Effort-Reward Imbalance Underpins Worker Stress

in total worker health, Uncategorized, Stress, job design, job strain, industrial organizational psychology

effort-reward balance scaleIt may be hard to get your brain around abstract models of stress, especially when they don’t line up with the usual fright-or-flight illustrations or seem remediable by the relaxation tips commonly sold as solutions. But if we care about workers, and how employers may be able to help them, we can’t ignore the harmful effects of effort-reward imbalance.

Think back to Psych 101 and you’ll remember that most human transactions are based on our expectation of an even exchange, or social reciprocity. It’s like an unwritten contract. We’re hard-wired for evenhandedness, and when we get — or believe we’ve gotten — a raw deal, we suffer from physical and emotional stress.

In the workplace, employees trade their currency — effort — for the employer’s currency, rewards, which include:

  • compensation
  • job security and prospects for promotion
  • respect and prestige within the organization

The balance — or imbalance — of effort and reward may be influenced by an employee’s motivational style, especially for employees who are intrinsically driven to overextend their effort independent of rewards, often to fulfill their underlying longing for approval. This surfaces as “overcommitment” in the effort-reward imbalance model.

When physical and or mental job effort outweigh the reward — or employees perceive the balance to be out of whack — the result is chronic stress and, over time, the physical and mental problems that stress can lead to.

This understanding of work stress was first conceptualized by medical sociologist Johannes Siegrist.

The model of effort rewards imbalance claims that lack of reciprocity between costs and gains (i.e., high-cost/low-gain conditions), define a state of emotional distress with special propensity to autonomic arousal and associated strain reactions.

— From Johannes Siegrist’s seminal paper, Adverse Health Effects of High-Effort/Low-Reward Conditions 

Siegrist’s theory was put to the test in Britain’s classic “Whitehall II Study,” which followed more than 10,000 civil service workers for 11 years. Results showed that effort-reward imbalance led to increased risk of cardiovascular disease, as well as declines in overall physical and mental health. Study subjects who were lower on the organizational chart and those with less workplace social support had the highest levels of risk among those with effort-reward imbalance. Since then, research has shown even more pronounced effects of effort-reward imbalance, especially on the risk of heart disease and depression — based on rigorous studies of employees in a wide range of occupations working in countries across the globe.

The Whitehall researchers, led by social determinants of health pioneer Sir Michael Marmot, felt their results showed that cardiovascular disease and other stress-related illnesses could be prevented by improving work conditions. Their work led to a campaign to encourage employers to:

  • Improve rewards by recognizing good job performance
  • Encourage job-skill and professional development
  • Increase salaries
  • Foster social support at the workplace
Siegrist has proposed additional solutions:

  • Leadership development among supervisors, emphasizing the importance of esteem, recognition and appropriate feedback.
  • Building upon non-monetary rewards, like flexible work options, more effectively matching job status to achievements, and fostering job security.

Effort-reward imbalance is one of the two most influential frameworks for understanding job stress, alongside the demand-control model of job strain. In fact — despite our preoccupation with other models that push accountability for stress solely on workers — regarding both demand-control and effort-reward imbalance, Siegrist wrote in 2014:

Empirical evidence on their health-adverse effects is far broader than is currently the case for any other stress-theoretical model related to work and employment.

Ultimately, most elements of the psychosocial work environment can be plugged into one or both of these models.

Whether effort-reward imbalance is a product of employee perception or actual work conditions remains a topic of debate. Most likely, both play a role. Certainly, job demands and job control have been validated as causes of cardiovascular disease and high blood pressure, in contrast to trendy notions that stress is a mindset or is a good thing and that employees are on their own to address it. The role of personal interventions is to help employees with problem-solving skills that can help them advocate for themselves, assess their level of effort as objectively as possible and, in some cases, moderate overcommitment. Stress management and resilience programs may play a supporting role.

Further Reading
  • For a good overview of effort-reward imbalance, and researching showing how it leads to cardiovascular disease, see Siegrist’s 2010 overview from the International Journal of Occupational Medicine and Environmental Health, Effort-Reward Imbalance at Work and Cardiovascular Diseases.
  • Siegrist’s overview of effort-reward imbalance and depression has not been translated into English, but you can read the abstract here.

