Self-control demands and job strain

(Rivkin, Schmidt, Ulke, Kleinsorge)

Today’s work organization is characterized by changing, highly dynamic structures and environments in which adaptability, flexibility, and self-regulation of employees have become increasingly important. Such demands of today’s work cannot be met by automated and rigid patterns of behavior but rather call for considerable self-control at work. Self-control can be defined as overriding or inhibiting automatic, habitual, or spontaneous action tendencies, urges, emotions, or desires that would otherwise interfere with purposeful goal-directed behavior. Although self-control is related to personal success in many domains of life, a growing body of evidence in basic research strongly suggests that exerting self-control is also associated with psychological and physiological costs, which are largely unexplored in work settings. Thus, the aim of our research efforts is to analyze processes of job-related self-control including the associated costs in terms of job strain and impaired well-being.

Our previous studies have found different forms of job-related self-control demands (such as impulse control, resisting distractions, overcoming inner resistances) to explain additional amounts of variance in job strain over and beyond that accounted for by other well-established work stressors, such as workload, role stress, and lack of social support. Corresponding relationships could be demonstrated in both cross-sectional and longitudinal studies, among samples from various occupational settings (e. g., nursing, teaching, financial services), and in a broad spectrum of indicators of job strain (e. g., burnout, depressive symptoms, absenteeism) (see Schmidt & Diestel, 2015, for an overview). These relationships raise the question as to whether factors could be identified in the work environment or in the person that might strengthen or weaken the adverse influences of self-control demands. The identification of such boundary conditions is a dominant topic in stress research, not at least due to their implications for job redesign, training, or personnel selection.

As effect-strengthening boundary conditions, so far, we identified individual cognitive control deficits, the experience of incongruent personal and organizational goals, and the simultaneous coping with different forms of self-control demands. In contrast, high levels of self-control capacity (as an individual characteristic), a strong affective commitment to the organization, and job control (as a situational characteristic) have been found to protect employees against the detrimental effects of self-control demands (see Schmidt, 2015; Schmidt & Diestel, 2015).

In addition, self-monitoring as a personality trait amplifies the positive relationship between self-control demands and job strain (Freund et al., 2015), while the use of active, problem-focused coping strategies (Schmidt & Diestel, 2013) and psychological detachment from work during non-work time operate as buffer against the adverse influences of self-control demands (Rivkin et al., 2015a). A good sleep quality also contributes to strengthen depleted control resources (Diestel et al., 2015). Furthermore, the emotional labour strategy “surface acting” was found to consume the limited control resource more intensively than the strategy “deep acting”, with stronger effects on strain (Schmidt & Diestel, 2014). Complementary to most of our studies, which rely on interindividual variations as a basis to detect corresponding relationships, Rivkin et al. (2015b) and Diestel et al. (2015) used diary studies, which allows the observation of intraindividual variations in the time course and over several days.

Finally, two experimental studies found evidence for the assumption that the adverse influences of self-control demands on job strain are due to depleted individual control resources. The results of the first study show that persons with strong symptoms of burnout exhibit impairments in performing a Stroop task and a working memory task only when these tasks put high demands on self-control in the form of inhibition and memory processes, respectively (Diestel et al., 2013). In addition, Kleinsorge et al. (2014) demonstrated that in comparison with persons with low levels of burnout, persons with high emotional exhaustion (as core dimension of burnout) reveal a selective deficit in their ability to maintain their readiness to respond over a longer period of time.