Work Stress and Coping Among Professionals in Asia

CHAPTER EIGHT WORK STRESS, WORK SATISFACTION AND COPING AMONG LIFE INSURANCE AGENTS Chan Kwok-Bun The life insurance industry began in England as early as 1756, yet agents as an occupation to sell insurance directly to the public did not appear until 1840, and mostly in the United States (Kessler, 1985, p. 14; Leigh-Bennett, 1936, p. 59). The industry in the United States expanded considerably in the late nineteenth century due to rapid economic growth, urbanisation and popular education; one saw keen competition among companies and agents for the client dollar.
Some agents resorted to unfair and sometimes illegal sales tactics that resulted in further public hostility, rejection and distrust of life insurance agents. Such public stigmatisation was recorded in the United States as early as 1870. Zelizer (1983, p. 146) wrote, ‘Illegitimate practices were abolished, codes of ethics were published, professional associations organised and agents better trained. Yet the stigma endured. ’ Since its spread to Singapore in 1908 (Neo, 1996, p. 7), the life insurance industry has relied on agents to ‘negotiate the cultural resistance to discussing the proposition of death and its implications, especially among the Chinese’ (Lee, 1994, p. 6; Leong, 1985, p. 178; Neo, 1996, p. 37). Han (1979, p. 44) wrote that ‘everyone needs life assurance, but very few people do anything on their own to buy it’. The agent was thus invented to deal with the public’s rejection of life insurance as a concept and as a commodity. In doing this work, agents were given a share of the pro? t: commissions (Chua, 1971, p. 42; Neo, 1996, p. 8). Hundreds of workers were lured into the life insurance industry by the attractive prospect of self-employment and its promise of work autonomy and potentially high monetary rewards—a sort of ? ight away from the wage-earning class. To say that the work of a life insurance agent is stressful is perhaps an understatement. The fact was well documented in a 1990 survey of six groups of 2,589 workers in Singapore, life insurance 126 chan kwok-bun agents included (see Chapter 10). The survey found two major sources of work stress. One source was performance pressure.
The professional workers may have internalised a strong need for job achievement and maintenance of professional standards, which are values often held high by many formal organisations as well as the government. The stress of performance pressure may also be a result of Singapore’s economic growth. As Hing (1991, 1992) suggests in Chapter 3, globalisation of the Singapore economy has driven workers to strive for personal and company success—which may bring considerable stress to the workers. Another important source of work stress was workfamily con? icts—a ? ding consistent with those of recent overseas studies (Coverman, 1989; Lai, 1995; Simon, 1992; Thoits, 1986). This essay attempts to identify and analyse stressors associated with the work of life insurance agents, as well as coping strategies adopted by the life insurance industry in general and the agents in particular. The study on which this essay is based analysed transcripts of in-depth interviews conducted in 1990 with 15 life insurance agents and subsequently in 1998–1999 with 15 agents and informants. Each interview lasted between one and a half and two hours.

The respondents ranged from 23 to 42 years in age; 17 men, 13 women. Only ? ve of the 30 respondents were university graduates or diploma holders; the rest were graduates of secondary schools, except for three who had completed ‘0’ or ‘A’ Level. Slightly more than half (18) were married. Drafts of this chapter were given to ? ve other life insurance agents (one retired) to read. One agent provided the researchers with extensive written comments; each of the other four was interviewed twice for feedback on the essay’s various drafts. This research strategy, though laborious and time-consuming, posed critical and re? ctive questions that required the analysts to periodically confront their qualitative data in the form of ‘reality-testing’—indeed a useful step in an interpretive study like ours. As a methodological device, this triangulation of respondents/informants, researchers and ‘critics’, when intentionally built into the research process, forces the researcher(s) to be doubly re? ective. A step is thus institutionalised that requires the researcher to come to terms with biases or blind spots about which others within the triangle are in a legitimate position to ‘complain’. There are two ways to de? ne stress.
One denotes external demands which require the individual to readjust his or her usual behaviour patterns (Holmes and Rahe 1967). In this chapter, these demands work stress among life insurance agents 127 are called ‘stressors’ or ‘stressor factors’, and the readjustment is referred to as ‘coping’. The other way of conceptualising stress is to view it as a state of physiological or emotional arousal that results from one’s appraisal of the relationship between the person and the environment ‘as taxing or exceeding his or her resources and endangering his or her well-being’ (Chan, 1977; Lazarus & Folkman, 1984, p. 1; Selye, 1974; Thoits, 1995). In this chapter, when the term ‘stress’ is used, it is meant in the second sense, to be distinguished from the other two terms, ‘stressor’ and ‘coping’. Work Stressors The life insurance agents believe that Singapore society in general does not have a favourable image of them. Agents are subjected to such derogatory stereotypes as nagging, dishonest, intent on making money fast, manipulative and unethical—basically, people society would like to reject and to shun.
In Singapore, life insurance agents are often seen as among occupants of the lowest stratum in the sales business, possibly below the car salespersons and at best slightly better than a sales clerk in a departmental store. Agents are seen as a category of persons out there selling life insurance policies to ‘eat up people’s money’, sometimes unscrupulously. Victimised by stereotypes, an agent is deprived of an opportunity to defend his or her self as a person—an individual making a living like everybody else: As you know, ‘life insurance’ is not a nice word to utter.
We get a lot of rejections, ‘brush-o? s’, and nasty looks by people—all these can cause us to have a very low self-image. . . . When I was very new, and when I was still doing a lot of selling, I got a lot of rejections. You notice that you have reached a dead-end because you have tried so hard to reach your sales target but you simply cannot. (1)1 These personal experiences with rejections by clients are frequent enough to have become part and parcel of the job itself; they must be among the more deleterious work stressors for the agents.
