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Personality and Individual Differences 35 (2003) 537-557

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Specifically, the relations between organization climate and mental distress and emotional exhaustion were strongest for those male employees who reported low levels of global self-esteem. These results are consistent with Brockner’s plasticity-hypothesis (1983; 1988) and studies on the elaboration of plasticity theory (Fernandez et al., 1998; Mossholder et al., 1982; Pierce et al., 1993). Plasticity-hypothesis indicates that low self-esteem employees are more easily affected by organizational events because they are prone to regard social cues and environmental stimuli as guides for their behavior than high self-esteem employees and, thus, they are more prone to develop symptoms in response to stress.

Somewhat surprisingly, high self-esteem moderated the effects of poor organizational climate on well-being in the opposite manner we would have expected: among men emotional exhaustion and mental distress decreased as organizational climate and social support got worse. In addition, high optimism moderated the relationship between poor organizational climate and mental dis­tress in the same way among women as self-esteem among men. Fernandez et al. (1998) also found in their study that high self-esteem individuals’ depressive symptoms decreased when social

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network stressors increased. These results can be explained in different ways. First, it could be that employees with high personal resources use more adaptive coping-strategies and they find themselves challenged by adversity, as Fernandez et al. (1998) suggested. Second, emotional support (e.g. conversations with fellow employees and employers) could be most beneficial to employees with low personal resources. High self-esteem and optimistic employees might find some other forms of support helpful in the workplace (e.g. informational support) as they could get needed emotional support from other areas of life. Third, as Korman (see Brockner, 1988) already found in the 1960s, self-esteem is related to vocational choice. Individuals with high resources could be in higher positions and jobs with challenging decision-making than low self-esteem employees, and thus they can find it almost a burden to have constant conversa­tions with other people in the workplace. Although in our study the leadership position was controlled in the first step. Or this finding can be simply due to defences which are used to protect oneself against the difficult situation. However, this issue is an important research target and should be studied from the viewpoint of the individual as well as organizational units.

In this study dispositional optimism and self-esteem measures correlated a great deal (r=0.75 for men and r=0.73 for women) and also moderated the relationship between organizational climate and well-being in a similar way. This also raises the question about the connection of these concepts although our results show that optimism and self-esteem are linked differently for the health of men and women. Scheier et al. (1994) have also brought some evidence that self-esteem and optimism are separate personality factors which can lead to different health outcomes. They showed that the relationships among optimism, coping and depression remain significant when the effects of self-esteem, neuroticism, perceived control and anxiety were controlled. It has, however, been suggested by Judge and Bono (2001) that these two personal constructs are part of a core self-evaluation construct (including also self-efficacy, neuroticism and locus of control). However, there is no empirical evidence considering optimism as part of a larger resource con­struct and this requires further research.

Furthermore, time pressure at work was most strongly related to mental distress among female employees reporting low optimism. This result may be explained by different coping strategies used by optimists and pessimists. One explanation could be that optimists tend to use more problem-focused coping strategies (e.g. information seeking) than do pessimists (Scheier et al., 2001). When using emotion-focused coping, optimists use adaptive strategies such as acceptance, humor and positive reframing while pessimists use denial and behavior disengangement (Aspin-wall & Taylor, 1992; Harju & Bolen, 1998; Scheier et al., 1986, 2001).

The relationship between job insecurity and optimism on mental distress appears to be more complex. It was revealed that the negative effects of increased job insecurity on mental well-being were more detrimental for high levels of optimism among women, although the overall level of mental distress was higher for low optimists. It could be that accumulation of negative events, such as a prolonged threat of losing one’s job and consequent worries about the future can be even more disturbing for optimists than for pessimists due to their different expectations of life events. Job insecurity, compared with the time pressures or social relations at work, may not be amenable to active coping. Thus, job insecurity is based more on structural factors (e.g. unem­ployment and economic situation), and as these factors are out of personal control, they can be particularly harmful to high optimists.

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Although psychosocial work stressors have been consistently related to occupational well-being (e.g. Burke & Richardsen, 2001; Maslach, Schaufeli, & Leiter, 2001; Spector, 1997), our study indicates that after controlling for the dependent variable’s own effect, only the demographics and some stressors predicted well-being among female employees. Good organization climate predicted higher job satisfaction and increased age, high level of education, no subordinates and job security predicted lower levels of emotional exhaustion. Neither self-esteem nor optimism explained well-being directly among women. For the male employees, only personality characteristics predicted mental distress and emotional exhaustion, after controlling for well-being’s own effect, the demo­graphics and psychosocial work stressors. When considering these results, it must be remembered that the dependent variable’s own effect at Time 1 accounted for a significant proportion of variance in well-being indicators at Time 2, meaning that well-being was relatively stable over time.

One important finding in this research was related to differences in how personality character­istics impact upon stress and well-being for males and females. Analyses without an examination of gender differences, i.e. using the total sample, would have resulted in different or even mis­leading results. Gender differences can also explain why prior empirical results of moderator effects have been mixed. For example, Janssen et al. (1999) did not find any moderating effects of self-esteem, which may be due to the fact that the sample in question consisted almost entirely (91%) of females. Studies which have provided support for the plasticity-hypothesis (Ganster & Schaubroeck, 1991; Pierce et al., 1993; Wiener et al., 1992) have investigated mostly men.

