Healthy Corporate Cultures in Times of Crisis

Promoting Mental Health at Work in Times of Crisis

Prof. Dr. Peter Richter
Dresden University of Technology, Department of Psychology
Work and Organizational Psychology

1. The Psychosocial Costs of Economical Crisis

It is expected that the global economical "Tsunami" will also reach the European welfare states this summer followed by typical  psychosocial risks: increasing imbalance between "business class" and "working class", increase in income inequality (a predictor of perceived loss of control and increasing suicide rate in East-European post-communistic countries, de Voglio, 2008), increasing residential mobility of workers, dramatic increase of unemployment, and a general anxiety regarding the future. Symptoms on the organizational level may include decrease in profits, increase in costs, and lower stock price. Other typical reactions are reduced training, layoffs, salary freeze, and increase of part time as well as contract labour. Effects on the individual level are likely to be in the form of challenges for occupational physicians and human resource management such as decreased motivation and effort, enhanced turnover and accidents, increase in absenteeism, and reduced job satisfaction (Peffer, 1998).

It is under such conditions that the well known psychosocial risk factors characterize the discussion in occupational medicine and stress research (e.g. Sonnentag & Frese, 2003, Richter 2006, Semmer, 2006, Siegrist & Theorell, 2008, Ulich & Wülser, 2005)

Tab. 1: Psychosocial Risk Factors at Work

2. Psychosocial Resources and Recent Developments in Epidemiological Risk Evaluation

Since the Ottawa Health Conference in1986 the dominance of pathogenetic thinking in medicine is giving way to the newer salutogenetic preventive  approach, which includs Preventive Psychology and Psychology and Engineering ( Macik-Frey et al., 2009). These are characterised not only by focusing on stressors, but also by the development of psychosocial resources as a new discipline in Occupational Health Psychology (OHP).

The international standards for work task design (EN DIN 614-2) and the criteria for ergonomical design of workload (ISO EN DIN 10 075 -2) serve as an efficient frame for the design of healthy work. Specifically, these standards and criteria promote:

  • work should be complete and purposeful
  • permit to use skills, abilities and activities
  • amount of freedom and independence
  • sufficient feedback
  • neither over- nor under- load for operators
  • absence of repetitive tasks
  • social integration and cooperation (see also Ulich & Wülser, 2005).

These work characteristics widely conform to the framework of work design (task, social, and contextual) recommended in a meta-analysis by Humphry, Nahrgang & Morgenson (2007).

Two epidemiological risk assessment models have successfully dominated the empirical research on job stress and health over the past 20 years: the Job Demand- Control model (JDC, Karasek, 1979, Karasek & Theorell, 1990) and the Effort-Reward model (Siegrist et al. 2008, Siegrist & Theorell, 2008). We assume our readers are familiar with these models, thus we will not describe them in detail but rather stress some recent developments.

The key preventive mechanism according to the JDC is the buffer function that increased perceived control plays and which can moderate the negative health effects of high job demands. Hüttges and Moldaschl (2009) showed in the field of research and development that control about work has an independent  incremental contribution to innovation behaviour and mental health beyond the well known effect of control at work. In the sense of Industrial Democracy (ID), control about work is operationalized as influence on work context, goal and profit sharing and time sovereignty.

Also the ERI model which argues that lack of reciprocity between effort and reward leads to arousal and stress, has been extended and developed in the last years. For instance, it has been found that damage to the professional aspiration level ("Stress  as Offence  to Self" (SOS), e.g.  disrespectful behaviour of supervisors and colleagues, dysfunctional social support, illegitimate tasks) is connected with increased feelings of resentment, irritation, burnout, and reduced job satisfaction (Semmer et al., 2007). Also, an increase in psychosomatic complaints has been shown to connect with increase of illegitimate tasks ( e.g. underloading tasks for skilled workers). This form of "gratification crisis" is similar to organisational injustice as an independent predictor of health (Kivimäki et al., 2004). For example, investigations in Finish hospitals have shown that perceived injustice of the decision making process and of inter-personal treatment result in a significant increase in sickness, especially in relation to minor psychiatric morbidity. Daily newspaper have often reported that  this SOS- syndrome and organizational injustice, connected with anxiety about future, are typical symptoms of working life in times of economical crisis.


3. Job Demand - Resource Model and Appropriate Approaches for Diagnosis of Mental Load and Strain

Dutch psychologists in Utrecht and Rotterdam developed and validated a Job Demands- Resources (JDR) model (Bakker & Demiorouti, 2007, Hakanen, Schaufeli & Ahola, 2008).

