A Q&A with the assistant professor of management, covering her award-nominated paper, how new perspectives at work are more crucial than ever, and a novel approach to studying stress faced by newcomers in the workplace.
By Laura Maranta
Dr. Allison Ellis’ research focuses on how organizations build psychological and human capital resources to facilitate employee well-being and engagement, reduce stress for employees, and improve organizational functioning. In other words, she studies how people feel about their jobs, why they feel that way, and offers employers templates for success that can help their workforce.
Her background is in industrial and organizational psychology, and she began studying stress and well-being from the lens of a psychologist as an undergraduate student. “I was working in a psychology lab at UC Irvine and the study that we were doing was on how people physically respond to feeling stress,” she says. “I was fascinated by the idea that you could think something and your physical body would literally respond. This showed me how connected our mental and physical health really are and sparked my interest in the research I do today on employee stress and wellness.”
This interdisciplinary perspective is what eventually led Ellis to one of her current lines of research: newcomers to the workplace. It also led to the production of an award-nominated article on the topic in the Journal of Management, which is the top academic publication in the business and management fields. Each year, the journal’s editors give the Scholarly Impact Award to a paper it published five years prior, basing their decision in part on “the extent to which the article changed our way of thinking, how the article added to what we know, and the reach the article has had in terms of affecting ongoing work in the field.”
This year, Ellis and her colleagues were shortlisted as nominees for the prestigious award for their 2015 paper titled “Navigating Uncharted Waters: Newcomer socialization through the lens of stress theory.” The article explores the stress newcomers face when joining the workforce, and how their socialization process can be supported.
Ellis, too, was once a newcomer to the world of business. “As a graduate student,” she says, “I was taking a seminar class in organizational behavior at the business school at Portland State. The instructor, Talya Bauer, was doing research that focused on newcomers and their experiences at work and the onboarding process. Through our conversations we started to see that there wasn’t much work being done on newcomers’ experiences of stress and well-being, and we saw this as a research opportunity and so that’s what started this collaboration. It was definitely a process of two brains with different perspectives coming together and going ‘Hey we should maybe look at this in a more comprehensive way because it’s interesting and probably important.’”
We followed up with Ellis to chat about the impact of this article, her other work, and how her insights can be applied to businesses and employees working from home during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Starting with your paper, do you think stressors for newcomers are things companies are already noticing? And now you are just giving them a metaphorical toolbox of vocabulary and skills to talk about what’s going on with their new employees?
I think a toolbox is one way you can think about it. When we think about work that has impact on how businesses operate, giving people that language or that toolbox, like you said, is a really key piece of it. One way I think about my work in general, and this applies to the newcomer experience as well, is to think about a bucket or suitcase you carry with you. There are experiences that help you fill it with things that are helpful for you, like resources, and there are things like dealing with a lot of stress and demands and maybe uncertainties, which can really drain those resources. When we don’t have the resources we need, be it support, confidence, energy, it makes it hard to take risks or speak up at a meeting or ask for help when you really need it. And this can be detrimental to new employees. I think both metaphors are helpful in translating our understanding of what’s going on to something organizations might be able to use.
“If you understand the landscape of what is demanding for people, or what is going to cause them anxiety or stress, you can take measures ahead of time to help make sure things don’t spiral out of control. As supervisors, we want to create learning opportunities for new people that help them gain confidence and gain the resources to be successful.”
How would you apply this information if you are in the role of a boss or supervisor to consider these stressors for newcomers?
I think that it just sort of helps you understand the landscape as a supervisor. It helps you consider the challenges for somebody starting off in a new role. Every time I start a new class it’s kind of like being the supervisor of a bunch of students in the classroom. And I think understanding the things that are going to cause students to stumble, or what might cause them to have anxiety around performance in this class, is useful. Knowing what those things are upfront helps me mitigate them early, so I think that translates to any supervisory role. If you understand the landscape of what is demanding for people, or what is going to cause them anxiety or stress, you can take measures ahead of time to help make sure things don’t spiral out of control. As supervisors, we want to create learning opportunities for new people that help them gain confidence and gain the resources to be successful. Focusing on that is really what you are able to do once you know what you are trying to avoid.
You also applied this knowledge to a recent study you did for a firm called Navis, which provides operational technologies and services in service of the cargo supply chain. What did you bring from your studies on stress and well-being to this project?
The work at Navis didn’t focus so much on newcomers. It was broader in that we were looking at wellness for employees overall. This context is challenging because the work is very time sensitive and critical, and there are already a lot of demands that people are facing. So we wanted to see how supervisors at the local level were supporting employees dealing with those things. Their People Success team had started some initiatives to build up awareness around issues of wellness, and we collaborated with them to explore what their workforce thought about Navis’ prioritization of wellness. We were ultimately able to make recommendations about how to focus and improve their programs. It was fun because it was working with an actual company, so the work had direct impact. I think that’s sort of the line or place I like to sit as an academic—doing work that is theoretically interesting and advances scientific thinking, like the Journal of Management paper, but also work that has immediate practical implications for an organization and how they do what they do. I wouldn’t want to theorize all day and never see any impact from my work!
Did this project with Navis entail learning about a completely different type of work-world for you, since it’s such a niche company?
I think they have such a unique context but some of the basic things translated. We still saw that some of the main things that were stressing people out were things that stress people out across industries—like workload, time pressure, inability to juggle work and non-work lives, lack of communication. So it was interesting because, while it seemed very specialized, I think the results were very consistent with what we see in the literature.
“In the U.S. before the pandemic, we were starting to see employee well-being becoming more of a priority for companies, because it’s a strategic advantage in terms of recruiting and retaining employees. Then COVID-19 happened and suddenly we’re seeing that, not only is it something companies want to prioritize, but it’s one of the most important things right now for people.”
How do you think this research can be applied to what we are seeing with the workplace right now, with regard to the pandemic? A lot of people have become new “work-from-home employees” and our stressors are changing.
It’s so intense. I really feel for all these people who are working from home and juggling multiple other roles and responsibilities. It’s also so interesting because I think, broadly speaking in the U.S. before the pandemic, we were starting to see employee well-being becoming more of a priority for companies because it’s a strategic advantage in terms of recruiting and retaining employees. Then COVID-19 happened and suddenly we’re seeing that, not only is it something companies want to prioritize, but it’s one of the most important things right now for people. So I think this has caused companies to consider not just work-life balance issues, because that’s huge right now, but also broader aspects of well-being, things like physical wellness—like what ergonomic set up you have at home, how is that contributing to how you feel, are you able to take regular breaks? Even simple things are more complicated, like supervisors having a gauge on employees’ stress levels. Now supervisors are asking, how do I check in with my employees about some of the things that go beyond work like their mental well-being? We know from research that supervisors who show caring and concern and help their employees deal with things at work and outside of work—those relationships really last and are more meaningful for employees. But it becomes harder to do that when you don’t see that person face-to-face. You might not notice if they are starting to slip into this withdrawal mode. And for new employees, I can’t even imagine starting a new job right now. It’s just a really challenging time and it has forced companies to start thinking about stress and well-being and how this arrangement impacts those things. In the long run I think it’s a good thing that companies are being forced to prioritize employees’ wellness. It was important before and now it’s even more critical.