Still shot from Charlie Chaplin's "Modern Times" illustrating high demands, low resources, no social support on an assembly line.

High demands, low resources. No social support.

To understand what job crafting has to do with employee health and wellbeing, it’s important to understanding the inner workings of job stress and motivation.

In a previous post — “I’ve Seen the Future of Employee Wellbeing: It’s Name Is Job Crafting” — I explained how, in 2001, Amy Wrzesniewski and Jane Dutton proposed that employees tweak their job tasks, workplace social connections, and perspective about their role to gain a greater sense of purpose and meaning, potentially leading to better job performance.

Around that same time, in the Netherlands, Evangelia Demerouti, Arnold Bakker, and others introduced their model of Job Demands-Resources (JD-R), which has since been fine-tuned and validated as relevant to a full range of occupations and outcomes in countless studies around the world.

If you’re familiar with job stress research, you know that job stress has causes, and shouldn’t be dismissed as a choice employees make.

Forget trendy notions that “stress is good.” It’s wishful thinking based on cherry-picked evidence. If stress is so great, why aren’t employees demanding more of it?

Forty years of research has shown that harmful job stress is a result of jobs that have low levels of autonomy and high demands.

Job Demands and Autonomy Are Linked to Health Problems

Over the years, job autonomy (or control) has been defined different ways, but can be broadly understood as limited flexibility (for example, with the tasks of the job) and limited decisional latitude, meaning the employee isn’t permitted or encouraged to make decisions in their work or about their work.

Job demands originally meant the psychological intensity of work, but ultimately can be understood to include workload, time pressure, and physical demands.

Job strain illustration shows relationship of demands, control, social support, and health.

Job strain

Robert Karasek introduced the theory of demands and control in 1979. He and others have shown that jobs in which workers consistently encounter high job demands with low job control — the combination of which is called job strain — are linked to a variety of health issues, especially high blood pressure and cardiovascular disease, as well as depression, anxiety, burnout, and metabolic disorders. Reducing job strain can improve productivity.

Karasek later learned that social support “buffers” the negative effects of high-strain jobs. Social support originally meant supervisors’ and co-workers’ support for performing job tasks, but can be understood in all of the many ways it’s been defined: Having a sense of “belongingness” at work; having co-workers who are empathetic and confidantes; having supervisors who take a genuine interest in the personal and professional lives of team members; and having a best friend at work.

In sum, high demands and low control are an unhealthy combo. (High demands and high control are not necessarily bad.)

Effort-Reward Imbalance Is Linked to Health Problems

Unhealthy job stress has been framed in other ways. Germany’s Johannes Siegrist found that work in which the required effort is disproportionately high compared to the job rewards— effort-reward imbalance — leads to the same kinds of health problems that result from job strain. “Rewards,” here, doesn’t just mean financial compensation, but also career opportunities and level of esteem within the organization.

The effort-reward imbalance model reminds me of an encounter I once had with a business analyst who transferred to another department because she didn’t feel valued in the department she was hired into. When I asked her, “What would have made you feel more valued?” her answer was not “better pay” or “someone saying ‘good job’”…

“I just wanted someone to listen to my ideas,” she told me.

A worker who doesn’t feel valued (i.e. esteemed) by being “listened to” is likely to have a higher level of disengagement and health impairment. This offers a glimpse into how management style, job design, organizational culture, performance, turnover, health, and wellbeing are all interconnected.

Overtime, Job Insecurity, Injustice, and More…

Several other causes of job stress have been identified, and most of them can in some way fit into the demand-control and/or the effort-reward imbalance model:

      • • chronic overtime
      • • job insecurity
      • • work-life conflict
      • • role ambiguity (not being clear of what’s expected, receiving contradictory direction, duplication with other workers’ roles, or not understanding how the work fits into the overall organization — all of which are among the most common complaints I’ve heard from employees who report high job stress).
      • • organizational injustice (being treated unfairly, which at the extreme includes bullying and harassment)
      • • lower levels of status within the organization
      • • sustaining high levels of vigilance (e.g. first responders, air traffic controllers, etc.)

Back to Bakker

The overlaps between and the nuances of these job stress theories makes them difficult to understand and apply. That’s where Bakker and Demerouti’s Job Demands-Resources model comes in. While building on the existing theories and expanding upon them, it also provides a simpler way of making sense of job stress and motivation. I consider it a comprehensible and practical  unifying theory.

JD-R posits that all job traits can be categorized as either demands or resources. 

      • • Demands require sustained effort from employees. They’re an expenditure of personal energy.
      • • Resources help fuel progress toward work-related goals. They’re restorative, buffering the effects of job demands —and activating personal development.

I interpret JD-R to mean that Karasek’s “demands,” Siegrest’s “efforts,” as well as role ambiguity, job insecurity, injustice, tedium, and work-life conflict are demands.

Job autonomy, social support, rewards, recognition, feedback, task variety, and training are examples of resources.

Side note: If you’re familiar with Edward Deci and Richard Ryan’s self-determination theory — popularized in the Daniel Pink bestseller, Drive — which tells us that motivation and flourishing depend on autonomy, competence, and relatedness (i.e. social connection), you may recognize that job resources generally can be matched to the components of self-determination.

So…

      • • Demands regulate job stress. 
      • • Resources regulate job motivation and engagement. 
      • • And the two forces may act upon each other.

Looking Forward…

That’s enough theory for now. What I’ve come to appreciate about JD-R is how, according to research by Bakker and others, it serves as a foundation for a practical application: job crafting.

JD-R takes job crafting beyond meaning and purpose — which has received most of the public attention — and ties it directly into health and wellbeing.

I’ll spell this out further in a future post, and also draw the important distinction between positive and negative job demands. I’ll share what research shows about the effectiveness of job crafting interventions for improving employee wellbeing, work engagement, absenteeism, performance, and productivity. And I’ll offer evidence-based tips on how you can prime your organization for job crafting.

*************

For an excellent overview, see Bakker and Demerouti’s 2016 article: Job Demands-Resources Theory: Taking Stock and Looking Forward