To some if not all agents, rejections—taking such forms as not listening, not returning telephone calls, failing to keep an appointment or 1 The number in the bracket identi? es the respondents of our study. See Table 1 for their personal characteristics. 128 chan kwok-bun Table 1: Personal Characteristics of Respondents (N = 30) Education Secondary School Graduate = S ‘A’ Level = ‘A’ ‘0’ = ‘0’ Age University or Diploma = U or D Marital Status Sex (Married = M; (Male = M; Number Single = S) Female = F) 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 13 14 15 16 17 18 19 20 21 22 23 24 25 26 27 28 29 30 M S M M S M S S M S M S M M S M M M M S M M S S M M S S M M M F M M M F M F M M M M M M F M M M F F F M M M M F F F M M 28 28 29 29 33 35 30 31 33 29 23 32 32 28 24 25 38 30 27 28 36 35 30 42 27 30 28 31 38 26 ‘A’ S S ‘0’ S S S U D S S S S ‘A’ S S S S S S U S S S U D U S S S simply not giving one, or deciding at the last minute not to purchase a policy—invariably provide an evidential and experiential validation of society’s low image as well as disrespect of the occupation of life insurance agents.
Agents reported childhood friends and relatives avoiding and labelling them as ‘pests’ and ‘man-eaters’. Some made speci? c requests work stress among life insurance agents 129 that no talk about life insurance be allowed in friendly social gatherings lest they risk discontinuation of friendships and relationships. Beginners in life insurance sales typically approach these same people within their own close personal networks to meet their quota in the ? rst one or two years, usually quite successfully. Yet, over-reliance on this personal network quickly exhausts its inherently limited potential.
On the dark side, rejections by those who are socio-emotionally close, and are therefore supposedly ‘obliged’ to help out because of friendship or family and kin membership, are often experienced by the beginning agents as particularly traumatic. Some agents thus feel let down, betrayed and cheated—these feelings sometimes result in agents slowly divorcing themselves from others socially and emotionally close to them, thus breeding personal isolation and alienation. Parents, relatives and friends are often upset when a young university graduate chooses to be a life insurance agent.
Without a basic monthly salary to fall back on, the agents’ income comes entirely from sales commissions, which are often seen by parents as unreliable and risky. Parents expect a university degree, itself a considerable achievement in the Singapore society, to lead to a reasonably attractive salary from a stable, secure, respected job. The idea of an agent going for months without pay for not being able to sell a single policy is either foreign or unacceptable to parents of an earlier generation.
This e? ectively makes the agents outsiders to their close personal networks. The very nature of the life insurance agents’ job lies in dealing with people and prospective clients, many of whom they meet for the ? rst time as strangers in probably the most unlikely places and hours (often subjected to the desires and whims of the clients). Much of the stress and strain experienced by the agents thus lies in their transactions and negotiations with strangers—with the unknown, unfamiliar and unpredictable.
Yet, the probability is quite high that these same strangers will hold an unfavourable stereotypical image of agents as a category, thus sometimes mistreating and denigrating them. The agents, in their encounters with strangers, have to manage an instant spoiled identity, a stigma, externally and coercively imposed on them by society at large. Agents often start on a wrong foot in the door, so to speak. Agents do not interact with their clients as equals. The balance of power in agent-client transactions is often tilted in favour of the clients.
This status inequality, a source of intense discomfort, anxiety 130 chan kwok-bun and sometimes alienation for many agents, is often exploited, if not abused, by the clients. The agents, when asked to recall a speci? c experience or situation at work when they felt depressed or frustrated, would quite freely describe what constitutes a ‘bad’ client: Some clients are quite unreasonable, and they a? ect our morale considerably. What is being unreasonable? They try every possible means to reject you.
They will tell you they are busy and ask you to come another day, or they will ask you for an appointment but when you show up they will say they are busy and ask you to come on yet another day! (10) Yet, agents are trained and often reminded by their supervisors and senior colleagues not to try to get back at their clients simply because of their ‘bad’ or ‘unreasonable’ conduct. In an important sense, agents are not allowed tension release ‘to get even’ with the ‘other’, thus further aggravating the built-in status inequality of the agentclient relations.
This inability of agents to express the feelings of frustration, anger and displeasure that are generated by unpleasant encounters with ‘bad’ clients may prove to be doubly degrading to some agents. It perpetuates the status imbalance and is of considerable psychological costs to the agents. While much of work stress among a wide range of professional groups is often attributed to sheer work overload, some life insurance agents reported having too much time on their hands at work as a stressor. As one agent put it, ‘When I am most free, I am most stressed. Having plenty of time means one is not being productive— ideally, one should be kept busy. Having little or no work for weeks or even months generates anxiety, for insurance work relies exclusively on commissions from selling policies. Largely unstructured, insurance work gives the agents much personal freedom and autonomy; yet this same job characteristic requires skills to structure and use time to one’s advantage. Given the unstructured and unde? ned nature of an agent’s work, di? culties experienced in dealing with either plenty of time or little time were often reported by the agents as stressors.
One important way the agents de? ne stress is in terms of sustained pressure to produce, to meet the yearly quota of sales, which is invariably enacted by their bosses’ ‘nagging’: Once in a while, my boss will remind us to pull up our socks. (6) work stress among life insurance agents 131 A ‘bad’ boss, as seen by the agents, is someone solely interested in pushing for a certain level of sales productivity in a given year, yet not showing enough care and support. It was reported that one insurance company regularly sends ‘gentle reminders’ to those agents not doing well, thus adding to the pressure.
As a way to increase agents’ productivity and to sustain a motivational level, the life insurance industry has institutionalised the practice of publishing regular bulletins which, among other things, rank the ‘top super achievers’ by detailing their total volumes of sales by month and year. One agent reported that her company sends each agent every month a progress report which is seen by the agents as one form of assessment and feedback from the administration. Every quarter of the year, the unit manager and the agent will meet to review the latter’s sales performance.
As the agent herself put it, ‘Such meetings can make me feel good when sales meet the set quota, or the experience will be quite embarrassing if I don’t do well. ’ It was reported by another agent that the leader of her agency organises the agents into several work groups and gives out awards to the topachieving group every now and then, especially at the end of the year, to foster ‘healthy’ inter-group competition and, thus supposedly, sales productivity. Singapore has experienced in the past twenty years a rapid growth in the insurance industry, as measured both by the actual number of insurance companies and y the number of full-time and parttime life insurance agents. These agents are competing with each other for more or less the same client market, which by and large still views the concept of life insurance with disinterest. The net result of this rapid growth in the industry is increased competitiveness and rivalry between companies. Theoretically, the client market is an open one, often seen by some relatively successful agents as unlimited—‘the sky is the limit’, so to speak. Yet, in actual day-to-day practice, it was reported by agents that they often ran into direct competition with each other.
