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What does it mean to Reduce Job Demands?

Leaders and employees need to be able to identify, eliminate, reduce or manage excessive and unnecessary demands in the workplace. We refer to this as ensuring job demands are “tolerable” for the employees doing the work.

The SMART work design model outlines five characteristics of good work design that lead to more meaningful and motivating work, and prevents harm through the reduction of potential stressors.  The model addresses the need for Stimulating, Mastery, Agency and Relational job resources which aid in the design of healthy work (for more on this, see the increase job resources section of the website). However, to effectively reduce stress and prevent harm, the demands placed on the individual need to be Tolerable.

Key strategies

There are a number of demands that organisations should ensure are tolerable. These include:

  • time demands;
  • physical demands;
  • cognitive demands;
  • emotional demands;
  • demands associated with organisational change; and
  • demands caused by a lack of organisational justice.

Why is it important to ensure Tolerable Job Demands?

All work involves demands because there are goals to achieve, and effort must be put in to achieve these goals. So demands in and of themselves are necessary in all work. In fact, when demands are challenging and present at appropriate levels (and supported by adequate resources) they can increase employee engagement.1

Demands become problematic when the level of demand exceeds the individual’s ability to meet those demands, or when they become intolerable.2 The extra effort required to work in an environment with excessive demands for extended periods of time without recovery can deplete energy levels and result in strain, exhaustion and burnout.3

Research consistently shows a clear relationship between excessive job demands and negative outcomes for both the individual and organisation. For instance, excessive job demands have been associated with increased risk of mental health conditions, including depression and anxiety.4 These mental health problems have in turn been associated with higher than average workers compensation costs, absenteeism, and turnover.5-8

Every employee has a different tolerance for the demands of their work. What is considered excessive, stressful or overwhelming for one individual may be energising, challenging and engaging for another. Knowing this, it is important that organisations design work that optimises the demands for each employee by tailoring work to the individual’s skills and abilities.

Experts recommend that organisations prioritise designing job demands such that people can fulfill them without damaging their health.9

Australian legislation states that organisations and employees have a shared responsibility to create and maintain a safe and mentally healthy work environment. Organisations have a legal obligation to protect employees from risks to mental and physical harm, so far as reasonably practicable. Regulatory bodies recommend good work design that reduces excessive demands on employees is a key way for employers to protect worker mental health.10

Further reading

In Australia, there are legislative requirements requiring employers to consult with employees about changes to work design.

Case Study

Legally, there can be serious repercussions for organisations who fail to make reasonable adjustments to create a mentally healthy workplace. Recently, a Victorian teacher took legal action after repeatedly being assigned the most difficult and unruly students. When the school failed to address his concerns or  provide appropriate resources to support his workload, the excessive work demands resulted in serious psychological injury. The Court found that the school had neglected their duty as awarded him over a million dollars in compensation.11

Research-backed strategies to Reduce Job Demands in the workplace

Increase the capability of leaders and employees to identify and eliminate excessive or unnecessary stressors in the workplace.

Tolerable demands

To offer the highest possible protection against physical and psychological harm, organisations need to ensure demands placed on individuals are tolerable. To do this, the following need to be addressed: time demands, cognitive demands, emotional demands, physical demands, demands associated with organisational change, and demands caused by a lack of organisational justice. The following sections provide detail into how these demands can be reduced to a tolerable level.

Time demands

Unrealistic or excessive time demands can cause stress, fatigue and exhaustion. Examples of excessive time demands include:

  • demanding workloads – excessive work with insufficient time or resources to achieve work requirements; and
  • demanding work hours – including overtime, shift work, rostering that does not provide sufficient time for sleep and recovery.

Possible actions to reduce time demands:

  • train managers to ensure that they understand how to safely allocate workload;
  • monitor workloads during periods of high demands and provide additional support where required;
  • ensure that all employees and managers are aware of the organisation’s policies related to fatigue management (including overtime, rosters and shift work); and
  • managers and employees establish practice of negotiating reasonable deadlines.

Resource

One of the major stressors in workplaces operating on shifts or with huge time demands – is tiredness. Managing fatigue is one aspect of designing work for well-being.

Cognitive demands

Although workers like to have challenging and stimulating work, sustained periods of very high cognitive demands (also known as mental demands) can be exhausting. Examples of work that is highly cognitively demanding include:

  • work that is extremely complex or requires high level of decision making; and
  • work that requires extended periods of concentration.

Remember that cognitively demanding work is not always the problem. Work that is very boring or monotonous can also be draining. In fact, individuals completing monotonous tasks have to work even harder to maintain concentration and vigilance.

Possible actions to reduce cognitive demands:

  • ensure that employees have appropriate knowledge, skills and abilities for the work that they are assigned;
  • allow adequate time for breaks;
  • provide additional practical assistance for employees performing mentally challenging work;
  • rotate boring, monotonous tasks; and
  • give employees control over the order, method and pace at which they complete tasks.

Physical demands

Poor physical work environments and physically demanding work can result in fatigue, and a range of health conditions including musculoskeletal problems.12 Examples of excessive physical demands include:

  • environmental hazards such as poor lighting, noise vibration, poorly designed work equipment or work stations; and
  • physically demanding work, including repetitive tasks.

