, Tucker, Cullen, & Wright, 2005). Of these, the Sinclair, Tucker, Cullen and Wright (2005) paper is perhaps my favorite paper. We hypothesized that certain profiles of affective organizational commitment and continuance organizational commitment would be more common than others and investigated behavioral differences in organizational citizenship behavior, antisocial behavior, and job performance across the profiles. Cluster analyses of two independent samples supported our expectations about the existence of four commitment profiles: Devoted (high affective and continuance commitment), Allied (moderate affective and continuance commitment), Complacent (moderate affective and low continuance commitment), and Free Agents (low affective and moderate continuance commitment). We demonstrated that these profiles differ in their patterns of supervisor-rated job performance, with Free Agents generally obtaining lower performance ratings than other groups.
Our findings are theoretically interesting in part because they indicate that there may be more than one optimal combination of commitment constructs, an idea referred to as equifinality in organizational theory. The concept of equifinality has many potential practical and theoretical applications. For example, our findings suggest that efforts to boost employees from low to moderate commitment may be more beneficial (in terms of changes in performance) than efforts to boost employees from moderate to high commitment. Obviously, this could have important implications for organizational interventions on commitment, and with recent developments in so-called person-centered methods, I expect this area to grow substantially in the next few years. Toward that end, Mo Wang and I wrote a chapter (Wang, Sinclair, Zhou, & Sears, 2012) in our occupational health research methods book (Sinclair, Wang, & Tetrick, 2012) in which we elaborate on best practices in person-centered/profile research, including a particular focus on the commitment literature.
Most of my union-focused research has been conducted with my doctoral advisor Lois Tetrick (now at George Mason University) and Jim Martin. Our early union-related research extended the social exchange-related constructs of perceived organizational support and organizational fairness to the union context (e.g., Alexander, Sinclair, & Tetrick, 1995; Martin & Sinclair, 2001; Shore, Tetrick, Sinclair, & Newton, 1994; Sinclair & Tetrick, 1995). I also have examined motivational antecedents of strike willingness (Martin & Sinclair, 2001), effects of benefit coverage on union commitment (Sinclair, Hannigan, & Tetrick, 1995) and the role of organizational justice in union-related attitudes (Alexander, Sinclair, & Tetrick, 1995).
Jim and I continue our union-related research. However, I have generally have shifted from studies of union attitudes to investigations of working conditions among unionized employees. For example, my most recent union-related publication shows that union members’ perceptions of their union’s general value for safety predict members’ safety knowledge, motivation, and behavior (Sinclair, Sears, & Martin, 2010).
My most recent commitment study is a quasi-experimental study investigating whether expressive writing exercises (in which employees write about their work experiences) may be used to help build organizational and occupational commitment. We conducted this study using the ONRP data described above. About 340 nurses completed two surveys, approximately six months apart, which included measures of their organizational and occupational commitment. Then, 140 of these nurses participated in a weekly work experience study conducted between the baseline and follow-up survey. One portion of the weekly data asked nurses to provide qualitative descriptions of the best and worst events that happened to them at work each week for 12 weeks. The 200 nurses who did not participate in this project were similar in many other occupational and demographic characteristics.
Comparing writing participants with non-participants, we found that the number of weeks of participation in the writing experience predicted subsequent commitment (after controlling for baseline commitment). These effects differed depending on the nurses’ levels of hardiness and their prior levels of commitment, such that hardy nurses with high levels of prior commitment appeared to benefit the most. What I really like about this study is that it unites several themes in my scholarship, including the use of multiple methods, a process-oriented approach to capture change over time, and an orientation toward actually changing commitment rather than simply studying it.
As I have spent more years studying entry-level hourly workers, I have come to the conclusion that much of the research in organizational psychology and organizational behavior may be only marginally relevant to the concerns of these workers. ELH workers have low family incomes, and many of them meet standard definitions of working poor (e.g., below 200% of the poverty line relative to one’s family size). Although the economic downturn of the last few years has sparked a great deal of interest in economic issues, it is important to note that a sizable portion of the workforce met the definition of working poor even when the economy was growing. Now, these workers face incredibly difficult circumstances and have limited options.
In 2006, I presented a conference paper with Jim Martin in which we looked at the moderating effects of household income on the relationship between several attitudinal antecedents and turnover in a large sample of retail employees. We found that at different levels of household income, different variables predicted turnover in some cases with substantially different amounts of variance explained. That started me on a path toward trying to better capture financial constructs in organizational behavior research.
