July 19, 2008

Role of Traditional Values on Coping With Stress Among Manufacturing Workers in China

By Yeung, Joseph C K

This study examines Chinese workers' job stress through the application of Karasek's (1979) job demand - job control model, and investigates how traditional values influence the interaction between job demands and job control, in affecting workers' anxiety and depressive symptoms. Sample consisted of 281 workers from three state-owned manufacturing companies in China. Traditional values were measured using 8 items taken from the Chinese Individual Traditionality Inventory (Yang et al., 1989). The results indicated that traditional values played a buffering role in the more traditional workers' coping process, whereas this positive effect was not found among the less traditional workers. Implications of the findings were discussed. Introduction

Job stress, in the last three decades, has become a key concept for academic research into people's physiological and psychological health problems (Cooper, Dewe & O'Driscoll, 2001). The detrimental effects of job stress discovered in recent years have also caught the wide attention of practicing managers, human service workers, and health professionals. Balancing work and employee well-being has become central importance to organizations as well as the government. Thus, it is important to help individuals, organizations, and social workers better understand the stressors and the strains, to formulate appropriate coping strategies to minimize the negative consequences of job stress.

One of the most prominent stress models is the Karasek's (1979) job demands-job control model. It is a well-recognized theory in western society (of individualistic culture) to examine stress through the interactions between job demands and control in a work context. The model predicts that jobs with high demands and low control (i.e. high-strain jobs) will be most harmful, leading to mental and physical health decrements (Karasek, 1979). However, to what extent is this model adequate and appropriate to understand the phenomena in a different culture? This study aims to shed some light on this question by examining whether Karasek's (1979) model can be generalized in the collectivistic culture of China, taking into consideration the unique traditional values of Chinese workers.

With a population over 1.2 billion, accounting for 20 percent of all humans in the world, China has attracted researchers to conduct studies within the Chinese context. Transitioning from a traditional to a modernized society, China is under remarkable social and cultural changes brought about by the rapid industrialization and modernization process of the last two decades. Many Chinese workers move away from their farming provinces to work in the cities at the state owned companies. They have to work faster and harder, with the work assignments being much more complex than those in their hometowns. These changes have also created confrontations in values and beliefs among workers - some workers persistently adhere to the deeply rooted traditional values (Tsui & Farh, 1997; Luo, 2000), while some adopt western values brought about by modernization. Stress research in the workplace is thus particularly intriguing within the context of China where two extreme types of individual values present. Similarly, Tomlinson (1999) maintained that the best opportunity to observe the interactions among job demands, job control, and individual values is to study people in the process of experiencing significant social and cultural changes, such as in China. Moreover, China is generally recognized as a society that differs substantially from the west on many contextual variables, including culture, politics, and economic systems. Thus, China is an ideal site for testing the generalizability of western theories (Shenkar & VonGlinow, 1994).

The Karasek's Job Demands-Control Model

Karasek's (1979) Job Demands-Control Model posits that job control plays a key role in buffering workers from the unhealthy effects of demanding jobs. Demanding jobs refer to those with a high workload, conflicting demands, and requirements to work very fast and hard within little time. On the other hand, job control comprises the amount of personal authority to make decisions on the job and the variety of skills used on the job. The model predicts (hat jobs with high demands and low control ("high strain jobs") will be most harmful, leading to mental and physical health decrements (Karasek, 1979). The reason that high work demands are stressful is that they create anxiety about job performance and the personal consequences of not completing work in a specified time frame. Although excessive work demands may clearly be associated with higher level of psychological strain and even physiological health outcomes (such as cardiovascular disease; Kristensen. 1996), the impact of these demands may be offset by the perception that one has control over important aspects of the work environment, e.g., if workers (a) have the power to make decisions on the job (decision authority) and (b) can use a variety of skills in their work (skill discretion). Typically, researchers have combined these two factors into one construct, variously referred to as decision latitude or control (Fox, Dwyer, & Ganster, 1993).

