Portand State’s largest psychology grant in 15years will go to study family-workplace stress

Leslie Hammer, Portland State professor of psychology, finds herself darting back and forth across the country these days.


She is busy setting up a three-year study of worker-family stresses funded by a $1.4 million grant from the National Institute for Occupational Health and Safety (NIOSH).


The grant sets up the creation of the Center for Work-Family Stress, Safety and Health housed in the psychology department at PSU. The center also involves Michigan State University and Oregon Health and Science University.


Hammer said the grant is the largest in the psychology department in the 15 years she has been here.


“I think this is really important research,” said Hammer. “I want to make life better for working families. The more we realize what organizations can do to relieve family stress, the better it will be for workers.”


The goal of the study is to investigate what supervisors might do to ease work-family stress. The center will use the research to construct and implement a model-training program for supervisors. It is being done with the cooperation of the director of health at the United Food and Commercial Workers union. Hammer’s center is one of four such studies in the country funded by NIOSH. The four have separate projects and will share results.


The target group of Hammer’s study is a very large grocery chain in the east, with concentration in Boston, New York, Connecticut and the Middle Atlantic States. It has 120,000 employees.


“Most are working at minimum wage or barely above,” Hammer said. The research will also look at the management level. The ultimate outcome will involve “the training of store managers on how to be more responsive to work-family demands,” she said.


So far, the research team has conducted focus groups involving part-time and full-time workers, department heads and floor managers. Hammer did her research in Boston. The center’s associate director, Ellen Ernst Kossek of Michigan State, conducted focus groups in Connecticut. After this data is analyzed, the next step will be a survey of a broader section of employees.


One of the important outcomes Hammer looks for is insight into the issue of employee safety.


“There’s a link between work-family conflict and safety,” she said. “If we can reduce work-family conflict we can improve safety.” She cited such safety problems as carpal tunnel syndrome for grocery cashiers and safety issues in stocking shelves and cutting meat. Family stresses can contribute to cardiovascular disease.


The project will look at overall health of workers, both physical health and mental health. Hammer pointed to the “emotional labor” that service workers such as grocery workers are required to perform. It is part of what is expected and workers who exhibit stress to customers may not keep their jobs for long.

“Service workers are required to look happy,” Hammer said. Common stresses can include working every weekend, working too few hours or getting too many hours, or working in departments short of personnel due to illness or absenteeism. But service businesses are seven-day week businesses. It is on the weekends that other working families do their shopping.


“There are certain things that can be done, like working every other weekend,” Hammer said. She called service work extremely stressful. Along with the work itself, there are such stressors as difficult customers but “you have to put on that smile.”


“We are working with both union and management, forcing us to be sensitive to both parties,” she said.


The timeline for the project calls for designing training content, implementing training and evaluating the effectiveness of training in the second year. Trainees will be supervisors at stores. The third year will radiate the results into related projects. A crew of graduate students will work on the program all three years.


Also involved in the project is Kent Anger, associate director of the Center for Research on Environmental and Occupational Toxicology at OHSU.


Associated with the PSU center is Todd Bodner, assistant professor of psychology. Shelly Alexander is center project manager and Rachel Daniels, a doctoral candidate, is a staff member.


Hammer is technically on sabbatical year but that merely leaves her free to supervise the center and guide her graduate students, she said. She is just finishing a book in collaboration with Margaret Neal, director of the PSU Institute on Aging. It is a study of working parents of the “sandwich generation” who find themselves caring for both children and aging parents.


Hammer has been concentrating on the study of work-family problems for 15 years and occupational health psychology for seven years, she said. She is the director of a graduate training program in occupational health psychology funded by NIOSH.