Reports were made about unethical practices of agents who resorted to substantially reduced insurance rates to ‘undercut’ competitors. Yet others, in order to maintain a certain level of yearly sales productivity, were forced to pay out of their own pockets premiums not paid up by their clients, thus sometimes getting themselves into considerable debts. Acute competitiveness and rivalry between agents/colleagues thus possibly engenders a general feeling of distrust, tension and 132 chan kwok-bun strain in interpersonal relations among peers. Competition and con? ct generate barriers of communication, undermine collegiality and, if left unmanaged, breed individualism and self-isolation. The more successful agents arouse jealousy from others and are thus shunned. The not so successful ones ? nd others critical and condescending, and would thus choose not to con? de in them. The competitiveness of the client market demands considerable work commitment, e? ort and mental concentration of the life insurance agents which, in reality, may or may not translate themselves into actual sales, especially for the beginners just initiated into the industry.
Agents complained about having to work long, irregular hours, sometimes late in the evenings or over weekends, prospecting strangers or going for appointments with clients: If a client calls you at night and insists on seeing you, you have little option but to go. You may not be that free since many people own chunks of your time. You are beholden to many people, all your clients, real or imagined, unlike in a regular job where you have relatively predictable hours, and usually one person (your boss) can demand of your time. As an agent, your time is not yours, but your clients’, everybody’s. 20) Many perhaps choose to be a life insurance agent thinking the job approximates self-employment and thus o? ers the capacity to control one’s use of time to serve one’s interest. Yet, paradoxically, having escaped the tyranny of control by a boss who has legitimate rights to his time, the agent soon realises he has lost his control of time to many other bosses: all his clients, real and prospective. If professional autonomy is partially measured by one’s control over time, an agent may soon be in a shock of his life. A worker who cannot claim ownership of time is a stressed agent.
Much of an agent’s work is done outside his or her own o? ce, travelling on the road between appointments, in client’s o? ces or any other place clients deem appropriate or convenient to themselves. This seemingly perpetual mobility of the ‘on-the-road agenttraveller’, in a substantial way, makes the work of a life insurance agent an essentially lonely one. The agent becomes a lone ranger exploiting the frontier and eking out a daily routine of negotiating with strangers, much of the time facing a social world of unfriendly, if not hostile and aggressive forces.
The very nature of an agent’s work in terms of long, irregular hours as well as an ‘unsocial’ work routine necessarily casts him or her out of the mainstream society. work stress among life insurance agents 133 An agent’s life is largely out of sync with the normal tempo of his or her family, relatives and friends. This temporal and spatial disparity between the agent and his or her social world has over time become a potent source of strain manifested in various forms of interpersonal con? icts. These tensions in interpersonal relations are particularly taxing among two groups of agents: ? st, the beginners, who strive to maintain some resemblance of order with their family, their boyfriends or girlfriends; second, married women, who try to juggle their multiple roles of wife, mother and full-time agent. Women agents are sometimes seen by their male colleagues as perhaps a bit too aggressive, or too driven, working too hard, putting in too many long hours while competing with other male agents in an already tight market. One single woman spoke about how the long, irregular hours she has been keeping for almost two years led to con? icts and ? ghts with her boyfriend and the eventual break-up of a close relationship.
Parents worry about their young daughters’ safety and well-being; they are concerned that young single women meeting with total strangers for business, in unlikely places at inappropriate hours. Other parents do not like the thought that their daughters are so preoccupied with work that they do not have time to look for or see boyfriends. A married woman, determined to become a unit manager in three years, spoke about the di? culties encountered in e? ectively discharging her role as a mother to two young children, sometimes feeling remorseful over releasing her work frustrations on them. Another single woman, ? ding the Singapore market too competitive, resorted to concentrating her e? orts in Indonesia; and she spoke about societal pressures on single women in terms of work, career and achievement. Two agents had become, over the years, increasingly aware that they had been pursuing their work goals almost at the total expense of their family, often to the extent of coming home so tensed up that they were incapable of communicating with their family members. Worried and preoccupied with work, they were increasingly non-communicative and were drifting further and further into a world of their own making.
In the course of time, these agents, while selfdivorcing and self-isolating from their family, have engineered and completed their own disengagement from their social world, which itself may breed various forms of marital as well as familial con? icts. As a result, work stress and family stress become intertwined, each feeding into the other—up to a point when the agent is at a loss 134 chan kwok-bun as to which is the ‘cause’ and which is the ‘e? ect’. Yet, ironically, the agent continues to believe in the uniqueness of his or her own work problems, so much so that only the worker himself or herself can solve them.
Work problems have thus become a personal problem that requires a personal solution—a perception that inevitably leads to the self-isolation of the agent. One of the possible consequences of this non-communication with and self-enforced isolation from one’s social environment, be it one’s work colleagues or one’s family members and friends, is this tendency, in solitude, to blame oneself, to blame one’s personal weaknesses, failings or incompetence for not having been able to secure an appointment, to close a policy or to meet the yearly sales quota.
A self-blaming, self-denigrating agent who takes all the blame upon oneself is a stressed agent. Coping During our interviews, in describing their ways of coping with work stress, life insurance agents often underlined the importance of three personal qualities: self-reliance, motivation and discipline. A largely unstructured work life demands self-discipline in terms of an ability to e? ectively manage and use time in a context where there is either plenty of time and little productivity, or little time and a heavy workload.
