A study has found that employee motivation is lowered by inequality in the workplace — even among those who stand to benefit from the unfair advantages given to them.

British researchers found that disparities in the rewards given to different people for completing the same task reduce people’s happiness.

In turn, this reduces their willingness to work, the team said — showing that people care about unjust systems even when they are not among the disadvantaged.

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‘We have shown the psychological impacts of inequality of opportunity and how it can hurt the productivity and well-being of everyone involved,’ said paper author and psychologist Filip Gesiarz of the University College London.

‘Our findings may shed light on how psychological mechanisms, apart from structural barriers, can contribute to higher unemployment and lower university application rates of people from disadvantaged backgrounds.’

‘It’s more difficult to motivate yourself to work hard if you know that other people will be more generously rewarded for the same effort.’

In their study, Dr Gesiarz and colleagues asked 810 participants to complete a simple task in exchange for money — with the subjects being told that other people were being paid more or less for the same job, to varying degrees of inequality.

Each participant was given the option to turn down working on a given task and — in some of the experiments — were also asked about their feelings about such.

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The researchers found that when people were told that there were wide differences in pay between them and their peers, they were less willing to work — with unhappiness levels increasing with greater disparities.

The findings reveal that inequalities in the workplace may impact the motivation of not only the disadvantaged, but anyone who perceives the system to be unjust — with people found more likely to refuse to work in an unfair scenario.

‘People who are economically disadvantaged might face a two-fold reduction in motivation and well-being — first due to their lower relative position, and second due to their reaction to the unfair distribution of opportunities,’ Dr Gesiarz said.

‘This study documents yet another example of a “poverty trap”,’ said paper author and economist Jan-Emmanuel De Neve of the University of Oxford.

This, he explained, is ‘a situation in which being put at a disadvantage […] decreases a person’s motivation to work, further worsening their situation.’

Whether inequality will negatively affect those at the top in “the real world”, outside the lab, remains to be studied,’ added paper author and psychologist Tali Sharot, also of the University College London.

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‘One thing to consider is that in our experiment, people were made aware that their position was randomly assigned,’ she added.

‘In the “real world” people many times assume that their good fortune is justified by their talent and effort and therefore inequality might not have a negative influence on the motivation and well-being of privileged individuals in those situations.’

‘This is an important question that we hope to answer in the future.’

The full findings of the study were published in the journal PLOS ONE.