17 September 2018

There is no support for the idea that high demands at work can be compensated by increased freedom of action and social support. This is a myth: the demands in themselves can lead to burnout.

WatchesThese are the conclusions of a new study by LiU researchers Anna-Carin Fagerlind Ståhl and Christian Ståhl Photo below) into burnout and the work environment. If burnout is to be prevented, employers must lower their demands. Positive social support and a high degree of job control are important in themselves, but are not sufficient to compensate for the negative effects of high demands, the two researchers conclude.

“There is very little support for the idea that it is possible to compensate for high demands by giving the employees a high degree of job control, or providing positive social support. Our study confirms that this is something of a comfortable myth”, says Anna-Carin Fagerlind Ståhl, psychologist who has taken a doctoral degree at Linköping University with a thesis that examined how conditions at work can promote health.

Anna-Carin Fagerlind-Ståhl and Christian Ståhl, LiU, 2018Together with researchers in Toronto, the LiU researchers have analysed the replies to questionnaires from employees in seven organisations. More than 1,700 people described how they experience demands, job control, and social support at work. They also replied to questions concerning the symptoms of burnout. The questionnaires were distributed on two occasions, separated by two years. A wide range of workplaces was studied, including, for example, manufacturing industry, government agencies, a private care company and municipal units for health, social care and service. The professional groups that replied included nurses, employees within elderly care, and administrative personnel.

“These are employee groups with extremely different work situations, salaries and education, which is one of the strengths of our study”, says Christian Ståhl, associate professor in vocational rehabilitation.

The results are the same for all workplaces: high demands lead to burnout, independently of how much job control the employee has, or how strong the social support experienced. It is not possible to compensate for high demands with positive aspects of the work environment.

Christian Ståhl conducts research into sick leave at the Division of Community Medicine and at the HELIX Competence Centre at LiU.

“Increasing numbers are taking sick leave for stress-related problems, and mental ill-health has become the largest cause for sick leave in Sweden. Our study shows that the work environment must be improved by reducing demands, before the problems get out of hand”, he says.

The researchers point out that it is possible for employers to use questionnaires and personal development dialogues to find out how the employees experience the work situation – are the demands set at a reasonable level or not?

“Reduce the amount or pace of work for those who give signals that they have too much to do. Do not attempt to increase productivity by eliminating breaks. Sometimes you can hear the idea floated that a high pace of work in itself creates motivation. But working life today is demanding. An increase in demands brings with it a high risk of burnout, and is not necessary for employees to feel motivated and find their work enjoyable”, says Anna-Carin Fagerlind Ståhl.

According to her, we are facing a fundamental question about how working life is organised.

“But responsibility is placed on the individual employee, instead of on the workplace. Preventive work throughout the organisation is required, not more mindfulness courses”, she concludes.

The study has been published in the scientific journal BMC Public Health
Photo: Istock and Eva Bergstedt

Translation: George Farrants

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