Indeed, highly challenging or demanding work combined with high personal control is considered by Karasek an "active" work job that has beneficial outcomes (such as job satisfaction and reduced depression) for individuals. At the other extreme, jobs that have low demands and low levels of personal control (e.g. repetitive assembly line work) create strain, especially job dissatisfaction, and are referred to by Karasek as "passive" jobs. This Model has further guided a large volume of research on work stress for the past two decades (Schnall, Landsbergis & Baker, 1994; Kristensen, 1996), and has been modified to increase its applicability. Because individuals vary in terms of how much control they prefer in the workplace, for example, Xie (1996) and Schaubroeck and Merritt (1997) added job efficacy to the model, arguing that job control could not alleviate the stress experience unless the individual was confident in his/her ability in the task. Based on the person- environment (P-E) fit model of stress, too much job control given to an individual who did not want might actually be stress provoking rather than stress relieving (Xie, 1996).

The Relevance of Cultural Factors for Karasek's Model

Karasek's model is a fundamental theory of job stress that hinges on the psychological role that personal control plays in determining how individuals respond to job demands. Research derived from the model has been centered in North America and Europe, whose cultures have been designated as typically individualistic (Hofstede, 1991). Research on the generalizability of the model in cultures with a more collective orientation has been extremely limited. Examining the application of this model to China provides valuable insights into the similarities and differences between people from collectivistic and individualistic cultures (Xie, 1996).

Farh, Earley and Lin (1997) described China's cultural foundation as characterized by traditional values. Much of the development of traditional Chinese values can be traced back over two thousand years when Confucius preached his ideologies on the right way to live. The rooted Confucius' ideology continually has its impact on many Chinese people regarding particular attitudes and behavior. The essence of traditional value, such as respect for elders and those with authority, acceptance of an unequal distribution of power, strong ties among people, filial piety, ancestor worship, male- domination, fatalism, and a general sense of powerlessness, remains deeply rooted in Chinese society (Tsui & Farh, 1997; Luo, 2000). Because valuing personal control is more likely to be a feature of an individualistic culture than a collectivistic one, Karasek's model would seem, at first glance, not applicable in China. However, in the 20C century, political and modern socialist development has, in many ways, strengthened the desire of Chinese workers for personal control over their workplaces. Moreover, the economic reform has greatly stimulated competition and strengthened the tendency of individuals to promote their self-interests. Recent studies (e.g., Chen, 1995) have shown that Chinese workers are economically oriented and prefer to link rewards to individual performance, reflecting values that are incongruent with the traditional ones. As a result, China presents two opposing forces, valuing job control and devaluing job control, in a single society. The preferences for job control have significant implications for the applicability of Karasek's Model.

Traditionality as the Moderator

Traditionality is the term used to reflect the emphasis on traditional Chinese values, particularly power distance (Yang, Yu, & Yen, 1989). Literature has investigated two opposing views on the role traditionality plays in coping with stress. One school of thought appeared to share the view that the more traditional people probably suffered more psychological and health consequences from modernization than their less traditional counterparts, particularly because traditional-oriented people might become "alienated" (Rogler, Cortes, & Malagady, 1991) or "delocalized" (Thompson, 1995) by societal changes. However, some research contradicted this perspective and suggested that traditional values might actually assist people in coping with social and cultural changes. In a study of the Al-Ain community, Ghubash, Daradkeh, Al-Muzafari, AlManssori, and Abou-Saleh (2001) found that less traditional people had higher rates of psychiatric disorder than the more traditional ones. In other words, individuals maintaining a traditional value orientation may be better adaptive to social changes. Traditionality addresses issues of fatalism, making it relevant to the understanding of how much job control an individual needs. Traditional workers value pragmatic adaptation to life and therefore believe in their powerlessness to change things, so they are more likely to accept the fact that control is out of their hands. As Jenni noted, "Chinese are perhaps the earliest existentialists in that they accept what is given in the human condition generally and in each person's specific circumstances. Because they have had to practice it so frequently, they often know how to pragmatically make the best of what life brings" (1999: 36). On the other hand, traditional workers also adhere to values of respect for authority and filial piety. Ranking at the lower end of the hierarchical relationship, traditional workers are more likely to obey their superiors even though they are underprivileged (for example, when they are deprived of control), making them less vulnerable in situations of high job demands and low job control.