As I dug into the literature, I basically drew three conclusions. First, issues related to the working poor, poverty, etc. have received almost no attention by organizational behavior and organizational psychology researchers (fortunately, that is now beginning to change). Second, employment-related issues (such as unemployment and job insecurity) have received a great deal more attention than financial issues (aside from the older literature on pay satisfaction). And, third, the literature on the subjective aspects of financial stressors, financial deprivation, etc. is not well developed, with many potentially overlapping constructs, unclear operational definitions, and little attention to relevant literature in other fields (such as economics and social psychology). Although pay and household income are arguably the most measures of financial status, we have found that measures of the proportion of income that a job contributes to one’s household and the perceived quality of employment alternatives play an important role in attitude-behavior relationships.
In the last couple of years, I have increasingly devoted my attention to thinking about these issues, particularly in relation to the broad domains of occupational health and organizational behavior. Together with one of my graduate students at Portland State, Lindsay Sears, I developed a model of subjective financial stressors. As part of her master’s thesis, Lindsay conducted initial tests of the model with two very different samples: employed college students in Oregon and manufacturing workers in China. We have presented a couple of conference papers based on that work, and plan to publish it soon.
In 2010, I published a chapter with Tahira Probst of Washington State Vancouver and two of my (now former) graduate students (Lindsay Sears and Mark Zajack) in which we developed a multi-level model of economic stressors. Two themes from that chapter were the need for more comprehensive assessments of employees’ financial status and the need to incorporate measures of the economic context in which employees live. I was invited to give a keynote address based on that chapter at a conference in Rome in 2010 and have since given several other talks and written a couple of book chapters on issues related to that work since then.
What we need now is more data testing our assertions. Some of our initial studies have revealed some interesting, but inconsistent findings. In his dissertation, Mark Zajack examined the local community economic context as a moderator of individual level correlates of job insecurity by linking a large survey of retail employees to U.S. Census data (the American Community Survey). But, he did not find cross-level effects. In contrast, in another forthcoming chapter, we showed that objective measures of the employment prospects for an occupation predict individual level correlates of job insecurity (Jiang, Probst, & Sinclair, forthcoming).
I am also currently working on a study examining profiles of financial variables as moderators of the relationship between work-family conflict and job attitudes. This work is in progress (with Clemson Graduate Student Anna McFadden and Jim Martin), but our initial analyses support the inference that very low income families have different patterns of correlates of work family conflict. Concurrently, I have been developing some of the theoretical ideas linking income and work-family conflict in another chapter I am just finishing on work family conflict in low income employees (Sinclair, Probst, Hammer, & Schaeffer, forthcoming). Finally, I have an undergraduate student at Clemson currently working on her honors thesis, in which she is investigating financial demands as a moderator of the relationship between job stressors and job attitude outcomes. I am very excited about this whole area of literature as I believe it addresses some critically important issues for employees as well as for employers. And, there is a strong need for continued conceptual development and empirical research in this area.
Workers in many occupations have seen a rise in non-standard work schedules – those which depart from the standard five days per week, eight hours per day schedule. Examples include part-time work, long work hours, weekend work, night work, and irregular schedules, all of which create health concerns, ranging from increased risk of crime at work (for those on night schedules) to challenges managing family demands (e.g., for those working weekend or irregular schedules), to an inability to pay for basic living expenses (e.g., for part-time workers).
My work schedules research began with a couple of studies focused on identifying profiles of part-time retail workers. Most research on part-time employees assumes that differences in work status may be captured by a simple dichotomization of work status into part-time or full-time. This dichotomization is problematic in several respects. However, our focus has been on the assumption of nearly all past research that part-time workers represent a single undifferentiated group. In Sinclair, Martin, and Michel (1999) we described four broad groups of part-time workers based on the proportion of family income they received from the part-time job in question as well as several other demographic characteristics: primaries, supplementers, students, and moonlighters. Later, we expanded this work by identifying 8 profiles of part-time workers and showing fairly dramatic variability in demographic characteristics and turnover rates across these groups (Martin & Sinclair, 2007).
As I have become more interested in occupational health, I have begun to see other gaps in the organizational behavior/psychology literature related to work schedules. For example, there are many studies linking non-standard work schedules to adverse health outcomes. However, very little research has examined schedule-related differences in organizationally-relevant outcomes such as retention. Moreover, even in the larger schedule literature, very little research has focused on weekend work.
We have begun to address these concerns with a study (Martin, Sinclair, Lelchook, Wittmer, & Charles, 2012) in which we showed differences in objective turnover rates for retail employees who worked various combinations of work schedule variables, such as day versus night/evening and weekend versus week day work. Such studies are important to help establish the business-case for better management of work schedules. Another important issue with work schedules concerns the way organizations manage schedules. For example, retail employees often have unpredictable and highly varied schedules from week to week. These employees may be notified about schedule changes at the last minute, and/or may have little input into their schedule. Some literature has addressed these effects in a piece meal fashion. However, along with some other researchers, I have proposed that the organizational justice literature provides a useful conceptual foundation for studying the way organizations manage schedules.
