Allison Gabriel Featured in Arizona Alumni Magazine
May 25, 2023
Our Whole Selves | Eller Professor Allison Gabriel Talks Venting in the Workplace, Employee Burnout, and Linking Theory to Real Life.
Allison Gabriel never intended to live in the desert. Born in Newport Beach, California, but raised in northeast Pennsylvania from the time she was young, she describes herself as “an East Coaster at heart.” She studied for her undergraduate and doctoral degrees at Penn State University and the University of Akron, and before she and her husband trekked to Tucson in 2015, their Pomeranian and three cats in tow, she taught at Virginia Commonwealth University.
Now, Gabriel, trained as an industrial-organizational psychologist, is concluding her eighth and final year out west. At the University of Arizona’s Eller College of Management, she serves as McClelland professor of management and organizations and is a university distinguished scholar. She researches, often alongside her doctoral students, the psychology of work: emotions on the job, employee motivation, the relationship between home life and work life.
As the granddaughter of a college professor, Gabriel has long felt called to teach; she describes herself as “just a nerd personified.” She says that her research is, at its heart, about solving workforce puzzles. And against the shadow of the coronavirus pandemic, she and her colleagues have confronted challenging, unfamiliar jigsaws.
Gabriel spoke with the magazine from her home, where she is a working mother, with a child just three years old. She has since accepted a position at Purdue University in West Lafayette, Indiana, where she will begin teaching in the organizational behavior and human resources area this fall. Even after the move, though, she plans to continue working with many of the faculty and doctoral students at Eller.
ARIZONA ALUMNI MAGAZINE: What workforce puzzles are you solving right now?
ALLISON GABRIEL: They’re in two buckets. My research focuses on employee well-being at work. I want to understand how we can create workspaces, structures and supports that let people thrive, not only at work but also when they go home. More than ever, those domains are blended for a lot of people. And we’re questioning choices we made before the pandemic — or we’re asking big what-ifs.
I’m very interested in positive and negative social interactions in the workplace, how those shape our view of work and our roles, and how that spills over to who we are at home. We’re researching venting in the workplace — something that seems innocuous, like saying to a coworker, “I’m really mad about this.” In reality, that puts the person you’re venting to under distress and can create a toxic environment of just complaining if we don’t get it under control.
On the positive side, we’re looking at how engaging in small talk or compassion toward each other can be this positive thing we need more than ever.
The other bucket is how we live at home in ways that fulfill us at work and vice versa. How do we recover from work? How do we go home and detach in a way that allows us to come back excited? People accept burnout as the status quo. But if COVID taught us anything, it is that we can choose recovery; we can choose rest.
I became a mom during the pandemic. It was tumultuous for me, and I’m trying to study how we can help mothers re-enter the workforce as their whole selves — not hide the fact that they’re a mom or maybe had postpartum depression or are seeking support. How can we turn this identity and experience into something empowering for women, where they return to work and say, “I’m going to advocate for myself” and don’t wonder, “Can I take leave?” or “Where can I pump breastmilk?” or “How can I come back part-time before fulltime?” I’m very excited about the work we’re doing to make re-entry less stigmatized.
ARIZONA ALUMNI: It sounds like you want your work to be actionable, like this is not just theoretical for you.
GABRIEL: I care about asking questions that map onto people’s lives. “Getting people to tell their stories” is how we view the research we’re doing now. We take mixed-methods approaches: interviews, survey data and experiments where we record people’s words about what they’re experiencing.
We’ve worked on postpartum depression — something I struggled with — and we’ve interviewed women about how they navigated that and came back to work. I’m proud because we used women’s words to tell their stories and say, “Here’s the map of what this could look like” — how we could help women resiliently respond to this mental-health crisis.
IO psychologists are trained through a scientist-practitioner model. We’re scientists, but we also care about practice and application. That’s a big part of how I think about mentoring doctoral students, too. And the questions we are all collectively asking now are, “Whose story are we telling? How can we do it justice in a way that helps people learn?”
ARIZONA ALUMNI: The words “a with in person approach” recur across your work. What does the phrase mean to you?
GABRIEL: I identify with “daily diary” — or what we call “experience sampling” — methods. We’ll track people multiple times a day for two or three workweeks. What I want to know is, “Tell me about who you are today, tomorrow and the next day. Who are you interacting with? How are you feeling? How motivated are you?” — so I can get a mini-movie of people’s lives.
Our work on Zoom fatigue was a daily diary approach, where we tracked people for a month and said, “We’ll tell you when to turn your camera on or off. You tell us how you feel in response.”
No two days are alike. So, let’s study what makes days different. And what makes days good, bad or anything in between.
