A case study looking at the COVID-19 pandemic showed that the productivity of those who consider themselves to be in "low-status" jobs rebounded better than others.
At one Chinese manufacturing company, workers who considered themselves to have lower-status jobs showed surprising tenacity in the aftermath of COVID-19, often exceeding pre-pandemic productivity expectations.
To unravel the effects of "job stigma" during major upheavals, researchers from Tsinghua University's China Business Case Center looked at the performance records of 708 employees at a company that manufactures lithium battery components in southern China.
During the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, the performance of self-identified "lower status" employees at a Chinese lithium battery component manufacturing company underwent a sharper decline than their self-identified "higher status" co-workers. But those with self-identified "lower status" jobs also bounced back more strongly as the pandemic wore on.
The great majority of employees were assembly workers, while a small minority worked in accounting, auditing, human resourcing, cost-control, purchasing and sales.
Questionnaires provided insights into how these employees viewed their jobs, says lead author, ZHENG Xiaoming, director of the center and professor of the Department of Leadership and Organization Management at Tsinghua University School of Economics and Management. "Respondents were asked to rate how proud they were of their job. For example, one option was 'Few people would be proud to have my job'."
The researchers then compared monthly employee work performance records across 21 months — a period that included the onset of the epidemic in February 2020, as well as the seven months of adaptation that followed.
A Tsinghua University group studied roughly 700 employees — ranging from assembly workers (pictured) to accounting, human resourcing, purchasing and sales — at a company that manufactures lithium battery components in southern China.
The researchers found that the work performance of all employees underwent a sharp decline during the month-long onset period of the epidemic. This is probably because attention was directed away from work tasks and towards adjusting to new routines and procedures, and to dealing with the anxieties about an employee's own health and the health of their loved ones, explains ZHENG. The decline in performance, however, was also less pronounced for employees that considered themselves to be in higher status jobs.
During the subsequent post-onset period performance recovered as workers adapted, until overall performance reached its pre-epidemic levels. But the job performance of employees who felt the most job stigma not only bounced back more strongly than other employees, it eventually significantly exceeded the levels forecast for that period in the pre-COVID-19 era1.
"Stigmatized occupations were often targets for the company downsizings that the pandemic caused," ZHENG speculates. "So, it's possible that pushed people of low occupational status into making an extra effort."
Status has a fairly intangible nature, adds ZHENG, so it is understudied compared to management issues related to material resources or interpersonal support. But it appeared to be a trend-driving factor during the crisis for this company. When the researchers divided employees by socio-economic status, or standard job hierarchies, they found no real difference in performance trajectories.
The lesson is that some companies should consider how they foster respect for workers with lower job statuses, says ZHENG. Small changes could help to reduce large fluctuations in productivity during a crisis. ZHENG points to one of his previous studies that found significant psychological and productivity benefits when expressions of gratitude were directed at workers during the pandemic2.
There is still much work to be done on this topic, ZHENG says. The long-term effects of a possible feeling of job insecurity have not yet been examined, he adds. "Will this productivity drop off? Will these employees burn out? We don't know."
1. Liu, X., Zheng, X., Lee, B.Y., Yu, Y. & Zhang, M. COVID-19 and employee job performance trajectories: The moderating effect of different sources of status Journal of Vocational Behavior 142, (2023) doi: 10.1016/j.jvb.2023.103862
2. Ni, D., Jiwen Song, L., Zheng, X., Zhu, J., Zhang, M., Xu, L. Extending a helping hand: How receiving gratitude makes a difference in employee performance during a crisis Journal of Business Research 149, (2022) doi: 10.1016/j.jbusres.2022.05.055