The fact that an agent does not, in a real sense, have a boss during much of the agent’s work life often means that one needs to rely on one’s own ‘internal’ resources to motivate and initiate oneself. During their training, agents learn from their trainers’ exhortations about the critical signi? cance of cultivating the personal habit of being able to motivate and discipline oneself. One agent, determined to become a manager in the shortest possible time, a? xed to the wall of her o? ce facing her desk ‘power’ messages stressing discipline and self-reliance—messages which served as a daily reminder to her.
Her cabinet along another wall was ? lled with layers of ‘inspirational’ and ‘how-to’ books and cassette tapes dealing with such subjects as time management, self-improvement and stress control. She actually reported during an interview that one of those books ‘totally’ changed her life; she recommended anyone aspiring to become successful in life to read it, many times over. Another young male manager grumbled about his o? ce having only limited space while work stress among life insurance agents 135 almost one entire wall was taken up by shelves ? led with motivational and inspirational cassette tapes from America. He remarked that there is a real demand for such materials among the young executive sta? in the Singapore business world. Insurance companies routinely mount in-house training workshops or courses o? ering agents opportunities to ‘refresh’ their ideas on motivation and self discipline. Trainers or consultants from within the industry, the universities and overseas are also brought in regularly to speak on such subjects at professional meetings and industry conventions or congresses.
Occasionally, successful sports coaches or athletes are brought to annual life insurance conventions to share with agents and managers their experiences in motivating and disciplining themselves, thus drawing an analogy between excelling in sports and selling life insurance. One agency, reputed to be among the top four in the mother company, publishes and distributes a monthly bulletin as well as a regular newsletter. In one of the issues, the agency leader shared in her front page message a book she had recently read: The Successful System that Never Fails (1962), by Clement Stone.
The same issue carried another article showing a woman agent as a ‘goal getter’, stating, ‘She has a very disciplined system to monitor her daily and weekly activities. ’ And her advice to the new agents was: 1. KNOW what you want. 2. SET GOALS to achieve it. 3. DO THE BASICS everyday (prospecting, telephone calls, meeting customers, servicing). The article ended with another ‘motivational’ message: ‘Time and tide wait for no man. Plan and do it now. ’ On the second to last page of the bulletin, among the agenda items for a forthcoming agency meeting, it listed a discussion of a book, Think and Grow Rich, by Napoleon Hill (1996).
Agents also share a strong belief in personal control. Personal control is understood here as values, abilities and behaviours to manage and master oneself e? ectively, including one’s time, habits, perceptions, thought processes, feelings and emotions, or, to put it brie? y, self-mastery. The ability to cope with stress depends a lot on your personality and your own psychological state of mind. Sometimes people amplify the stress situation and make themselves even more stressed. If we are able to control our mind, it’s very much better. (12) Our problem is our mind.
If we ourselves are negative, that is our end. We need to think on the positive. We work to help pick up those who are ‘down’. (11) 136 chan kwok-bun In another monthly bulletin, an entire poem, ‘A Note of Motivation’, from a speaker during one of the regular agency meetings, was reprinted. The poem ended with these lines: ‘Life battles don’t always go to the stronger or faster man, but sooner or later the man who wins is the man WHO THINKS HE CAN! ’ Associated with this belief in personal control is the value of hard work, the belief that hard work will bring results, that there is a connection between e? rts and results and, most importantly, the ability to ‘take hard work’, to put up with long, hard, irregular work hours. Two agents actually singled out hard work as an e? ective strategy to cope with work stress. In this context, work, rather than relaxations or rest, is prescribed as an antidote, a remedy or solution to stress or so-called ‘mental and physical a? ictions’. Such a work ethic also seems to suggest a certain degree of mental and emotional toughness, an attitude of determination toward work and life, a readiness to ‘tough it out’.
One agent spoke about the importance of being able ‘to pick oneself up, put the broken pieces together and move on with life’ as a way to get out of a ‘sales slump’. The emphasis is thus on one’s resilience and hardiness, or belief in personal control over work as well as one’s ability to bounce back and recover quickly from ‘the hidden injuries of life’: After a while, I sit back and evaluate my own performance. I’ve learned to think this way: ‘You are not considered a failure if you can pick yourself up and carry on with what you are doing. (1) To the agents, strategies of coping also include a sample of various psychological defence mechanisms; there is evidence from the indepth interview data that they are quite frequently used. Agents are taught during training to handle rejections by controlling their own mind. They are taught to think aloud to themselves that the clients are not rejecting them, but rather, may well be rejecting themselves and their families and, consequently, leaving their lives unprotected.
The objective here is to externalise, not internalise; hence to lay blame on others, not on themselves: Before, I took rejections quite personally. I felt that he said ‘no’ to me because of something in me that he cannot accept. But now, I realise that he said ‘no’ not to me, but to his family. He is not being responsible to himself and his family. The problem lies in him, not me! I have done my best and I’ll keep on trying to convince him. But for cases that give me direct rejection, I’ll throw them away because there is no point keeping them on my mind.
It’ll be very stressful (laugh). (14) work stress among life insurance agents 137 Agents are also trained to accept rejections as a predictable, builtin part of a life insurance agent’s work. With experience, most agents would have learned to develop an attitude of acceptance: We took a course in psychology. From there we learned how to accept things as they come along. Basically, I’m a happy-go-lucky person. I’ll always ? nd a way out for myself. I don’t normally reproach myself unnecessarily. (12) Agents are trained to accept rejections as an inextricable part of their work.
In fact, they are literally told that ‘they are paid to take rejections’, and that ‘the more rejections they encounter, the better results will be. ’ So rejections are good things and agents should indeed be happy about them: My boss always tells me that insurance is very di? cult work, but it is for the same reason we are paid back such high dividends. If it was any easier, the money would not be that good, so the agent is talked (or, talking himself ) into seeing rejections as a good thing. He said, ‘If your prospect were to say yes readily, someone else would have sold the policy to him long, long ago? It is all very logical. (22) To most agents, coping is meant to refer to accessing and using psychological resources within oneself. These so-called personal or internal resources include self-discipline, mental control, rationalisations and the ability to self-motivate, accept, shift blame away from self to others, work hard, manage time and problem-solve. The emphasis here is on learning through training and experience to acquire the appropriate resources, skills and values so that, once they are internalised, they become part of the person and can be used in day-to-day coping.
