Chronic work stress can change our personalities

April 13, 2021

Work stress can affect minds and bodies. (Unsplash/Tim Gouw)

Employees dealing with work-induced stress can experience changes to their physiology, according to organizational behavior researchers, which may result in their personality traits fluctuating or even fundamentally changing over time. 

In their paper introducing the model, published March 16 in the Journal of Management, the researchers explain that work can be a powerful driver of personality change. Yet organizational research, which focuses on human behavior in the workplace, has historically treated personality traits as stable and unaffected by organizational influences. 

The paper proposes a new model based on genetics and epigenetics, the study of heritable changes in gene expression that can be passed down to offspring. They aimed to help organizational researchers better understand how stress on the job impacts the body's neurochemical processes to alter employee personality, potentially influencing company outcomes.

Perceiving any stressful experience, such as an abusive supervisor or performance pressure at work, depends on both the event and the individual. Together, these factors determine the amount and type of psychological stress experienced by the individual, which consequently causes neurobiological responses in the brain, the authors said in the paper. 

Jarvis Smallfield, a researcher at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and co-author of the paper, told The Academic Times that though a certain portion of our personality traits are derived from genetics, the make-up of our personalities does not only depend on the existence of our genes. Rather, it's which parts of our genes that are expressed that matters.

"Although genes are generally immutable, their expression is not. This understanding lies at the heart of epigenetics—the study of alterations in genetic sites causing a change in their activity, though not the DNA sequence itself," Smallfield and co-author Donald Kluemper wrote in the paper. Epigenetics is the study of heritable changes in gene expression that can be passed down to offspring.

Humans appraise psychological stressors as either a threat, which can obstruct goals, or as a challenge, which can further goals. In their proposed model, the researchers suggest that appraisals of workplace stressors trigger the neurobiological responses responsible for influencing personality states, which are short-term and concrete behaviors. When the stress is chronic, it influences genetic expression, driving changes to personality traits.

Specifically, the model says that stress appraisals lead to short-term physiological responses through the hypothalamus–pituitary–adrenal, dopaminergic and serotonergic systems in the brain, which in turn cause short-term fluctuations in personality. Over time, the load on these systems from chronic stress appraisals alters the epigenome, which contains a record of all chemical changes made to DNA. Those changes to the epigenome can in turn cause changes to system functioning and to long-term personality traits.

Recent epigenetics research has suggested that social environments like a workplace can influence the regulation of genetic expression and alter the neurochemical set points of personality-related systems, according to Smallfield and Kluemper. A set point refers to how physiological systems in the body function. The researchers said that the nature and direction of this set-point change likely depend on whether chronic workplace stressors are appraised as a threat or a challenge.

"The exciting part of this is that this genetic expression, which provides the stability for your personality traits, also is the mechanism by which those traits can change over the course of your life — when you move from one stage of life to another or when you change environments," said Smallfield. "We're really, really adaptable beings."

To avoid personality changes in their employees over time due to long-term stress, the authors recommend that companies focus on teaching employees to perceive stressors as opportunities or challenges, where appropriate, or altering workplace practices.

Because personality changes can be driven by mild, chronic workplace stressors, Smallfield and Kluemper argue, even small changes in the operations or climate of a company can have large implications.

Organizations may consider offering flexible job descriptions or recovery periods during which employees can find relief from any expected stressors associated with the job. The authors also recommend that employees acknowledge the personality-related consequences of chronic stress at work and make these recovery experiences a priority.

"The possibility that long-term changes might occur to employees' personality traits broadens the responsibility of organizations beyond the traditional employer–employee relationship to include the workplace's enduring effects on employees' personalities and aggregate effects on workgroups and organizations over time," the authors said, noting that marginalized populations are particularly at risk for experiencing greater workplace stress.

"When an employee's personality is a better fit with their job, they will experience less threat stress and find more opportunities to experience challenge stress," they continued.

Previous organizational research has treated personality traits as fixed and unchangeable before individuals enter the workforce as adults, and suggested that these traits are only useful as a tool for hiring and predicting a variety of organizational outcomes. 

Only recently have organizational scholars begun to acknowledge that personality is malleable, according to the paper, and there has been a call for incorporating more studies of personality change into current research. But still, "Relatively little attention has been paid to better understanding the theoretical rationale as to why and how organizations affect changes in personality," the researchers said in the study.

"It is not enough to know only that personality can change in response to workplace stress. Instead, researchers must employ a more sophisticated understanding of how those changes occur to gain a deeper knowledge of why and when organizations influence personality trait change, enabling a more robust and accurate inclusion of this phenomenon into organizational research and practice," they reported in the study.

Personality tests can still be used in the hiring process, but Smallfield and Kluemper suggested that they be incorporated throughout the course of an individual's employment to ensure they are still a good fit for the job. And beyond surveys, their model offers instruction on how to test for changes in the physiological systems of employees to help understand the impact of their stress perceptions. These tests can be done by measuring levels of dopamine, serotonin or cortisol from blood, urine or saliva samples.

In developing their model and examining the effects of stress on personality, the authors used the Big Five personality traits known in psychology as extroversion, agreeableness, openness, conscientiousness and neuroticism. 

"By mapping how specific neurological systems relate to dimensions of personality, our model can guide researchers who are studying personality change in organizations, including effective interventions," Smallfield explained. "Those interventions can target a more specific physiological system, [such as] dopamine if the researcher is interested in the trait of openness."

"It's not simply a question of 'reducing or increasing stress,' but we can be very particular about how that stress is perceived and predict how that perception will alter the physiological system and how that alteration will influence various personality dimensions — not only the dimension we are interested in," he continued.

The study, "An Explanation of Personality Change in Organizational Science: Personality as an Outcome of Workplace Stress," published March 16 in the Journal of Management, was authored by Jarvis Smallfield, the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign; and Donald H. Kluemper, the University of Illinois at Chicago.

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