Our gender-specific findings could be due to cultural gender roles and different sources of personal resources among men and women (Kling, Hyde, Showers, & Buswell, 1999; Schwalbe & Staples, 1991). Many qualities associated with the male role (e.g. self-confidence and self-perceived compe­tence) are consistent with high self-esteem. Interdependence and seeing one’s own value through others may be more important to the self-concept of women, whereas dominance and positive indi-viduation may be more central to men’s self-concept (Block & Robins, 1993; Joseph, Markus, & Tafarodi, 1992). For example, Rosenberg’s self-esteem scale measures intrinsic emotion of self-liking, while several items of the LOT-Roptimism scale are more about relations to others. To illustrate, the item ‘‘Overall, I expect more good things to happen to me than bad’’ does not necessarily propose that I think I will be responsible for the good things that will happen to me. Positive outcomes could also be attributed to the actions of other people. In addition, one possible explanation could be that men and women handle stressful situations differently from a psychological point of view; men act and do something concrete, while women concentrate on their feelings which predisposes them to depression and psychological symptoms (Seligman, 1991). Consequently, in depressing situations, optimism functions as a resource for women which buffers against strain, and deserves further exploration. Consequently, in general, work is a more important source of self-esteem for men than for women.

At least two methodological limitations concerning our study must be acknowledged. In this study, self-esteem and optimism were measured by global, context-free measures. Pierce et al. (1993) pointed out that self-esteem measures should be framed in the same context as the other measures used in the study. A more specific measure (i.e. organization-based self-esteem, situa-tional optimism) would be more appropriate in studying personality characteristics in occupa­tional settings. An organization-based self-esteem measure might reveal a stronger link between self-esteem and occupational well-being. In addition, exploitation of all three dimensions of burnout, instead of using only emotional exhaustion would have produced a more holistic picture about personality and occupational well-being.

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The second limitation concerns the susceptibility of personality measures to socially desirable responses, causing scores to be skewed towards high self-esteem and optimism. Particularly in this study response bias is possible because the optimism measure used did not include those four filler items recommended by Scheier et al. (1994) (see also Harju & Bolen, 1998). Also, individuals who are pessimistic and have low self-esteem may be unable to admit to themselves or to others that they feel unworthy and incompetent. However, the majority of personality measures are still self-reports and it is difficult to obtain non-self-report measures of such personal constructs as self-esteem and optimism. One possibility would be the use of more idiosyncratic measures (Rentsch & Heffner, 1992).

In addition, these moderator findings must be considered in the light of statistical issues. Although there were significant interactions between personality characteristics and psychosocial work stressors on well-being, these effects were quite small and explained only 2–5% of the var­iance in the well-being indicators after controlling for the main effects as well as the dependent variable’s own effects at Time 1. However, both McClelland and Judd (1993) and Parkes (1994) have noted that moderator effects are difficult to detect and that even 1% contribution of the total variance should be taken into account. In this study, the moderator effects were especially difficult to detect, because of the high explanation proportion of main effects. Due to this fact, these results should be considered particularly noteworthy.

Based on the evidence from the present study it is tempting to conclude that optimism and high self-esteem are always to be desired over pessimism and low self-esteem. Although it has been argued that optimism can be learned (e.g. Seligman, 1991). We must consider the fact that certain personality characteristics do not exist in a vacuum. Instead, they are integrated into personality and related to a variety of other personality traits, temperament and past experiences as Norem and Chang (2001) stated. Self-esteem and optimism reflect only two dimensions of personality and in the future we need to adopt a more holistic personality framework when studying its link to occupational well-being (Seibert & Kreimer, 2001). It is also important to pay attention to gender differences in occupational studies. As Sherman and Walls (1995) noted, gender is not just an important variable, but it can in fact be the most critical variable. In this study, we did not examine coping-strategies which could be an important link in the relationship between personality and occupational well-being.

From a practical point of view, this study highlights that stress interventions should be attrib­uted to individual and work-related factors. Optimism and self-esteem should not be thought of as intrinsic values because they do not make people happy or social as such. They should, how­ever, be seen as important resources because they influence what choices an individual makes and what instruments are used to cope in different kinds of situations. Employers should be aware that good social relationships are an important resource in the workplace, especially to those employees who have low personal resources. It appears that good social interaction in the work­place not only provides support to lower self-esteem and pessimistic individuals, but also miti­gates the effects of job strain. These results also suggest that dependent on different personality characteristics, individuals may benefit from different job tasks. For example, low self-esteem individuals may benefit from teamwork, and high self-esteem and optimistic employees could manage well in tasks which require independence and decision-making. In addition, proper vocational training and well-timed feedback could be ways to increase personal accomplishment and consequently improve self-esteem.

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The research project ‘‘Economic crisis, Job insecurity and the Household’’ (grant no. 62056) was financially supported by the Academy of Finland.


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