Partnering with Community Supported Agriculture May Be the Best Wellness Thing an Employer Can Do

in Uncategorized, Commentary, Employee Wellness Programs

Farm fresh vegetablesLast summer, I offered up my family as guinea pigs for a local Community Supported Agriculture program (CSA). As the leader of an employee wellness program, I was considering creating a partnership with the CSA to have shares of their harvest delivered to employees directly at work, and I wanted to check it out myself, first. If you’re not familiar with how CSAs bring together residents and farmers to support local agriculture and promote fresh food, find out more about them here.

My family started getting our weekly deliveries of vegetables and fruit — eagerly checking-in with the earthy young workers at the local pick-up spot and collecting our garlic scapes, bok choy, berries, broccoli, peas, greens, corn, chard, melon, and so forth.

My epiphany occurred around week two of the 14-week summer season. We’d received a bunch of green peas in that week’s harvest. The pods were plump and firm and seemed ready to burst. Like I said, I’m no foodie, and I wasn’t sure whether to eat the pods. So I did. Raw. I had about six or seven, and soon felt like I was digesting an electric sander. The next night, we cooked them, which I thought might soften them up but instead just seemed to toughen the fibers. So I went to the CSA’s Facebook page and asked whether the pods were edible.

“All that hot weather,” they wrote back, “followed by the thunderstorms made those peas really GROW in the last week. So, although typically delicious and tender. if you don’t enjoy the shells a bit more fibrous, the peas themselves are still delicious…”

That muggy weather. Those storms! I remembered them from just five or six days earlier. As I held a plump pea pod in my hand, I was thunderstruck by how it had been affected by the same storm clouds that had flash flooded the roads during my commute and overflowed the roof gutters of my house. There was a direct line from the weather into the ground through the pea and into my body. We were connected.

Of course, this realization isn’t that novel — even for a city kid like me. After all, I’d planted gardens that were influenced by the environment. But something about this direct experience of it in my core food supply brought it home and made it real. And I related to those pea pods, and all the veggies that came after, in a way that I’d never related to food before.

At work, we went on to pilot delivery from the CSA to employees at four worksites. One hundred co-workers out of about 2500 participated. That may not sound like a lot, but we chose not to set participation goals and didn’t push the pilot aggressively. We weren’t trying to change anyone; we were providing employees with a convenience they’d been asking for.

I considered subsidizing employees’ purchases. In today’s world of wellness, however, a subsidy functions like an incentive — and health incentives are deadly to the success of employee wellness programs. But I may rethink this.

The primary objectives of the program were:

  • To support employees who seek convenient access to whole, fresh food.
  • To support local agriculture.

But what I hope may be a bonus, and the reason this small program might be the most important wellness program I’ve ever offered, is because it has the potential to help employees experience their relationship with food in a whole new way — just like I did with the peas (Caution, however: n=1!).

Most healthy eating promotions used today — calorie labeling and nutrition education, merchandising tactics like those promoted by the Cornell Food and Brand Lab, and behavioral interventions like Weight Watchers— haven’t been a match for the proliferation of unhealthful food, oversized portions, and appetites that, for whatever reason, are insatiable. Conventional approaches have their place, but none have achieved good results on their own. And, with the possible exception of mindful eating strategies, none get to the root of the matter by a change in folks’ relationship to food, potential that exists with a CSA partnership.

I believe we also experienced an unintended consequence: A social effect that stands to bolster an employee community that rallies around well-being. Not only do some participants choose to split their shares, teaming up to divvy their bounty and exchange recipes, but on the day the large boxes filled with each week’s share were delivered, there was a heightened level of energy, curiosity, and camaraderie amongst co-workers.

We expect participation to double this year. Our next step is to source some of our employee cafeteria menu items from the CSA. This will, of course, support local agriculture in an even bigger way. More importantly, it will make high quality food available to a larger population, and it will integrate with our CSA purchase program — cross promoting and allowing prospective participants to experience how local crops can be transformed into delicious meals.

And a little transformation can go a long way.


(My wellness colleagues needn’t fret about the usual… ROI, outcomes, and definitions of terms. We’re helping get fresh veggies onto the tables of employees and their families. No vendors, no registration, no incentives, no behavior change, no contracts. The simplicity makes it sublime.)

A version of this post first appeared on Medium.com on May 25 and on LinkedIn on May 26.