Possible actions to reduce physical demands:

  • ensure that leaders and employees understand how to identify physical hazards in the environment and are able to respond appropriately;
  • allow employees to take regular breaks from physically demanding or repetitive tasks; and
  • ensure that employees have necessary tools and equipment for a physically safe and comfortable work station.

Resource

Promoting physical health at work supports employee well-being.

Emotional demands

Some types of work can be inherently emotionally demanding. Examples of emotional demands include:

  • work that requires high amount of emotional involvement;
  • work that requires employees to hide or regulate their emotions (e.g. customer service work); and
  • work that is emotionally disturbing.

Possible actions to reduce emotional demands:

  • allow employees to take breaks or ‘time out’ from emotionally demanding work;
  • provide access to employee assistance programs (EAP) for those who experience a traumatic event or those working in roles with high emotional demands; and
  • provide regular training to individuals working in roles that require them to regularly interact with clients, regulate or hide their emotions (for example, conflict resolution, customer service training, or stress management programs).

Resource

An employee assistance program delivers psychological services to employees and their families, whilst considering their workplace needs.

Resource

Stress at work contributes significantly to the experience of mental health conditions, including anxiety and depression. The primary intervention for reducing stress is addressing work design. A secondary intervention is to support employees in the development of skills and personal resources to help manage and recover from work-related stress. The Future of Work Institute has produced a page of guidance to assist with this.

Demands associated with organisational change

Organisational change is an unavoidable part of working life. However, if not implemented properly, poorly managed change can increase risk of stress and anxiety. Organisations should aim to reduce uncertainty during periods of change through effective communication before, during and after change processes.

Possible actions for effective change management:

  • train leaders and managers in effective communication skills;
  • carry out change processes with openness and transparency so that employees understand why and how changes will occur and the impacts they will have; and
  • engage in process of consultation with employees that encourages feedback and participation.

Further reading

WorkSafe NSW has formulated a series of tip sheets addressing psychosocial risks – including one to assist organisations understand the stress-related consequences of managing change poorly and steps to ensure changes are managed well.

Demands caused by a lack of organisational justice

Organisational justice is the term used to refer to employees’ perceptions of fairness at work. Lack of organisational justice has been associated with increased risk of negative mental health outcomes, low job satisfaction, and reduced organisational commitment.13, 14 Researchers have also noted an association with justice and work performance, with a lack of organisational justice being associated with anger and negative attitudes towards the organisation, which results in reduced performance and quality of work.15

There are three kinds of justice that, if not addressed, can cause additional stress to employees. These include:

  • procedural justice: perception of fairness in how processes and procedures are carried out in the workplace;
  • interactional justice: perception of fairness in treatment of individuals when decisions are made, including whether employees are treated with respect and dignity and whether the reasons for decision outcomes are explained; and
  • distributive justice: perception of fairness of decision outcomes and the distribution of resources.

Possible actions to increase organisational justice:

  • carry out all processes consistently across the organisation;
  • use open communication during times of change, including clear explanations of the reasons for decisions; and
  • treat all employees with dignity and respect at all times.

Further reading

WorkSafe NSW has formulated a series of tip sheets addressing psychosocial risks, including one on organisational justice – explaining the importance of promoting a positive and fair working environment.

References

  1. Van den Broeck, A., De Cuyper, N., De Witte, H., & Vansteenkiste, M. (2010). Not all job demands are equal: Differentiating job hindrances and job challenges in the Job Demands-Resources model. European Journal of Work and Organizational Psychology, 19(6), 735 -759.
  2. Bakker, A. B., Hakanen, J. J., Demerouti, E., & Xanthopoulou, D. (2007). Job resources boost work engagement, particularly when job demands are high. Journal of Educational Psychology, 99(2), 274-284.
  3. Crawford, E. R., LePine, J. A., & Rich, B. L. (2010). Linking job demands and resources to employee engagement and burnout: A theoretical extension and meta-analytic test. Journal of Applied Psychology, 95(5), 834-848.
  4. Harvey, S. B., Modini, M., Joyce, S., Milligan-Saville, J. S., Tan, L., Mykletun, A., … & Mitchell, P. B. (2017). Can work make you mentally ill? A systematic meta-review of work-related risk factors for common mental health problems. Occupational and Environmental Medicine, 74(4), 301-310.
  5. Hakanen, J. J., Scaufeli, W. B., & Ahola, K. (2008). The job demands-resources model: A three-year cross-lagged study of burnout, depression, commitment and work engagement. Work and Stress, 22(3), 224-241.
  6. SafeWork Australia. Mental health.
  7. TNS. (2014). State of Workplace Mental Health in Australia. Melbourne: beyondblue. .
  8. Bakker, A. B., Demerouti, E., & Euwema, M. C. (2005). Job resources buffer the impact of job demands on burnout. Journal of Occupational Health Psychology10(2), 170-180.
  9. SafeWork Australia. Mental Health. Retrieved from https://www.safeworkaustralia.gov.au/topic/mental-health.
  10. Cohen-Charash, Y., & Spector, P. E. (2001). The role of justice in organizations: A meta-analysis. Organizational behavior and human decision processes86(2), 278-321.
  11. Cohen-Charash, Y., & Spector, P. E. (2001). The role of justice in organizations: A meta-analysis. Organizational behavior and human decision processes86(2), 278-321.
Next step

Increase Resilience and Coping

The Increase Resilience and Coping building block assists employees in improving their ability to cope with, adapt to, and recover from stress at work.