Job insecurity in higher education across 10 countries : the mediating role of self-undermining

Lara Christina ROLL, Marius STANDER, Hans DE WITTE

Research output: Other Conference ContributionsConference Paper (other)Research


The struggle with job insecurity at universities has increasingly gained media and research attention (e.g., Ortlieb & Weiss, 2018; Thune & Warner, 2019). Increased use of temporary employment contracts (Webber, 2019), funding cuts (e.g., Nogrady, 2018) and the pressure to ‘publish or perish’ (Tijdink, Vergouwen, & Smulders, 2013) give rise to job insecurity in the higher education sector around the globe. Researchers facing job insecurity are less likely to produce novel and impactful research than their secure counterparts (Douglas-Gabriel, 2019). The fear of job loss can also carry over into the classroom and affect student learning. Lecturers rushing from classroom to classroom have little time to continuously improve their teaching methods and spend time with students (Thune & Warner, 2019). Not just students lose out, society as such loses. Research showed that academics facing job insecurity are significantly less likely to participate in public engagement activities, produce patents or impact public policy (Kieńć, 2015). Worrying about job loss, typically termed quantitative job insecurity (Hellgren, Sverke, & Isaksson, 1999), is not the only reason for job insecurity at universities. Employees may also experience qualitative job insecurity, which is the uncertainty about retaining valued job aspects, such as working conditions, wage and career opportunities (De Witte, Vander Elst, & De Cuyper, 2015). For example, valued job aspects may include access to research funding or summer teaching opportunities. The strenuous experience of job insecurity has been linked to numerous negative health and performance outcomes (Cheng & Chan, 2008; Sverke, Hellgren, & Näswall, 2002). According to the job demands-resources (JD-R) theory, negative job strain may lead to self-undermining behaviour, i.e. self-created stress, confusion, and conflict (Bakker & Demerouti, 2018). Employees who engaged in self-undermining behaviours reported higher levels of work pressure, exhaustion, and scored lower on supervisor-ratings of job performance (Bakker & Wang, 2016). Based on the JD-R theory, we examined whether self-undermining acts as a mediator in the job insecurity-outcome relationship and might thus be an explanatory underlying factor. Drawing on cross-sectional survey data from 10 countries (Belgium, China, Croatia, Greece, Lithuania, Romania, South Africa, Switzerland, UK and USA) collected as part of a larger project on job insecurity in higher education (N=5416), we analysed self-undermining as a mediator between (quantitative and qualitative) job insecurity and a) in-role performance and b) counterproductive work behaviour using Hayes’ PROCESS macro in SPSS. Overall results support the mediating effect for most countries. Specifically, both quantitative and qualitative job insecurity was mostly negatively related to in-role performance and positively related to counterproductive work behaviour through self-undermining. This finding provides support for the generalizability of this mediated relationship across different country-contexts, while specific deviations will be discussed in the symposium. In sum, this research provides knowledge on the underlying mechanisms resulting in the negative impact of job insecurity for employees. This research evidence will allow us to develop interventions targeting self-undermining behaviour to interrupt this negative cycle in the future.
Original languageEnglish
Publication statusAccepted/In press - Sep 2020
Event14th European Academy of Occupational Health Psychology Conference - Nicosia, Nicosia, Cyprus
Duration: 2 Sep 20204 Sep 2020


Conference14th European Academy of Occupational Health Psychology Conference
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