ARIZONA ALUMNI: Do you have advice for workers experiencing burnout?
GABRIEL: I say this as somebody who has chronically struggled with burnout and anxiety: I think you hit a point where you worry and think, “Maybe this is just how it’s supposed to be. I’m always going to be running on fumes.” But it doesn’t have to be that way, and when you’re chronically burned out, your health definitively suffers. We know that when you’re chronically burned out or anxious, it hardens your heart rate. Your body responds — you cannot be in a chronic state of burnout for too long.
It’s easy for me to say our data suggests detaching from work. If you can psychologically turn off, that will help you. But it’s not just up to employees to manage burnout. It’s also up to organizations and supervisors to step up, to reject that burnout is good. Burnout has this odd badge of honor. It’s the burnout Olympics — as if good employees are burned-out employees.
Organizations should say, “We support your time off.” Because when you take time for yourself but are unsure if the organization supports that, you feel guilty. Your mind starts thinking that instead of watching Netflix, you could answer emails; you could be drafting this thing. It undermines and makes toxic the whole point of recovery.
The best thing is not just to create your own routine but also to take time with your supervisor and coworkers to say, “Do we want to celebrate people’s lives holistically?”
Lots of things in our work that contribute to burnout got heightened during COVID, ambiguity and uncertainty among them. Looking at sources of ambiguity or uncertainty can help you ask, “How can I recraft that into something less ambiguous or uncertain and make it less of a stressor?”
ARIZONA ALUMNI: Do these ideas around burnout relate to your advocacy for working mothers?
GABRIEL: They’re intertwined. From our work on helping working moms return post-partum, we know that when they feel unsupported — like they don’t have advocates in the organization — they feel guilt. They feel less confident in their ability to be a working mother. Because of that, they have spikes in postpartum depressive symptoms and are more likely to think about quitting the workforce to just care for their children.
I mean, from a sleep-deprivation standpoint — physically, you are in a state of complete drain as a new mother. With work stress and lack of supports, you create a perfect storm for people to exit the workforce.
I think that for some, that choice feels good. But there are women who don’t see another option. They change organizations, change work status or quit. Those are the moms I worry about most, because the organization wasn’t giving them what they needed in that moment.
ARIZONA ALUMNI: Why do you research what you do?
GABRIEL: I feel personal responsibility to make things better for other people and to get it right.
With every question I ask, I say, “If I do this work, can somebody outside of academia read a write-up and think, ‘That’s my life. Thank you for putting words to that experience’?” Maybe it’s lofty to try to change people’s work lives. But even making incremental changes for other people is enough for me.
It’s also my students. My first years here, I taught Organizational Behavior at Eller, with 240 kids per section. That was my show — two times a day, twice a week. The first time I taught it, I felt I had to be so professional, closed and serious because of the stereotypes that work against you as a younger woman in a business-school environment.
After a year of teaching like that, I thought, “That’s not me.” The three years after, I said, “If I’m struggling, I’m going to tell you.” That’s allowed me to have long-term relationships with students who have graduated.
ARIZONA ALUMNI: You’ve said your field needs space for “beautifully messy” research. Could you elaborate?
GABRIEL: We see this in all disciplines in the social sciences: We’re so focused on theoretical explanations for everything. At some point, you say, “Do we care about theory, or do we care about people’s lives?” I care about having theoretical foundation to help explain what I’m studying. But there’s a power of the “and” here: You can care about theory, and you can make sure the questions you’re asking capture the complexity of people’s lives.
Sometimes when you care so much about theory, you get this simplistic view. Our work on venting is a good characterization of this. We started with the assumption that venting to other people is just stressful and bad. As I sat with colleagues, I said, “I don’t think that’s true. I think there’s opportunity, when you witness somebody suffering, to build a relationship and help that person grow.” It was that cartoonish red “stop” button that I slammed. And we went back to the data.
There was this complete story of venting as distressing, as complicated — but also as creating empathy and promoting helping and all these rich, interpersonally vibrant things. If we had taken the simple, clean theory route, we would have missed that.
I like to think about, again, real working people’s lives. If we stopped caring about theory, just a tiny bit, would that open the door to tackle questions that people will read about and connect with? I was fortunate to receive one of our field’s midcareer achievement awards from the Academy of Management. I remember being struck by the generous writeup. There was a sentence I’ll never recover from, because it was such a compliment to me — that I take topics seen as out of bounds and normalize them.
I was like, “That’s wild. Yeah, I guess that’s what we’re doing here.”
This article originally appeared in the Arizona Alumni Magazine. It was written by Matthew Morris.