It is essentially a skill-oriented, person-focussed approach, where the onus is on the person as an active agent ‘using the person’, using one’s self, one’s resources and skills. Such a personfocussed, skill-oriented concept of coping is accentuated by a general disinclination on the part of most agents (except a few) to seek and use help, support and care from the family for problem-solving or emotional support: It is very di? cult to get help from my family. (10) There is nothing much they can do about it. They won’t understand. (5) My family would not understand my work. So I would not go to them for help or support. 19) We are told to present a positive and optimistic front to everyone at all times, including our family. (19) 138 chan kwok-bun The married male agents were quite speci? c about keeping work and family life separate, not wanting work problems and frustrations to spill over into the domestic domain, thus not confounding their relationships with their spouse, children and kin members. They said they would strive to ‘arrange’ their work and familial aspects of their lives such that weekdays and occasional week evenings and Saturdays are for work while Sundays are reserved for the family.
Some reported that, in general, they do not bother to communicate with their spouses about problems and frustrations experienced at work; they cite reasons such as ‘not wanting to give them headaches’, ‘spouse not understanding my work problems’ or ‘no use to talk about problems since they would not be able to solve them for me anyway. ’ One agent attributed his disinclination to involve his wife in his work problems to ‘the Asian nature and culture’. Another agent rationalised to himself that the important thing to do ‘to keep the right balance in life’ is to maintain ‘quality time’ with his wife and children.
Two managers described their agencies as warm, cohesive places, almost like a surrogate family, bound by social, economic and emotional ties to problem-solving as well as to provide support for the individual agents. The agency was described as a place where agents are encouraged to return for care and guidance: How do you go about making yourself feel better? There are many ways. Over here, our company policy is that when you are feeling low or lost, the best thing to do is to come back to the agency and ? nd a colleague for a chit-chat.
Is this method e? ective? It is nice that peers encourage and support each other. In general, you would want to discuss with the more experienced peers—they will give you a few ideas—point to a ‘road for you to walk on’, give you a guideline, help you to solve a particular problem, or simply go out with you for a walk to release your pent-up emotions or depressed feelings. That way, you will feel much better. (10) When I am stressed or frustrated, I immediately go to other agents (here in the agency). They are always willing to help.
Four of them are very close to me. When problems come up, we talk about them among ourselves. While talking, we often come to realise that they are not my problem only—they become more normal, less serious. I always look to my more experienced colleagues—they are more likely and able to help. (15) To help create and sustain the notion of the agency as a ‘large family’, agency bulletins regularly print greetings to welcome newcomers as well as birthday messages to agency members. The intent is work stress among life insurance agents 139 o impress upon the agents that they should strive to reach their individual goals by cooperating with, supporting and caring for each other. Nonetheless, though seemingly encouraged and promoted by the management, agents only partially used social support at the agency as a way of coping with stress. Rivalry and competition between agents within the same agency or company would undermine any possible feelings of fellowship among colleagues. While some agents reported actually turning to their managers or supervisors for ‘problem-solving’ guidance and advice, they also exercised onsiderable caution in such interaction for fear of unwittingly revealing personal weaknesses, inadequacies and vulnerabilities. In practice, there are two inter-related parts to the relationship between the agent and his or her agency/company represented by a supervisor-manager: supervision and training. The agent receives supervision of varying degrees from the manager, who negotiates the kind of continuous training required to either maintain the status quo or to improve one’s sales volume. This often means customising a training programme to ? the needs of an agent in a particular stage of career development, which invariably change relative to their clients and their needs. As the life insurance industry continues to innovate by creating and introducing new products and new services, the agent ? nds it obligatory to learn new skills—both in the ‘software’ (e. g. , new ways to motivate self and client) and in the ‘hardware’ (e. g. , legal and administrative aspects of a new product). The agent needs training, and the industry ? nds ways to encourage and support it.
Thus an ethos of continuous upgrading exists. Indeed, it is a norm shared by peers in the industry, part and parcel of a collectivised coping strategy. All except one or two of the agents seemed quite clear about not seeking social support from their family for their work problems. Most tended to believe that a clear-cut separation between work and family would be an e? ective way to manage stress at work. Family relations thus become a distraction, a welcome diversion from work, where the worker learns ‘to put things aside, to forget work problems, to shut o? emporarily’. For at least two agents, the mere knowledge that their spouses will be supportive when their help and care are needed was enough without the agents actually involving them in their work problems. When it comes to using social support of colleagues or supervisors at the workplace, the agents have also learned to be selective and discretionary in deciding who is to 140 chan kwok-bun be approached for what problems and towards what ends. The ‘culture’ of the support system at the workplace is thus accessed and used by the agents with iscretion, and in his or her best interests. The life insurance industry thus provides a rather appropriate context for what we call ‘the sociology of coping’, which is focused on how groups or communities, not individuals, come to terms with and deal with their stressors. To ‘contextualise’ the coping of life insurance agents, one is required to understand how, for example, an individual’s social embedment in the larger ‘system’ and ‘culture’ of the industry would make a di? erence in one’s coping process and strategy. The more socially embedded, the more e? ctive in coping—partly because one is now receiving social support and partly because one has learned ‘the tricks of the trade’ through one’s socialisation ‘into’ the group or community. The life insurance industry in Singapore is unique in that it puts into practice a certain belief in continuous on-the-job training (or what Singaporeans commonly call ‘upgrading’), learning and self-renewal. Indeed, this belief or ideology is operationalised and institutionalised in a well-worked-out system of seminars, workshops, conferences, small-group discussions, feedback sessions, etc.
These are founded upon a central premise: an individual agent must be continuously skilled and re-skilled by the system and its knowledge to cope with oneself and a hostile social world—thus the constant reference to the social sciences, particularly psychology and social psychology, for insights, inspiration and intervention. For better or for worse, the life insurance industry in Singapore has become an active user of social science knowledge and the myriad interventions derived from it. The individual very rarely copes alone and is very rarely left alone by the life insurance ‘family’.
