A colleague working in the transport sector notably mentioned the other day that trains have been running to schedule everyday since COVID-19 prevented most Victorians from using trains. Jokingly, he said ‘see, it was the demands of transporting passengers that caused all these problems the whole time!’. There’s some truth to this. A system that is not under any pressure can quite easily operate with minimal disruption or fuss. Of course, no business can operate without customers for long and every organisation will always be under some pressure to deliver in not always perfect conditions. What happens when the pressure is too much? Do people thrive under pressure or is it causing all sorts of problems with productivity, performance and mental health and well-being?
The elephant in the room
Excessive job demands are often ignored as simply 'part of the job'. Production pressure, competing demands, unrealistic time pressures—all of these things have long been the elephant in the room when it comes to problems such as mental fatigue, stress, and productivity concerns.
Don’t mind the elephant crushing you (and your soul), let’s just get this next project out the door.
There is also a tendency for organisations to ignore the elephant in the room by focussing on individual resilience rather than addressing the real cause of workplace stress. This basically telling people that they need to get better at working around the elephant.
It has become increasingly apparent that to maximise effectiveness, workplace wellbeing approaches need to do more than address individual factors (1, 2) by improving work related factors (1). Improving workplace factors means diagnosing the systemic organisational issues, such as unclear processes and systems, and implementing changes with a longer-term view. However, here’s the real challenge. The very people who can make the systemic improvements are also getting crushed by the elephant!
Leaders and individual employees are so preoccupied with immediate problems, they do not have time to remove the elephant that is weighing them down.
In short, they just don’t have the head space to fix the real problem. So, they just try to get better at managing the elephant or until the elephant breeds and starts a safari park.
What does the research say?
Researchers define job demands as ‘organisational aspects of a job that require sustained physical or mental effort’ (3). They include things such as role overload, role ambiguity, cognitive demand, emotional demand, and group relationship conflict, and have been found to be one of the most common and important sources of workplace stress (4, 5, 6).
When job demands outweigh the resources available to meet them, or are chronic, ongoing, and highly complex, employee’s mental and physical resources can be exhausted, leading to a depletion of energy and health problems (1,3,7,8). For instance, when the ‘fight or flight’ stress response is triggered, workers can feel constantly under pressure, unable to make time for breaks, and experience problems with communication, clarity of thought, decision making and reduced creativity (9, 10). At its most extreme, this can lead to burnout (4, 7).
Do stress reduction programs work?
There are many types of interventions that help with mindfulness and managing stress. Furthermore, employees are often provided with organisational support in the form of Employee Assistance Programs, which can be called upon to help individuals better manage their stresses.
Individuals can also access psychologists and counsellors to address individual changes to their behaviour. All of these things have value. But they should be considered first aid rather than long-term improvement to systemic job design, which needs support from managers and leaders.
The elephant will continue to cast its shadow over worker wellbeing if it is not acknowledged and addressed (11).
Reducing job demands through simplification
Despite its importance, one of the key elements in workplace wellbeing that is often overlooked is job design—how jobs, tasks, and roles are structured, enacted and modified. In addition to the negative impacts of job demands outlined above, an overly complex job design can adversely impact organisational culture, mental health, and wellbeing, create inefficiencies and stifle creativity. (2, 12). When job design is not considered then work tasks and workload happen by default rather than by design. Job simplification is one way to reduce job demands, thereby reducing the associated negative impacts and increasing wellbeing. There are several examples of areas in which simplification principles can be applied. For example, overly complex policies and procedures can be made simpler, workflow systems can be streamlined, and more efficient communication pathways can be established.
Improving productivity and innovation
Job design improvements are not just about the mental health and well-being of employees. Often, the obstacles to innovation, greater motivation and productivity, as well as focus and determination, can be brought about through job simplification. This is why the Simplify Project is addressing job design. By doing so, we aim to give employees the head space and time to focus on what matters by addressing specific areas of complexity in their workplace.
How can we help?
We have developed a survey that can assist organisations to identify sources of workplace complexity and lead to improvements in job design and demands.
Use the link below to assess the level of simplification in your workplace and get started on your journey towards a more efficient,healthy, and creative workplace.
1) Comcare (2010) Effective health and wellbeing programs. PUB 82, Comcare, Canberra.
2) Vanhove, A. J., Herian, M. N.,Perez, A. L. U., Harms, P. D., & Lester, P. B. (2015). Can resilience be developed at work? A meta‐analytic review of resilience‐building programme effectiveness. Occupational and Organizational Psychology, 89(2), 278-307
3) Tims, M., & Bakker, A.B. (2010). Job crafting: Towards a new model of individual job redesign. SA Journal of Industrial Psychology, 36(2), Art. #841, 9 pages. DOI: 10.4102/ sajip.v36i2.841
4) Jimmieson, N., Bordia, P, & Tucker, M.(2016) People at work project: An assessment of psychosocial hazards in the workplace: Final report to partner organisations. Retrieved from https://www.worksafe.qld.gov.au/__data/assets/pdf_file/0005/125546/paw-report.pdf
5) Wang, Y., Huang, J., & You, X., (2016).Personal resources influence job demands, resources, and burnout: A one-year,three-wave longitudinal study. Social Behavior and Personality, 44(2), 247-258
6) WorksafeVictoria. Work-related stress: Safety basics. What causes work-related stress and how to avoid it. Retrieved from https://www.worksafe.vic.gov.au/work-related-stress-safety-basics
7) Demerouti, E., Bakker,A. B., Nachreiner, F., & Schaufeli, W. B. (2001). The job demands-resources model of burnout. Journal of Applied Psychology, 6(3), 499-512
8) Safework Australia. Mental health in the workplace. Retrieved from https://www.safeworkaustralia.gov.au/topic/mental-health
9) Boyd, A. 1997. Employee traps—corruption in the workplace. Management Review, 86: 9.
10) Harter,J.K., Schmidt, F.L, & Keyes, C.L. (2002). Well-being in the Workplace and its Relationship to Business Outcomes: A Review of the Gallup Studies. In C.L.Keyes & J. Haidt (eds), Flourishing: The Positive Person and the Good Life(pp. 205-224). Washington DC: American Psychological Association.
11) Santa-Barbara, J., and Shain, S.J.D. (2006). When workplace stress stifles productivity. Drake Business Review, 1(1).
12) Elmansy, R. The six systems thinking steps to solve complex problems. Retrieved from https://www.designorate.com/systems-thinking-steps-solve-complex-problems/