Economic stress and well-being

Tahira Probst, Professor of Psychology

Is your ability to cope with financial and employment stress affected by the community you live in? That question is on the minds of policymakers with limited dollars to spend on social services. The answer could help them determine how best to support struggling individuals.24252426542_44575d064e_z

The question was also on the mind of Washington State University Vancouver psychology professor Tahira Probst. It seems logical that people with acce
ss to more services would fare better. But Probst wondered whether, instead, people might compare their situations with their neighbors’ in a “keeping up with the Joneses” fashion. If so, those struggling economically but living in communities with fewer resources, where others also are more likely to be struggling, might actually feel better than those in similar straits living in a supposedly “healthier” community.

With a grant of $50,000 from the County Health Rankings and Roadmaps program, Probst and her collaborators have examined nationwide data compiled by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation along with interviews conducted by Gallup Polling.

The results are intriguing. They suggest that while a more prosperous, healthier community can help mitigate certain types of stress related to income (such as inability to pay bills on time), employment-related stress is a different matter. If your neighbors are happily employed while you have lost your job or are worried about layoffs, you may have more trouble coping.

“Community well-being definitely matters, but in surprising ways,” Probst said. “It can help people to cope better with private sources of stress such as financial struggles, while resulting in worse outcomes for those facing more public stressors such as unemployment.”

The study highlights the need for further research on economic stress factors to incorporate more of the social and economic context. The findings also raise questions about potential interventions for individuals, work groups and organizations, as well as social policy.

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