When socially embedded in this ‘family’, the individual obtains his or her support, expressively (it is nice to know how to deal with one’s depression or mood swings) as well as instrumentally (it is useful to know how to handle a hostile client). The ‘social fund’ is there for one to tap into; when used, this fund produces an ‘economic fund’ for the system and the individual. Work Satisfaction While the life insurance agents no doubt faced a wide range of stressors in their daily work, many of which demanded various modes work stress among life insurance agents 41 of coping and adaptation, they also reported a considerably high level of work satisfaction. Formerly construction engineers, computer programmers, factory supervisors or teachers prior to joining the life insurance business, none of the thirty agents we interviewed reported having feelings of regret over their present work; neither did they anticipate any further job change in the immediate future. All said the job was right for them, though a few did report that there were indeed lingering thoughts of quitting insurance work during the ? st two years of initiation. Several agents in fact seemed to have derived so much satisfaction from their work that they reported that their job had long become their hobby; work and hobby were indistinguishable and had in fact become one. Several agents took pains in our interviews to emphasise that everything they did in their hobbies and in life was somewhat related to their work, and vice versa. On the basis of the interview data, one would attribute the agents’ high level of work satisfaction to a combination of factors.
One important factor has to do with agents’ perceived sense of control over their work as a result of the freedom, autonomy and independence an agent’s work provides. In a signi? cant way, an agent is essentially his or her own boss, answerable and accountable mainly to oneself (thus largely dependent on one’s own personal resources such as initiative, self-discipline, self-reliance and motivation). An agent is self-employed, and his or her work has the potential of developing into an entrepreneur’s business where, at least in one’s mind, the results are a direct function of e? rt and hard work. Moreover, one derives much satisfaction from being able to generate pro? t for oneself, rather than for a company as is the case for salaried employees. Indeed, several agents reported that they had quit their former job and joined the life insurance business precisely because it o? ers the potential attraction of self-employment and entrepreneurship: I had this wish to do my own work and be my own boss. It just happened that insurance o? ered me the opportunity to realise my wish. So, naturally, I became an agent. (10)
Another factor associated with agents’ work satisfaction is their relatively high income in view of the fact that many entered the profession with educational quali? cations no higher than ‘0’ Levels, with one year of training and having passed a certifying examination considered by many as easy. The agents we interviewed made an average of three to four thousand Singapore dollars per month, while 142 chan kwok-bun several agent-managers with about ten years of experience in the business reported an average annual income of S$240,000.
One agency supervisor, herself making S$70,000 per year after seven years, reported that her 42-year-old manager was getting an annual income of S$800,000 or, as she emphasised, admiringly, ‘close to a million’. With money comes fame. The agency regularly publishes sales ? gures of top agents, the so-called ‘top high achievers’ in their company-wide bulletins. In an attempt to raise work morale and motivation, the industry periodically hands out awards and medals during conventions and congresses. One agent considered the wide publicity and recognition a successful agent received as a potent source of work satisfaction.
When successful (as indicated by insurance sales ? gures and the subsequent recognition and appreciation received from colleagues, company and friends), an agent has ? nally come around: he or she, through personal success, has managed to achieve the kind of social status and respect that society seems so reluctant to give to this profession. In a sense, personality and achievement elicit both material and non-material rewards that are due. Insurance agents spoke about the grati? cation they derived from having sold a policy where the ? ancial rewards are tangible and immediate; one can literally calculate the precise amount of commission one makes from having completed a successful transaction. Another agent actually reported that he sometimes felt guilty for having been receiving such a sizeable income for all these years in the insurance business; his friends of the same cohort in the banking sector, better educated and more intensively trained, were making less than he did. In his mind, life insurance sales work, for those who can cope and become successful at it, o? rs good pay, a clear and well-de? ned prospect of promotion (from agent through trainer and unit supervisor to, eventually, agent-cum-manager) and a distinct probability of self-employment. For many, the prospect of a quick transition from an agent to an entrepreneur within a p of ten to ? fteen years excites and motivates many a high achiever. In the process of plodding through one’s career path, the individual gets his or her own rewards in accordance with ‘the goals set and e? ort exerted’. And so it seems. work stress among life insurance agents Conclusion 43 Singapore society rejects the idea as well as the product of life insurance, which is the ‘? rst movement’ of the dialectic of encounters between a life insurance agent and society (Neo, 1996). Society thus rejects the role of being an agent, not necessarily the person in that role, though the person is very likely to internalise the rejections through self-blame and self-criticism. It is thus not so much what is wrong with the product, but what is wrong with me—a process that entails considerable psychological costs to the individual agents.
Nevertheless, the life insurance industry employs agents and trains them to di? use such societal rejections, oftentimes striving to turn such hostility around. As it happens, the agents are assigned a stigma by society, a Go? manian spoiled identity; agents are keenly aware of the intentional social distance, the chasm, that separates them and society. Agents are to be shunned by all, strangers and close social others. This is the ‘second movement’ of the Hegelian dialectic.
Note that such an analysis posits that societal rejection of life insurance as an idea and the stigma attached to life insurance agents are as much structural givens as they are historical conditions, or what the Durkheimian sociologist calls ‘social facts’ which the individual agents cannot easily ‘wish away’. The ‘third movement’ begins when the life insurance industry in general, and the agents in particular, attempt to cope with the stigma by developing an institutional culture over time; an ideological complex of values and beliefs—or, ‘tricks of the trade’, if you like.
The life insurance industry is among the few industries that are fully aware of the structural and historical causes of the myriad ‘assaults on the self ’ that happen during the daily routine of the work life of an agent. Their counter-attack is ongoing training and educational upgrading of the profession, from bottom up. A structural problem requires at the least a collective solution. Through seminars, workshops, conventions and pep-talks, the industry instils in the individual agents a ‘bag of tricks’. These include values and beliefs such as hard work, self-e? acy, self-reliance and discipline; work habits (keeping accounts and making regular cold calls); procedures for dealing with prospective clients; and a battery of coping strategies and defence mechanisms such as positive thinking (the cup is half full, not half empty), cognitive alteration or conversion (it is your loss, not mine, for not buying insurance from me), hiding and 144 chan kwok-bun compartmentalising (I make sure my family doesn’t know anything about my work problems), talking oneself into believing ‘doing good for others’ (everyone needs an insurance policy; it never rains but pours), accepting the inevitable, and so on.