On the other hand, among less traditional workers, job control is likely to play a more important role in stress coping than it does among the more traditional workers. Individuals who are less traditional in orientation tend to possess values resembling individualistic ones. They stress self-development in preference to interpersonal relatedness, and they seek to become more personally autonomous than their more traditional counterparts (Markus & Kitayaman, 1991). Therefore, they consider job control important to attain their goals. As a result, less traditional workers will likely share similar coping processes to those observed among their Western counterparts as reflected in the interactions between demands, control and psychological health.

Therefore, in hypothesis 1, the job demands, control, and traditional values will interactively predict employees' psychological health. This relationship will be more pronounced among less traditional workers than among more traditional workers. Karasek's model can positively predict in less traditional workers but weakly reflect in more traditional workers. In other words, the highest level of anxiety and depression will occur in the less traditional workers with highly demanding jobs over which they have little control.

Hypothesis 1: Among Chinese workers, traditional values, job demands and job control will interactively predict health.

H1a: Among workers with less traditional values, high job demands will be more strongly related to job anxiety and depressive symptoms for workers with low job control than for those with high job control.

H1b: Among workers with high traditional values, high job demands will have little impact on workers' job anxiety and depressive symptoms regardless of the levels of job control.


The data used in this study was collected in a large-scale survey on human resources management practices that was administered in China in 2005. In the present study, workers from three of China's state-owned medium sized manufacturing enterprises in the Guangdong area were sampled on all analysis variables. These kind of medium sized manufacturing firms are amongst the most typical business enterprises in China particularly in the Guangdong area. All these medium sized state-owned manufacturing firms employ over half of all the workers in these two provinces in China. Some of these workers came from other provinces but most of them have grown up in other poorer provinces in China in families mostly engaged in farming before they moved to the city for employment.

Respondents and Procedures

A questionnaire survey was used in this study. Before constructing the questionnaire survey, we met with organizational members representing various managerial levels and occupational groups, including the director, human resource managers, factory managers and supervisors, workshop technicians, operational workers, and administrative staff to gather information about the site and invite suggestions for conducting the research. The information was used to generate a possible measure to assess the extent to which the worker is exposed to work conditions such as heat, humidity, cold, pollution and noise. The researcher also asked the factory managers and workers to describe the typical job demands, job control, and possible job related stressors they were experiencing.

Questionnaires were sent to individual participants through the companies' internal mail system. Each envelope included an introductory letter from the researcher and an endorsement from the senior management. Respondents were guaranteed absolute anonymity and provided with a stamped, pre-addressed envelope to the researchers. One week after the packets were distributed, a reminder letter was sent to all participants. Participants were assured that their responses would be used strictly for research purposes and would not be associated with employees' names. To maintain the confidentiality of the responses, data was processed off-site, and only aggregated data was reported to the organization.

Participation in this research was voluntary. Three hundred and ninety (390) questionnaires were distributed to the employees in the three manufacturing enterprises. Two hundred and eighty one (281) usable questionnaires were returned. The response rate is 72%. The respondents were 30 years old on average, with 12 years of education. Sixty four percent (64%) of them were female, and 79.1% were blue-collar workers.


The questionnaire distributed in China was written in Chinese. The conventional method of back-translation (Brislin, Lonner, & Thorndike, 1973) was used to translate the measures from English to Chinese. The translators were professionals in this practice with college education in translation. The human resource director of the organization and the researcher also discussed and verified each translated questionnaire to assure its clarity. A focus group involving the human resource managers, and representatives from workers was conducted to review each item in the questionnaire to ensure its ability to be understood and its clarity. The translated version was then pre-tested among 25 Mainland Chinese workers.

Traditional values

Traditional values were measured using 8 items taken from the Chinese Individual Traditionality Inventory (Yang et al., 1989). The alpha reliability coefficient was .73. Sample items included, "The chief government is like the head of a household. The citizens should obey his decisions on all state matters": "Those who are respected by parents should be respected by their children". The instrument was based on a 5-point Likert scale ranging from 1 (strongly disagree) to 5 (strongly agree).

