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Trust in government linked to work attitudes

The U.S. Capitol building taken at night with a yellow caution tape in front of it
Photo by Andy Feliciotti on Unsplash

PULLMAN, Wash. –  People with high levels of trust in government felt more secure in their jobs, had higher employer loyalty and were more likely to go out of their way to help co-workers, according to a recent study.  

Researchers surveyed more than 420 adults across the U.S. about their trust in federal and state government as well as factors related to their jobs and overall well-being. Government trust was associated with not only better workplace attitudes but also greater adherence to COVID-19 guidelines and higher levels of psychological well-being.

“It may come down to what it means psychologically to be able to trust in entities other than yourself, whether that’s the federal or state government, your organization or your supervisor,” said Tahira Probst, a psychology professor at WSU Vancouver and co-author on the study. “It’s these internalized beliefs that another entity cares about my well-being and has good intentions—that kind of trust is crucial to facilitating relationships with other individuals and organizations.”

Trust in the U.S. government has declined greatly over the last 60 years, falling from 4 out of 5 people trusting the government in 1964 to 1 out of 5 in 2007, according to the Pew Research Center.

The current study, published in the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health, indicates that this lack of trust may have reverberating effects for work and health.

It also reveals that there were different groups of trustors: 26.5% of the people surveyed identified as high trustors, trusting both federal and state governments; another 25.7% trusted their state but not the federal government – and this group indicated the most compliance to COVID-19 guidelines outlined by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The group that trusted only the federal government and not the state, was the smallest, at 2.3%. Those who were ambivalent or distrusted both forms of government made up 23.9% and 21.6% of the respondents respectively.

“We found that people can have different trusting profiles, so they either felt they can trust the federal government, but not the state or vice versa,” said study lead author Lixin Jiang, who received her Ph.D. at WSU and is now a senior lecturer at University of Auckland in New Zealand. “The best-case scenario was when people trusted both types of government, rather than the people who didn’t trust either or felt neutral.”

The authors note that these divisions may have something to do with what political party was in power and at what level. At the time of the surveys in June and August of 2020, Republican Donald Trump held the presidency and the states were almost evenly divided among Republican and the Democratic governors. The surveys, which are part of a larger wave of pandemic-related workplace surveys run by Probst’s research team, did not ask respondents their political affiliation. Probst said it’s not surprising that people may trust their local governments more since these often have more immediate effects on their day-to-day lives.

The researchers say the findings do suggest that the government—and employers—would do well to bolster trust at all levels. One way to do that is to communicate clearly and transparently, Probst said.

“Consistency of messaging is really important,” she said. “That’s a challenge in the pandemic because the situation is changing over time, but part of the messaging has to explain to people the rationale for why policies and recommendations are changing, and how they are being made with their best interests in mind.”

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