Our analyses have indicated the in? ltration of academic psychology into the articulation and justi? cation of such an ideological complex. To illustrate, Seligman’s learned optimism concept (1990), Kobasa’s idea of psychological hardiness (Kobasa & Pucetti 1983) and many other psychological concepts such as resilience, personal control, competence, self-esteem and pragmatism, have found their ways into the everyday life language of the life insurance agents. It is perhaps a case of applied psychology, of the industry turning to social science for guidance and ideological justi? ation. Of course, never for a moment in the three movements of this dialectic is the individual agent a passive voice. Most signi? cantly, for example, the agent interacts with the industry culture to develop an ideological complex of his own to fend o? the ‘slings and arrows’ of his work life, which some have apparently done more successfully than others, thus enjoying considerable work satisfaction. There are good reasons to believe that the transmission of the institutional culture is often met y resistance on the part of the individual agent, especially when the culture does not allow for tension release on the one hand and demands considerable commodi? cation of emotions on the other hand. Agents are exhorted to do emotion work—to ‘never get back at bad clients’ and to ‘act nice, think positive’. In a sense, this personal ideology grounded in a larger institutional culture serves three functions. First, in a deep psychological sense, it bestows on the agent a social identity that he uses to cope with the stress of his work life.
Second, existentially, it provides the agent with a self-justi? cation of his own existence, partly because it has an altruistic dimension to it: the insurance agent is in the business of ‘doing good’, in that the family is looked after by an insurance policy should something disastrous happen to the bread-winner. Third, it also gives the agent a bag of tricks, something useful and practical in his daily encounters with society. Our interview data show rather clearly that our agents reported a considerably high level of work satisfaction.
They liked their work, had few regrets about their vocational choice and had rarely thought of quitting life insurance work except during their beginning years in the industry. Some even merged their work with their life—work and hobby became one. work stress among life insurance agents 145 One ? nds at the core of this ideological complex several rather attractive things on o? er: handsome monetary rewards; a ? ight from the tyranny of the working-class condition; and a promise for freedom, occupational autonomy and self-determination in use of time— all of which are embodied in the lure of self-employment and entrepreneurship.
To some workers in a credential society, these promises prove irresistible because the ful? lment of the Singaporean dream is the deliverance of one’s great expectations. To perhaps many others, these promises are just that: promises. Freedom, free will and self-determination (in use of time according to one’s desire) are an illusion. An agent does not e? ectually own his time, nor does he dispose of it according to his own accord. The chasm between proletariat and bourgeoisie remains real and forever self-expanding.
Still others learn that this entrepreneurial dream, even when realised, has its dark side. A self-employed person never for a moment stops ‘using his own person’, his personality or everything he owns and can rightfully call his—his time, his charm, his tolerance, his love. Having escaped from the tyranny of control by others, he now engages in the ultimate form of exploitation: exploitation of self. The chasm that separates the capitalist from the proletariat is a structural one which is bridgeable by only a few with the right strategic internal and external resources, but which remains a chasm to many.
The Singaporean dream is just that—a dream. Many agents will be caught in this black-hole-like chasm, between reality and myth, yet never fail to blame themselves for their personal failures. The moment of the ultimate nightmare will come when the life insurance industry has found ways to make direct sales to the public, e. g. , through the Internet, or when the public goes direct to the industry, as in the case of medical, house or automobile insurance (Neo, 1996). The existence of the agent is thus rendered obsolete because it has lost its value. CHAPTER NINE
INSTITUTIONAL CONTEXT AND STRESS APPRAISAL AMONG LIFE INSURANCE AGENTS Gina Lai, Chan Kwok-bun and Ko Yiu-chung Work stress as a social phenomenon and social issue has been of considerable concern to scholars and laypersons alike because of its myriad costs to individual workers a? ected and to companies that experience low productivity, absenteeism and turnover (Beehr, 1995; Sutherland & Cooper, 1988). For decades, conventional research on work stress has generally perceived individuals as passive actors, making personal adaptations to structural constraints imposed by organisations.
Work stress is often seen as a result of an individual’s failure in making adjustments to the work environment (e. g. , Beehr, 1995; Loscocco & Roschelle, 1991; Lowe & Northcott, 1988; Sutherland & Cooper, 1988). While studies adopting this view usually examine work stress by identifying the unique sources of stress experienced by particular occupational groups, they tend to overlook the relationship between the institutionalised arrangements of a profession and work stress. The regulative and normative systems of an industry and profession may well a? ct how an individual worker perceives, appraises and responds to work situations—subsequently in? uencing the level of stress the individual will experience. The present chapter aims to study how the institutionalised arrangements of the life insurance profession and industry in Singapore relate to the types and extent of work stress experienced by its workers. Insurance agents represent a unique group of workers who are both paid employees and entrepreneurs. Data from in-depth interviews with 11 agents working for di? erent life insurance companies provided background information on the norms and rules of the industry.
Insurance agents’ experiences with work stress were analysed using survey data. The information obtained from the interviews, which were conducted prior to the sample survey, enabled our understanding of the industry and guided our questionnaire construction. 148 gina lai et al. Definition of Work Stress The term ‘stress’ has been de? ned in various ways: it has been used to refer to demands that require the individual to re-adjust his or her usual behavioural patterns (Holmes & Rahe, 1967), or to the state of physiological or emotional arousal that results from the perception of demands (Lazarus & Folkman, 1984; Selye, 1974; Thoits, 1995).
In this chapter, ‘stress’ refers to the latter while the former is termed ‘stressor’. In the current research literature (Thoits, 1995), this distinction between stress and stressor is espoused. Stressors manifest themselves in episodic events or situations and are classi? ed in the literature into life events, chronic strains and daily hassles (Thoits, 1995). For an event or situation to be perceived as stressful, two appraisal processes are involved (Lazarus & Folkman, 1984). First, the individual appraises the event or situation as threatening to his or her well-being.