Job Demands

Perceived job demands were measured by an adaptation of the Caplan et al.'s (1975) job complexity instrument. The 17-item job demands scale consists of such psychological demands as work pace, complexity, conflict, and ambiguity (e.g., "There is a marked increase in your work load", "Your job requires you to work very fast"). This instrument is among the stronger predictors of health outcomes in a longstanding series of research studies undertaken by the University of Michigan's Institute for Social Research (ISR; e.g., Caplan et al., 1975; House, 1980). The coefficient alpha with the present data was .84. Respondents were asked to rate their level of agreement with each item using a 5 point Likert scale, ranging from 1 (strongly disagree) to 5 (strongly agree).

Job Control

Job control was measured with the 22-item scale developed by Ganster and his colleagues (e.g., Fox et al., 1993) (e.g., "How much control do you have over how fast or slowly you have to work", "How much control do you have over your performance goals and objectives"). The reliability of this measure was .84. The 5-point response format ranged from 1 (almost never) to 5 (very often).

Anxiety and Depression

The 15-item measure of anxiety developed by Parker and DeCotiis (1983) was used in this study (e.g., "I have felt fidgety or nervous", "I feel guilty when I take time off from my job"). Depression was measured with the 20-item Self-Rating Depression Scale (Zung, 1965; e.g., "I feel down-hearted, blue and sad", "I have trouble sleeping through the night"). The coefficient alphas were .81 for the measure of anxiety and .86 for depression. Both scales were based on a 5-point response format ranged from 1 (rarely) to 5 (very often).

Control variables

Gender, age, job tenure, and education were controlled in all regression analyses.

Data Analyses

Moderated hierarchical regression analyses were conducted to test the hypotheses. We addressed the problems of multicollinearity by mean-centering the data using Aiken and West's (1991) and Cronbach's ( 1987) procedures. These procedures involved calculating the interaction term by multiplying the deviation of the independent variable from its mean by the deviation of the moderating variable from its corresponding mean. The VIF values ranged from 4.3 to 7.4 across the four models. These results indicate that multicollinearity is not a concern in this study.

The results of the hierarchical moderated multiple regression analyses are presented in Tables 2 and 3. In order to examine the form of the three-way interaction, we used the techniques suggested by Cohen and Cohen (1983) to generate plots for each three-way interaction. Figures 1 to 12 display plots of the two-way and three- way interactions between traditional value, job demands and job control/pay satisfaction in predicting psychological outcomes. Results

Descriptive Statistics

Table 1 presents the descriptive statistics of the variables. Job demand was high with a mean of 3.84 (standard deviation = .53) on a 5-point scale. Job control however was low with a mean of 2.23 (standard deviation = .55) on a 5-point scale. As expected with the Chinese workers, respondents scored high in traditional value with a mean of 3.43 (standard deviation = .62) on a 5-point scale. Job anxiety was high with a mean score of 3.80 (standard deviation = .57) and depression was also high with a mean score of 3.83 (standard deviation = .54). These results indicated that respondents generally perceived their job as high demand but with very little control in how they could do their jobs. They also reported high job anxiety and with high depression symptoms related to their high demanded job.

Table 1. Variable Means, Standard Deviations, and Reliability Estimates

Table 2. Effects of Job Demands, Job Control, and Traditional value on Anxiety and Depression - Unstandardized Regression Coefficients

Testing of Hypothesis 1

Hypothesis 1 predicted that the three-way interaction between job demands, job control, and traditional value would significantly influence job anxiety and depression in the Chinese sample. Table 2 summarizes the statistical results from the tests of Hypothesis 1. As shown in Table 2, the three-way interaction effect (job demand x job control x traditional value) was significant for anxiety [DeltaR^sup 2^ = .05, F(1, 270) = 11.67, p < .001]. The three-way interaction effect was also significant for depression [DeltaR^sup 2^ = .04, F(1, 270) =11.05, p <.001].

Figures 1 and 2 depict the pattern of job anxiety of each interaction by breaking the threeway interaction (job demand x job control x traditional value) down to two constituent two-way interactions for high and low traditional value. For the Chinese workers that reported low traditional values, Figure 1 shows a positive relationship between job demands and job anxiety among those who reported lower job control, whereas there is a negative relationship between job demands and job anxiety among persons interaction between job demands and control is of similar form predicted reporting higher job control. Therefore, for subjects with low traditional value, the by Karasek's (1979) decision latitude model. These results support Hypothesis l(a) for job anxiety. Within the high traditional value group, Figure 2 shows a slightly positive relationship between job demands and job anxiety among those who reported lower job control, whereas there is no trend among respondents reporting higher job control. Therefore, for subjects with high traditional value, high job demands are slightly related to anxiety only when job control is low, but are insignificant in the experience of anxiety when job control is high. Therefore, Hypothesis 1(b) was supported for job anxiety.


