How Social Class Matters for Wellness at Work

social class matters for wellness
Learn how social class can impact perceptions of your colleagues at work! Create a more just environment for employees, no matter what their background.

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Social class is an area of diversity that organizations pay less attention to. But, people treat employees differently at work, depending on their social class. When someone comes from a lower social class, they can face stigma from others at work. On the other hand, those from more elite backgrounds tend to gain status and opportunities because of their social class. Research shows that this can impact the wellness of those from lower social classes in unfair ways. Read more to learn how social class impacts wellness at work! Knowing the challenges that people from lower social classes face might help your organization to eliminate them.

Social Class and Stigma

People generally determine social class by considering parents’ level of education and job titles. When parents have lower levels of education, or work in less prestigious jobs, people perceive households as being lower social class. Many people in your workplace today likely came from lower social class statuses. For example, imagine that both of an employee’s parents have high school degrees and worked in service jobs. Others would perceive this employee to have come from a lower class background. You can change your social status over time, but it’s tough. Colleagues may still judge others based on their career trajectory, which may have some clues about their status growing up. For example, people often judge employees from Ivy League schools more positively than those from a lower ranked school, even if they have similar skills and abilities.

Stigma is a negative attitude that is associated with an identity that someone holds. When people stigmatize others, they view them less positively because of their gender, race, job title, or some other identity. People from lower social classes tend to face more stigma in society than those in higher social classes. Stigmatized individuals have worse mental and physical outcomes. So, people from lower social classes suffer consequences related to their backgrounds. We have discussed the impact of stigma on employees’ working lives before as well.

People can stand out - and be judged - because of their class. Is that happening in your workplace?
People can stand out – and be judged – because of their class. Is that happening in your workplace?

Social Class and Wellness at Work

Recent research shows that managers may view employees from lower social class backgrounds negatively. Specifically, compared to those from higher social classes, managers may think they are less competent. They may also rate them as less of a fit with the culture of the organization. Employees can get frustrated when they are seen as incapable, or feel they don’t fit in.

Additionally, both of these judgments lead managers to ignore the viewpoints of individuals from lower social classes. They are less likely to ask them for ideas or feedback, compared to employees from more elite backgrounds. Managers are also unlikely to view these employees as “go to” people for making decisions with. This can make employees from lower social classes feel like they don’t have a voice at work. Voice is related to better well-being, so this is an issue to pay attention to.

Ensuring employees judge each other based on their talents - and not their background - is key
Ensuring employees judge each other based on their talents – and not their background – is key.

What should employers do?

Employers should talk with their employees directly about the way they judge people from various backgrounds. Some of the judgments that managers and other employees make may be unconscious. If this is the case, educating people about how they might hold negative attitudes about those from lower social class backgrounds might help.

You might also blind decision makers to social class cues on people’s resumes. Someone’s GPA may be more important in predicting their performance than the status of the school they went to. Removing information that might introduce bias into organizational systems can help. Finally, having objective performance management processes can ensure that employees are being recognized appropriately. If people are being judged based on their identity – and not their work – well-being can start to decline.

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