Major changes are taking place within the workforces of many of the world’s leading industrial nations, with members of ethnic minority groups making up increasingly larger proportions. However, little of the occupational stress research has focused on ethnic minority populations. The changing demographics of the world’s workforce give clear notice that these populations can no longer be ignored. This article briefly addresses some of the major issues of occupational stress in ethnic minority populations with a focus on the United States. However, much of the discussion should be generalizable to other nations of the world.
Much of the occupational stress research either excludes ethnic minorities, includes too few to allow meaningful comparisons or generalizations to be made, or does not report enough information about the sample to determine racial or ethnic participation. Many studies fail to make distinctions among ethnic minorities, treating them as one homogeneous group, thus minimizing the differences in demographic characteristics, culture, language and socio-economic status which have been documented both between and within ethnic minority groups (Olmedo and Parron 1981).
In addition to the failure to address issues of ethnicity, by far the greater part of research does not examine class or gender differences, or class by race and gender interactions. Moreover, little is known about the cross-cultural utility of many of the assessment procedures. Documentation used in such procedures is not adequately translated nor is there demonstrated equivalency between the standardized English and other language versions. Even when the reliabilities appear to indicate equivalence across ethnic or cultural groups, there is uncertainty about which symptoms in the scale are elicited in a reliable fashion, that is, whether the phenomenology of a disorder is similar across groups (Roberts, Vernon and Rhoades 1989).
Many assessment instruments inadequately assess conditions within ethnic minority populations; consequently results are often suspect. For example, many stress scales are based on models of stress as a function of undesirable change or readjustment. However, many minority individuals experience stress in large part as a function of ongoing undesirable situations such as poverty, economic marginality, inadequate housing, unemployment, crime and discrimination. These chronic stressors are not usually reflected in many of the stress scales. Models which conceptualize stress as resulting from the interplay between both chronic and acute stressors, and various internal and external mediating factors, are more appropriate for assessing stress in ethnic minority and poor populations (Watts-Jones 1990).
A major stressor affecting ethnic minorities is the prejudice and discrimination they encounter as a result of their minority status in a given society (Martin 1987; James 1994). It is a well- established fact that minority individuals experience more prejudice and discrimination as a result of their ethnic status than do members of the majority. They also perceive greater discrimination and fewer opportunities for advancement as compared with whites (Galinsky, Bond and Friedman 1993). Workers who feel discriminated against or who feel that there are fewer chances for advancement for people of their ethnic group are more likely to feel “burned out” in their jobs, care less about working hard and doing their jobs well, feel less loyal to their employers, are less satisfied with their jobs, take less initiative, feel less committed to helping their employers succeed and plan to leave their current employers sooner (Galinsky, Bond and Friedman 1993). Moreover, perceived prejudice and discrimination are positively correlated with self-reported health problems and higher blood pressure levels (James 1994).
An important focus of occupational stress research has been the relationship between social support and stress. However, there has been little attention paid to this variable with respect to ethnic minority populations. The available research tends to show conflicting results. For example, Hispanic workers who reported higher levels of social support had less job-related tension and fewer reported health problems (Gutierres, Saenz and Green 1994); ethnic minority workers with lower levels of emotional support were more likely to experience job burn-out, health symptoms, episodic job stress, chronic job stress and frustration; this relationship was strongest for women and for management as opposed to non-management personnel (Ford 1985). James (1994), however, did not find a significant relationship between social support and health outcomes in a sample of African-American workers.
Most models of job satisfaction have been derived and tested using samples of white workers. When ethnic minority groups have been included, they have tended to be African-Americans, and potential effects due to ethnicity were often masked (Tuch and Martin 1991). Research that is available on African-American employees tends to yield significantly lower scores on overall job satisfaction in comparison to whites (Weaver 1978, 1980; Staines and Quinn 1979; Tuch and Martin 1991). Examining this difference, Tuch and Martin (1991) noted that the factors determining job satisfaction were basically the same but that African-Americans were less likely to have the situations that led to job satisfaction. More specifically, extrinsic rewards increase African-Americans’ job satisfaction, but African-Americans are disadvantaged relatively to whites on these variables. On the other hand, blue-collar incumbency and urban residence decrease job satisfaction for African-Americans but African-Americans are overrepresented in these areas. Wright, King and Berg (1985) found that organizational variables (i.e., job authority, qualifications for the position and a sense that advancement within the organization is possible) were the best predictors of job satisfaction in their sample of black female managers in keeping with previous research on primarily white samples.
Ethnic minority workers are more likely than their white counterparts to be in jobs with hazardous work conditions. Bullard and Wright (1986/1987) noted this propensity and indicated that the population differences in injuries are likely to be the result of racial and ethnic disparities in income, education, type of employment and other socio-economic factors correlated with exposure to hazards. One of the most likely reasons, they noted, was that occupational injuries are highly dependent on the job and industry category of the workers and ethnic minorities tend to work in more hazardous occupations.
Foreign workers who have entered the country illegally often experience special work stress and maltreatment. They often endure substandard and unsafe working conditions and accept less than minimum wages because of fear of being reported to the immigration authorities and they have few options for better employment. Most health and safety regulations, guidelines for use, and warnings are in English and many immigrants, illegal or otherwise, may not have a good understanding of written or spoken English (Sanchez 1990).
Some areas of research have almost totally ignored ethnic minority populations. For example, hundreds of studies have examined the relationship between Type A behaviour and occupational stress. White males constitute the most frequently studied groups with ethnic minority men and women almost totally excluded. Available research—e.g., a study by Adams et al. (1986), using a sample of college freshmen, and e.g., Gamble and Matteson (1992), investigating black workers—indicates the same positive relationship between Type A behaviour and self-reported stress as that found for white samples.
Similarly, little research on issues such as job control and work demands is available for ethnic minority workers, although these are central constructs in occupational stress theory. Available research tends to show that these are important constructs for ethnic minority workers as well. For example, African-American licensed practical nurses (LPNs) report significantly less decision authority and more dead-end jobs (and hazard exposures) than do white LPNs and this difference is not a function of educational differences (Marshall and Barnett 1991); the presence of low decision latitude in the face of high demands tends to be the pattern most characteristic of jobs with low socio-economic status, which are more likely to be held by ethnic minority workers (Waitzman and Smith 1994); and middle- and upper-level white men rate their jobs consistently higher than their ethnic minority (and female) peers on six work design factors (Fernandez 1981).
Thus, it appears that many research questions remain regarding ethnic minority populations in the occupational stress and health arena as regards ethnic minority populations. These questions will not be answered until ethnic minority workers are included in study samples and in the development and validation of investigatory instruments.