The role of traditionality

Though Karasek's job demand-control model could predict an individual's health outcomes, the correlation results showed that workers high in traditional value perceived less job demands and high job control, in comparison to the less traditional workers. They were less anxious about their job and with less depressive symptoms. Most of them were female, under the blue-collar job category, with less education, and predominant in older ages. The results supported that individual differences in traditional value could influence the interactions between job demands and control which in turn relate to their psychosomatic health. It confirmed the importance of culturally rooted disposition toward stress coping - that traditional values contribute a buffering role in the coping behavior of job stress (Xie, 1996).

Research on locus of control had shown significant differences between internals and externals in stress coping. Internals were likely to take actions to cope with stress, whereas externals were likely to tolerate and endure rather than to act (see reviews of Elangovan and Xie, 1999). According to Aldag and Jackson (1984), traditional values are positively correlated with the external coping pattern. It is this high tolerance and endurance ability that immunizes traditional workers from the psychosomatic problems caused by demanding jobs. It also explains why traditional people are more likely to live with confounding and demanding situations. In particular, Chinese traditionality was characterized by respect for authority and a general sense of powerlessness (e.g. Farh et al., 1997; Zhang, 2001). Such beliefs probably helped the more traditional individuals to cope with confrontational and demanding situations. They tended to accept the job demands like fast work pace, heavy work loads, long hours of work, and shift duties as submission to the authority and acceptance to the unequal distribution of power.

Figure 1. Three Way Interaction between Job Demand, Job Control and Traditional Value Job on Anxiety (Low Traditional Value)

Figure 2. Three Way Interaction between Job Demand, Job Control and Traditional Value Job on Anxiety (High Traditional Value)

In the situations beyond the more traditional workers' control, they would prefer to adopt a secondary control strategy, such as changing one's perspective to fit in the environment or setting more obtainable goals to maintain perceived control (Seligman, 1990). For example, a person who experienced chronic reward deprivation (e.g. lack of promotion opportunities) might shift his or primary life goals away from work toward family life. This was particularly true to the female workers, who had short-term commitment to the job. Their main concern was to save enough money and returned home for marriage, or to start for their own small business (Siu, 1996). Such a coping strategy might reduce the negative effects on psychological health.

Moreover, in the situation of the poor performance outcomes, the traditional individuals were likely to adopt a passive coping mechanism of "learned helplessness" (Abraham, Seligman, & Teasdale, 1978). They would see the unfavorable events as beyond their control and largely inevitable (Yang et al., 1989; Farh et al., 1997). Although a realistic job performance appraisal would legitimately lead an individual to the conclusion that one was personally responsible for poor performance outcomes, the more traditional workers tended not to blame themselves for the poor performance. The unfavorable outcomes were attributed to the results of external factors like environment, opportunities and human relationship or the results of fate , luck , and fung-shui. Attributing failure to external factors allowed them to shun responsibility. As autonomy comes with responsibility, it also explains why many of them do not even want to have job control (Beijing Youth News, 1994). People who were less inclined to blame themselves for unfavorable personal work outcomes were less prone to suffer adverse health effects from work related stress (Fisher, 1984).

For the less traditional workers, their coping strategies were similar to that of their counterparts in western culture. They tended to stress self-development in preference to interpersonal relatedness, and they sought to become more personally autonomous than the traditional cohorts (Markus & Kitayama, 1991). When faced with high job demands, less traditional workers were likely to demonstrate more internal locus of control than the traditionalists (Aldag & Jackson, 1984). Thus, they believed that job control was important to their own effective functioning at work. They would take proactive coping styles -seek opportunities for problem solving, show initiative, and take decisive action when facing stressful situations. However, when they found it ineffective, they would perceive the job as stressful.


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Joseph C.K. Yeung

University of South Australia, Australia

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