The model postulates a balance structure among different processes of job demands (health impairment process) and resources (motivational process). Both process structures are in an interactions process about longer time phases.

Figure 1: Application of the job demand-resource (JDR) model to the structure of health complaints and motivation in a sample of assembling workers 

High personal resources (self-efficacy) and complex tasks have especially significant buffering effect on burnout. On the other hand, reduce high burnout (emotional exhaustion) significant workers motivation.   For example, it has been found that personal resources that developed in a follow up- period of 1 year under conditions of organizational turbulences (monthly recorded process changes) positively influenced the reduction of health complaints and stabilization of the motivation process (Wolf & Nebel, 2009).

The most effective way of stress-management is the design of prevention mechanism as a combination of both person-focused and work-focused strategies. Our strategy consists of a combination of classical questionnaire methods and an action-oriented development of  observer- interview technique with computerized  assessment of job design features and the derivation of short- term load consequences like mental fatigue, monotony, satiation and stress (sensus Lazarus) by use of linear regression models (Pohlandt & Schulze, 2008). An advantage of this REBA-model (Rechnergestützte Bewertung von Arbeitsinhalten) is its applicability in early stages of the technological-organizational design process on basic foundations of the technological documentation. A guide handbook for ergonomics, task analysis and training procedures is implemented in the software tool REBA 8.1. This tool is available in English and German.

The following example demonstrates the application of this observer-oriented (objective) method. Task analysis of agents in both front and back office was conducted in an in-house call centre. The front office agents receive inbound telephone calls and predominantly handle information regarding the company’s products, registration formalities, as well as invoicing problems.  On average, each conversation lasts 2 – 3 minutes, with  80% of conversations content concerns advice and problem solving, and 20% concerns complaints management. Figure 2 represent the situation before redesign.

Figure 2: Task profile of front office agents before redesign 

The coloured elements signal the quality of  the design of ergonomic levels of feasibility, occupational safety, risks of psychological over-or underload, and health-oriented features of task design. Specifically, red means "critical", green "well designed" and yellows "design problems". The job has too much ergonomic weaknesses (defects of posture, noise, inappropriate illumination) and too much inbound calls (75% of the work time). This results in loss of temporal and procedural degrees of freedom, loss of feedback, low group responsibility, and a low degree of challenging organizational functions. About 6 month of so-called "design workshops" including 6 – 8 agents were conducted by external consultants. The workshops included introduction of a communication training, ergonomic improvements, task rotation and additional tasks from the back office area. In that way the critical telephone call time was reduced in up to 60%, and  the ergonomic quality of the job design was improved.

Figure 3: Task profile of the front office agents after redesign

As shown in Figure 3, the weaknesses in ergonomics were reduced in the redesign process. Also, the newly implemented task rotation reduced the deficits resulted from the job content of the front office work.

As an approach with subjective assessment methods we recommend a stress- strain questionnaire battery with validated and standardized scales:

  • stress:   JDC model (Richter et al., 2000), ERI (Siegrist et al., 2008), job conditions (SALSA, Udris & Rimann, 1999), leadership styles (MLQ, Felfe 2006)
  • strain:   Well-Being WHO 5 (Brähler et al., 2007), GBB-24 (Brähler et al. 2004) Organizational Self-Esteem (OSBE, Kanning, 2004), Stress, Anxiety, Depression (DASS, Lovibond, 1995), Burnout (MBI-GS, Schaufeli et al., 1995), Work Engagement (UWES, Schaufeli & Bakker, 2002)

The existence of standard values permit cut- offs and  a strong algorithm for derivation of measures of job redesign according to the standards EN  DIN  614  and  ISO  EN DIN 10 075.

4. Psychosocial Resource Development in Times of Crisis

The key function of human-centred job design has to be oriented towards maintaining a positive self-value, high self- efficacy and an satisfying social integration. These values are endangered in times of economic and social crisis by the deterioration of sense of coherence and the loss of identity.  The underlying mechanisms  are well known from the long tradition of research on unemployment.  A strong human-centred orientation in job design should hopefully result in improved coping with the consequences of the crisis, and  be supported by the use of new developments of cost- benefits analysis of the occupational health promotion (Fritz, 2006). We expect that the confirmation of motivational and economic benefits of our approach will facilitate the acceptance of human-oriented job design by organizations.

A summary of the links between changes of work conditions, salutogenetic job characteristics and short- and long-term health consequences is illustrated in Figure 4.

Figure 4: A frame of human-centred prospective job design  




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