Events or situations that individuals ? nd threatening often entail potential danger or alteration to one’s personal identity, social relations, routine behavior, and/or normal physical state. Examples include loss of a loved one from whom one derives great personal a? rmation and emotional comfort or a serious illness that causes debilitation. Second, the individual feels a need for action. He/she appraises the available resources for requisite action but is uncertain about the su? ciency or e? ectiveness of resources to successfully carry out the action.
When appraising an event or a situation as threatening, the individual, believing that action is needed and feeling that the outcome is uncertain, would experience an emotional reaction called stress (Locke & Taylor, 1990). Based on this conceptualisation of stress, ‘work stress’ refers to the emotional response to work-related events and situations. Researchers have suggested that stress may be manifested psychologically and physically, as well as behaviorally, and that such manifestations may vary across social groups de? ed by, for example, gender and social class (Pearlin, 1999). The present chapter focuses on the psychological aspect of work stress, an emphasis particularly relevant to the study of work stress among insurance agents. Insurance work is indeed emotional work. Selling insurance often assaults one’s self due to stigmatisation and rejection by society; agents whether individually or collectively are constantly forced to make psychological adjustments to and/or manipulations of their hostile work environment. Thus, it institutional context among life insurance agents 49 would be meaningful to investigate how job incumbents in the insurance industry appraise various aspects of their work and evaluate the impacts of such appraisal on their psychological well-being. Adopting a sociological perspective, the present chapter emphasises the social-structural organisation of the industry and its link to individuals’ experience (Aneshensel, 1992; Pearlin, 1989, 1999; Thoits, 1995). The appraisal of and response to work-related events and situations are thus argued to be related to the meaning attached to work, which is in? enced by the regulative and normative systems of a profession and industry. The Political Economy of the Life Insurance Industry The most important attractions o? ered by insurance work are its promises of autonomy, potentially high monetary rewards and the prospect of self-employment. Insurance agents are usually given a certain sales target to meet within a period of time if they intend to stay in the company. However, they themselves have to decide on their sales target, set their own work tempo and get their work done wherever and whenever deemed appropriate and e? ctive. To further solicit workers’ compliance with industry goals, agents are given a share of the industry’s pro? t—commissions (Chua, 1971; Neo, 1996). Work is remunerated on the basis of sales; and commissions increase as one progresses along a clear and well-de? ned career path. The pace of advancement along the career path is selfdetermined: the individual decides how fast he or she wants to move along the career ladder. Individual job performance, in terms of sales volume and ability to keep policies ‘alive’, is a requisite for career advancement.
Insurance agents thus take on a dual identity. On the one hand, they are employees who follow directives set by the company and work toward organisational goals. On the other hand, they are entrepreneurs who can determine their own career goals—which more often than not coincide with organisational interests—as well as experiment freely with various modes to achieve these goals. There is, however, a down side to the agents’ work. While the agents enjoy work autonomy and ? exibility, they also experience sustained pressure to produce (Chan & Ko, 1991).
Further, life insurance has been and still is a taboo subject for many Singaporeans (Chan & Ko, 1991), partly due to the stigma attached to death and 150 gina lai et al. disabilities. Moreover, life insurance is generally perceived as a highrisk investment because of the need for considerable long-term ? nancial commitment to an unforeseeable future. Coupled with negative stereotypes of insurance work, agents often face rejections by strangers as well as family members and close friends, subsequently breeding personal isolation and alienation.
Even worse, agents do not interact with their clients as equals. The balance of power in agent-client transactions is often tilted in favor of the clients. When faced with ‘unreasonable’ clients, agents are trained and often reminded by their supervisors not to get even for ‘bad’ client conduct, thus further perpetuating the status imbalance. Paradoxically, having escaped from the control of a boss who has legitimate rights to one’s time and labour, one now ? nds himself or herself subject to the control of many other bosses: all his real and prospective clients.
Further, the rapid growth in the insurance industry in Singapore has induced acute competitiveness and rivalry between companies as well as among agents, engendering a general feeling of distrust, tension and strain in interpersonal relations among peers. Jealousy from colleagues and interpersonal con? icts further reinforce individualism and self-isolation. Keen competition also makes it necessary for agents to intensify their labour—to self-exploit. Operating in such a hostile environment, the life insurance industry has to put up moral and social bu? rs to cushion itself against myriad adverse impacts—thus the emergence of an institutional ethos and culture as defense mechanisms. As a way to increase agents’ productivity and to sustain a certain motivational level, the industry periodically gives out awards and medals during conventions and congresses to raise workers’ morale and motivation (Chan & Ko, 1991). A culture of internal cohesiveness and mutual support is encouraged within individual life insurance companies as well as the industry as a whole.
These values not only help the industry achieve its goal of pro? t-making, but also facilitate the ability of agents to cope with mental and physical a? ictions caused by their work. Description of the Survey The analysis was based on three non-random samples, which yielded a total sample of 400 life insurance workers. First, 500 questionnaires were distributed to the agents by the managers of six major institutional context among life insurance agents 151 life insurance companies in Singapore.
Of these, 212 completed and returned their questionnaires, giving a response rate of 42. 4%. Second, with the help of the Secretary of the Singapore Life Underwriters Association, questionnaires were disseminated to 400 agents via managers who attended a series of four talks organised by the Association. This channel saw a return of 137 questionnaires, yielding a response rate of 34. 3%. Third, the Secretary distributed 100 questionnaires to insurance managers whom he knew, who in turn handed them out to their own agents.
A total of 51 questionnaires were returned this way. The overall response rate for the study was 40%. The non-random nature of the samples and relatively low response rates inevitably lead to a concern about the representativeness of our selected respondents. The relatively low response rate was probably due to the way we sampled our respondents and distributed questionnaires. We distributed the questionnaires to potential respondents through intermediaries (managers of major life insurance companies and the Secretary of the Singapore Life Underwriters Associatio

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