Skip to main content

Expressive writing and coping with job loss (Spera et al. 1994)

Citation

Spera, S., Buhrfeind, E., & Pennebaker, J. (1994). Expressive writing and coping with job loss. Academy of Management Journal, 37(3), 722-733.

Highlights

    • The study’s objective was to examine the impact of expressive writing activities on the reemployment of people who had recently lost their jobs.
    • The authors randomly assigned 41 people who had recently been laid off to either a treatment group, which was instructed to write daily about their feelings on their job loss, or to a control group, which was instructed to write about their plans for the day, but not about their feelings. Another 22 participants were assigned (non-randomly) to a comparison group that did not participate in a writing activity. The authors compared outcomes for the three study groups collected from administrative records and four surveys.
    • The study found that participants who wrote about their feelings and attitudes about being laid off were more likely to find employment eight months after the program than those who wrote about other topics and those who did no writing activities.
    • The quality of causal evidence presented in this report is high for comparisons between the treatment group and the writing control group because it was based on a well-implemented randomized controlled trial. This means we are confident that the estimated effects are attributable to expressive writing, and not to other factors. However, the quality of causal evidence is moderate for comparisons between the treatment group and the non-writing comparison group because there was non-random assignment to this group. This means we are somewhat confident that the estimated effects are attributable to expressive writing, but other factors might also have contributed.

Features of the Study

The authors used a randomized controlled trial to test the impact of expressive writing, compared with writing about other topics, on reemployment outcomes for people who had recently lost their jobs. They also used a nonexperimental design to compare outcomes for the treatment group with those for a non-random comparison group that did not participate in any writing activities. Participants were recruited to the study five months after they had been laid off from the same large computer and electronics company.

Sixty-three participants volunteered for the study, which they were told involved participating in writing activities to help them with their job search. The authors randomly assigned 41 participants to either the writing treatment group (20) or the writing control group (21). Participants in the treatment group wrote about their thoughts and feelings about being laid off for 20 minutes every day for five consecutive days. These participants were instructed to engage deeply with their emotions during the writing. Those in the writing control group also wrote for 20 minutes every day for five consecutive days. However, they were instructed to write about their plans for their day and avoid writing about their opinions or feelings about being laid off. An additional group of 22 participants who volunteered for the study but were unable to attend the writing sessions were assigned to a non-writing comparison group. This group did not participate in any daily writing activities known to the researchers. Subjects in all three study groups had access to outplacement job services and an outplacement consultant throughout the project.

Participants ranged from 40 to 68 years old (with a mean age of 54), were engineers or other professionals, and had an average tenure at their former employer of 20 years. Statistical tests revealed no differences among the three groups at baseline in terms of their age, gender, race, and job search behavior.

The authors analyzed data collected from administrative records and four surveys with study participants to compare outcomes for the three study groups. They conducted statistical analyses to test for differences in the reemployment outcomes of the three groups eight months after the intervention.

Findings

    • More than half (53 percent) of the expressive writing treatment group had found full-time employment in the eight months after the study, compared with 24 percent of the writing control group and 14 percent of the non-writing comparison group.
    • More than two-thirds (68 percent) of participants in the expressive writing treatment group found some type of employment—including full-time, part-time, or contract employment—eight months after the study, compared with 27 percent of the non-writing control group. There was no statistically significant difference in the rate of any employment between the expressive writing treatment group and writing control group.

Considerations for Interpreting the Findings

All of the study participants had access to reemployment services, so the study’s findings reflect the added benefit of expressive writing in addition to those services. In addition, the study included a relatively small number of participants from one company who volunteered to participate. All were professionals. Therefore, generalizability to other recently laid-off employees might be limited.

Causal Evidence Rating

The quality of causal evidence presented in this report is high for comparisons between the expressive writing treatment group and the writing control group because it was based on a well-implemented randomized controlled trial. This means we are confident that the estimated effects are attributable to the expressive writing activity, and not to other factors.

The quality of causal evidence presented in this report is moderate for comparisons between the treatment group and the non-writing comparison group because the comparison group was not randomly assigned. However, the authors’ statistical tests revealed that these groups were similar on key participant demographic characteristics and measures of job-search activity. This means we are somewhat confident that the estimated effects are attributable to the expressive writing activity, but other factors might also have contributed.

Reviewed by CLEAR

April 2016

Topic Area