In brief, the idea of work schedule justice extends organizational justice literature to four schedule-related constructs: distributive schedule justice, procedural schedule justice, informational schedule justice, and interactional schedule justice. Together, these constructs capture employees’ sense of the fairness of their current schedule, as well as their perceptions about the people and processes that determine their schedules. Various justice models have positioned justice either as an influence on social exchange processes at work or as a source of organizational stress (in the form of injustice at work). Thus, work schedule justice should be related to both health outcomes (through stress processes) and retention outcomes (through exchange processes).
I began my efforts in this area with a book chapter (Sinclair & Charles, 2011) describing the effects of schedule justice on retention-related outcomes. I followed that up with two studies currently in progress in which we examine work schedule justice effects on employee burnout and engagement, in two health care samples. The next step in this research will be to publish a study examining schedule justice and health outcomes in employed college students, which I have presented as a conference paper (Sinclair, Ford, Hahn, Buck, & Truxillo, 2007). I see my future research in this area as connecting back to economic stress and the employment relationship, perhpas investigating how employees with different work schedules are affected by various financial and economic concerns.
Counterproductive behavior is a concern in nearly every employment setting I work in. As a result, it has frequently been a focus of my research, both as a potential source of stress and as an outcome of other sources of stress. The ultimate goal of my work in this area is to understand how counterproductive behavior harms employees and what organizations might be able to do to prevent it and/or ameliorate its negative effects.
I initially became interested in workplace aggression through my work on a study of public school employees’ concerns about aggression in the schools (Sinclair, Martin, & Croll, 2002). At the time, incidents of multiple homicides at school were heavily discussed and highly sensationalized in the media, and in the organizational literature there was a surge of interest in issues related to workplace violence. Our study was based on a survey of working conditions among public school employees in a large urban school district. The basic goal of that paper was to show that public school employees concerns about antisocial behavior were a significant source of stress.
We followed that study with a paper (Senter, Sinclair, Tucker, Martin, & Lang, in press) in which we extended some work I had done with the military on shared (i.e., unit level) stressors (Tucker, Sinclair, & Thomas, 2005) to the public school setting to examine shared concerns about aggression. It is a pretty interesting study, in that we show that school level shared concerns about aggression predict school-level standardized test score outcomes and that those relationships are moderated by the resource environment at the school (including objective measures of school budgets). Shared concerns about aggression have stronger effects in resource-rich schools.
More recently, I have begun to examine counterproductive behavior among employees. The ONRP team is just finishing a revision to a qualitative study on workplace interpersonal conflicts experienced by nurses. This was a thesis project by one of students on the ONRP team; for his dissertation, he will be extending this work to a quantitative study examining how nurses cope with interpersonal conflict. I have just started another similar study examining how health care employees cope with aggression at work in relation to mental health outcomes such as Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.
In the military context, I have conducted worked on two kinds of projects related to counterproductive behavior. My former doctoral student, Jennifer Tucker, wrote her dissertation on the relationship between stress and counterproductive behavior among soldiers, which we subsequently published in two papers (Tucker, et al., 2008; 2009). This research tested the hypothesis that stress increases the propensity for counterproductive behavior by undermining one’s self-regulatory processes. Essentially, people under stress have more trouble refraining from bad behavior.
Later, Mo Wang and I extended this work to leadership by proposing an interactive model of destructive leadership in which leaders’ self-regulatory processes interact with their perceptions of situational norms to determine their propensity to engage in destructive behavior (Wang, Sinclair, & Deese, 2010). The gist of this model is that destructive leadership is most likely when leaders are under stress and work in a situational context where destructive leadership is perceived as acceptable. We also have a study in progress where we demonstrate support for portions of this model in a sample of Chinese military personnel.
Finally, I am just finishing a study with researchers at the Walter Reed Army Institute of research in which we examined the relative effects of supportive and destructive leader behavior on mental health outcomes among soldiers deployed on combat missions. This study gathered data from soldiers during combat deployments in Iraq and Afghanistan. Interestingly, we found that destructive leadership had a stronger effect for soldiers from units with lower levels of combat exposure. This runs counter to what is becoming the orthodox view that certain kinds of leadership are more important in very demanding situations. I look forward to extending this work with another military data set of non-deployed soldiers when we finish the current paper.
Finally, some of the core themes in my research have included individual differences, the interaction between personal characteristics and work environments, and employee retention. It was perhaps inevitable that I would start working on projects related to college student retention. Over the last year, I have begun working closely with a company called uMatch, specifically to help them use measures of individual differences and student-organization fit to explain their patterns of adjustment to college life, engagement in school, academic performance, and retention. This work is in the preliminary stages, but appears to have the potential to generate some very interesting and useful data.