Thursday, 27 January 2011

Understanding job demands: hindrances and challenges are not the same

What's in a job? The Job Demands-Resources Model answers this question by defining two types of characteristics: job demands such as workload run down our energy and can harm our health, whereas job resources, including positive feedback, stimulate us and increase engagement. Neat, but the model has struggled with evidence that, against expectations, some job demands also link to higher levels of engagement.

A study by Anja Van den Broeck and colleagues approaches this by integrating work that carves demands into two further types. First are hindrances, e.g., repeated conflict: these provoke negative feeling, encouraging us to retreat into managing our feelings. Second are challenges, which include workload: these are still effortful but draw us toward a problem-solving stance which can lead to fulfillment and stimulation. Both types can run down our energy, but challenges can reward us in return.

Integrating this view into the model could remedy the inconsistencies - but not without answering some questions. Specifically, the hindrance-challenge research rarely considers job resources, and it's important to know what the beneficial effects of challenges are after resources are taken into account. (If increases in workload were sometimes accompanied by a free expresso, we'd want our analysis to separate caffeine from the workload effect.)

The study asked participants to complete questionnaires reporting levels of exhaustion (a measure of energy depletion) and vigour (stimulation), together with ratings of various job characteristics: demands (negative workhome interference and emotional demands), challenges (workload and cognitive demands), and resources (autonomy and social support). It used two samples, seeking to generalise beyond a single industry: these were 261 call centre agents and 441 police officers, distinctive due to more education and seniority.

They found that higher vigour - the good stuff - was not only associated with lower hindrances and higher job resources, but also with higher job challenges. Modelling the data confirmed that challenges had a significant and separate effect to job resources. (Bang goes my expresso theory.)

The story for exhaustion was less straightforward. Generally it increased with higher job demands and lower job resources*, in line with expectations. However the authors found no relationship either way to job challenges surprising, as traditionally these would be classed as job demands, and demands = energy depletion. The authors recommend future work consider treating energy as elastic rather than as a fixed resource: challenges may produce energy to balance what they expend.

The study makes it clear that job challenges are made of different stuff from both job resources and their job demand cousins, hindrances, and modelling the data using three characteristics did a better job than the Demand-Resource model (or indeed, other ways to pair the characteristics).


As a practitioner, a model is a useful way to carve up the world: to consider the stresses and supports in a role for job redesign, or as touch-points for a developmental discussion. Many such models are spirited out of the air, and an approach that's evidence based is hugely preferable.

But when a model doesn't reflect the nuance of personal experience, people won't buy it. For many people, the cognitive load of a job isn't simply a hassle, a drain. It has a further quality, one the study's authors relate to Selye's concept of eustress- stress that spurs us forward. To separate these challenges from the disruptive distress of a hindrance feels right, and this study provides evidence that doing so sharpens this solid model of what's in a job.

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. doi:10.1080/13594320903223839

*For the call centre workers, job resources did not relate to exhaustion. The authors suggest that in this group of more temporary workers exhaustion was driven by immediate concerns rather than long-term issues the resources can shield against.