The aim of this study was to explore the role conflict experiences of South African shop stewards and in the process develop a theoretical framework on the role conflict of shop stewards. The theoretical framework was based on the Job Demands-Resources (JD-R) model, which has never been used on shop stewards in South Africa.
The study took a case study approach to explore an unknown ‘human experience’ phenomenon using an existing JD-R model. The study used both inductive and deductive approaches during the thematic qualitative data analysis of data collected from 20 NEHAWU and NUM shop stewards through interviews and observations.
The study deductively derived five themes from a thorough literature review and validated them using a pilot study. However, from the five themes, namely reasons and motivations, challenges, effects, coping strategies and biographical differences, sub-themes emerged, and other sub-themes also inductively emerged, which was new information that was unknown to the researcher and not reported in existing literature.
The reasons and motivations theme had three sub-themes, namely represent employees, hold employer to account and political background. These themes served as personal resources that buffer the effects of role conflict within the role played by shop stewards.
The theme challenges had nine sub-themes, namely work–family conflict, role overload, interpersonal conflict, intrapersonal conflict, inter-union rivalry, career suicide, political differences, shop steward face-offs, and accidents and deaths. According to the JD-R model, these are the role demands that negatively influence shop stewards’ performance within the role.
The theme effects yielded three sub-themes, namely physiological effects, emotional effects and psychological effects. These sub-themes covered all consequences of unmanaged challenges (job demands) that shop stewards experience.
The theme coping strategies had six sub-themes, namely education, training and development; personal beliefs/ideology and union commitment; political connections, support (family, trade union, employer, shop stewards); social and relaxation activities; and soft skills. Education, training and development, political connections and social and relaxation activities sub-themes forms part of the problem-focused coping strategy whereby shop stewards eliminate the stress/challenges or role demands to minimize the effects, whereas personal beliefs/ideology and union commitment and support are emotion-focused coping strategies aimed at regulating the stress or not acknowledging the existence of the stress/challenge or role demand. Soft skills take the form of both emotion-focused and problem focused coping strategies. By acquiring soft skills, they eliminate the problem (stress) to cope better but the skills eliminate or minimize their anxiety levels and prepares them emotionally for the role. These were the mechanisms or job resources that shop stewards used or hoped will help them positively cope within the role.
The theme biographical differences had predetermined sub-themes such as age, gender, sector (education vs. mining), type of shop steward by employment (full-time vs. part-time) and type of shop steward by representation (white-collar vs. blue-collar). The biographical differences revealed that older and male shop stewards coped better compared to younger and female shop stewards. Furthermore, the comparisons revealed similarities as well as differences between education and mining sector shop stewards, between full-time and part-time shop stewards and between white-collar and blue-collar shop stewards.
Most of the findings (themes and sub-themes) were supported by existing international research studies, except the new information that emerged in the study.
Based on the findings, a shop stewards role conflict experiences framework was developed as a contribution of the study and recommendations and conclusions were made.