Are temporary workers better at handling strain? (People and Society)
Investigação | 17 março 2015 Are temporary workers better at handling strain? (People and Society)

A study found that emotional exhaustion related negatively to performance among permanent workers, but not among temporary workers.

Researcher: Filipa Castanheira

A study conducted by a group of researchers investigated whether contract type (temporary versus permanent employment) moderates the relationship between emotional exhaustion and supervisor-rated individual performance. With multiple-group analysis in a sample of 430 call-center operators, the researchers found that emotional exhaustion related negatively to performance among permanent workers, but not among temporary workers. Most temporary workers desire permanent employment, and this may drive them to uphold performance also when strained.

Call centers and contract types

The call center sector is relatively new in Portugal and has been one of those with the highest growth in the economy, not only in Portugal but also around the world. Contingent employment, namely temporary employment, has been an important strategy to achieve flexibility and has always been strongly implemented in this sector. Probably most call center operators that now hold a permanent contract were once temporary workers.

High-Strain Job

Call-center workers experience levels of emotional exhaustion that are comparable to high-strain professions—for example, police and probation officers. Their work has been described as boring, monotonous, demanding, and stressful, leading to its characterization as an “assembly line in the head”. It is part of the management procedures in call centers to employ advanced monitoring practices that appraise performance and translate into compensation and incentives, leading to call center’s characterization as working contexts with high surveillance.

In this study, strain was seen in terms of emotional exhaustion. Emotional exhaustion concerns a general lack of energy and is seen as the core component of burnout. Emotionally exhausted employees have insufficient resources and tend to perform poorly. Earlier research has supported this assumption.

Is it similar for temporary and permanent workers?

Researchers argue that this relationship between emotional exhaustion and performance is conditional upon contract type.
The reason is that the negative relationship between strain and individual performance may not hold among temporary workers: temporary workers may uphold performance even when under strain to convince employers of their value to the organization and in view of obtaining a permanent contract; a desire that is shared by many temporary workers.

Temporary workers see temporary employment as a route to permanent employment, they may want to show their value as hard-working organizational citizens in an attempt to create a favorable impression, which may then land them in a permanent job

Results and Implications

In short, the study showed that emotional exhaustion was related to supervisors’ individual performance ratings of permanent but not temporary workers. Call centers thrive on flexibility and are massive users of temporary employment, which attests to the relevance of these results. 

From these results, it is tempting to conclude that temporary employment provides a strategy to implement flexibility while upholding performance records in high-strain contexts. Yet the researchers believe such interpretations should be made with considerable caution!

Managers should account for a long-term perspective: a plausible assumption is that strain may affect individual performance on the longer term. If so, measures to reduce strain also among temporary workers may be seemingly costly on the short term, but rewarding on the longer term.

This article is based on the paper “A multiple group analysis of associations between emotional exhaustion and supervisor-rated performance: Temporary versus permanent call center workers.” authored by Nova SBE Professor Filipa Castanheira, and co-authors Nele de Cuyper, Hans de Witte and Maria José Chambel; published in Human Resource Management (Volume 53, Issue 4, July/August 2014, Pages: 623–633)

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