Monday, 2 September 2013

How do you avoid your problems? Different strategies, different outcomes

Is it a good idea to disengage from things that stress you?  In occupational psychology, it it seems to depend on who you ask. The work coping literature describes Avoidance Coping as a generally counter-productive strategy. Yet literature in the field of work recovery has shown that taking steps to detach from stress can be helpful and health. To dig deeper, Bonnie Cheng and Julie McCarthy have published a study looking at how disengagement affects the negative impact of inter-role conflict, such as when work commitments hollow out home life. By unpacking avoidance coping, they find a way to make sense of the conflicting findings.

The study investigated 178 university students with a history of employment over the previous 12 months. Participants completed surveys measuring biographical and behavioural information, together with measures of how much conflict occurred between not only work and family life, but scholastic demands as well. Taking a steer from recent models, Cheng and McCarthy predicted that when work interferes with family life, it's work satisfaction that should fall, as we perceive the problem to lie with the interfering domain. Satisfaction surveys taken a month later generally bore this out, but what's interesting is how these effects were influenced by the use of  behaviours that ordinarily are lumped together as avoidance coping.

Instead, avoidance behaviours were split into two groupings, with behaviours like 'I refuse to think about it too much' labelled cognitive avoidance, and others - such as  'I hope a miracle will happen' – representing escape avoidance. The data showed that the drop in school satisfaction when school conflicted with other domains was amplified by escape avoidance, but dampened by cognitive avoidance. Similarly, work and family conflict only eroded satisfaction when escape avoidance was high. This was in line with the authors's predictions: cognitive avoidance resembles psychological detachment and implies low levels of rumination, whereas the fanciful thinking of escape avoidance distorts reality and may drain resources that could otherwise be invested in improving conditions. It's worth noting that the study also measured psychological detachment separately, but was involved in no effects besides low detachment interacting cognitive avoidance to make work conflicts even more punishing. This may be a methodological effect or may reflect how psychological detachment is framed as a short-term tactic - detaching for a while this afternoon - whereas coping strategies are more of an abiding disposition.

This research takes a knife to avoidance coping, and unearths two constructs that actually stand against each other. Cognitive avoidance is  a case of taking agency over the contents of your mind rather than letting it be annexed by ruminative thoughts, known to exacerbate psychological problems. Escape avoidance casts agency aside, letting unchecked desires clog up mental territory, instead of examining them and when necessary putting them to rest.


ResearchBlogging.orgBonnie Hayden Cheng, & Julie M. McCarthy (2013). Managing Work, Family, and School Roles: Disengagement Strategies Can Help and Hinder Journal of Occupational Health Psychology, 18 (3), 241-251 DOI: 10.1037/a0032507

Further reading:

Thompson, C. A., Poelmans, S. A. Y., Allen, T. D., & Andreassi, J. K. (2007). On the importance of coping: A model and new directions for research on work and family. In P. L. Perrew√© & D. C. Ganster (Eds.), Exploring the work and non-work interface: Research in occupational stress and well-being (Vol. 6, pp. 73–113). Bingley, UK: Emerald Group Publishing Limited. doi:10.1016/S1479-3555(06)06003-3

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