Employee suicides in the workplace have become a recognized societal problem about which occupational psychologists have begun to enlighten us. Now, studies allow us to better understand the complex machinery of the relationship between employees and their work. In this second of two articles, we look at the delicate balance between finding fulfillment and self-destructing at work.
1 - Finding Happiness at Work, Part 1: A Cocktail of Efficiency?
2 - Finding Happiness at Work, Part 2: The Complex Machinery of Suffering at Work
This article is a translation of “Le bonheur au travail, cocktail de l’efficacité ?” It was translated from French by Timothée Froelich.
The Job Demands-Resources model (see diagram below) represents happiness at work as something simple to put in place and within everyone’s reach. But, of course, the psychological aspect – self-esteem for instance – is not a simple variable to manipulate. Psychologically, we all differ greatly, depending on our personality, health, etc. Over the last 20 years, according to Christophe Dejours, a specialist in the psychodynamics of work, occupational health doctors have unanimously reported a major increase in work-related psycho-pathological problems, including suicides at work.
In France and around the world, happiness at work has been given the utmost attention. In February 2011, a study showed that people unhappy with their private life were less likely to flourish at work. Performance criteria changed, partially because of globalization, which may have encouraged the development of individual assessment of employee performance and flexibility. These elements are thought to have contributed to degrading working conditions for some years.
Furthermore, Christophe Dejours claims that, for people suffering at work, the problem is related to the inability to overcome the “reality of work”. By “reality”, he means the aspects of work that escape the knowledge of the worker. When employees are given a task, some aspects of the task are beyond their actual control. In this case, at first, the workers get a taste of reality, that is, they work and fail. Then, they must be able to overcome this barrier, be resourceful, and find tricks to compensate for their weaknesses. This state of failure sometimes lasts over a long period and some find it very difficult to bear. This partially explains why workers may be driven to end their life because of their work and in spite of a well-balanced private life.
The Job Demands-Resources model shows a virtuous
circle centered on professional commitment.
Working: finding fulfillment or self-destruction
In Romance languages, the words referring to “work” come from the word trepalium, commonly translated as “instrument of torture”. But how can we be so affected by our work? First of all, it is because most of us need a job to forge an identity. On the one hand, work is a way to develop new aptitudes and on the other hand, because it makes us face obstacles, work is a way to discover ourselves, to acknowledge our capacities and to re-invent ourselves. Outside the working context, it is also a way to build ourselves an identity. Simultaneously, work can also be bad for workers and erode their personality, as well as the image they have of themselves. According to Christophe Dejours, “Work is the opportunity to find fulfillment, or to self-destruct.”
Everything depends on both the way work is organized and the amount of freedom it leaves, and also on the psychological state of the worker. According to Christophe Dejours, when you make a contribution through your work, you expect some recognition and some remuneration. The first is moral, the second material, but both have a significant psychological impact on our work. This effect can be negative, or positive. These elements allow the worker to forge an identity and some self-esteem. Feeling useful is also a key element of the benefits of work.
To conclude, professionally committed people are physically, cognitively, and emotionally involved in their job, which favors their success and their efficiency, as well as the success and efficiency of the people around them. It is possible to make a list of the conditions, both professional and personal, and of the consequences of professional commitment. A theoretical model has thus been defined. It highlights the existence of a virtuous circle forming around the committed worker. Professional commitment likely results from the core of human psychology.
However, occupational psychology studies have revealed that the workings of the relationship an employee has with his or her job are much more complex, especially in cases of suicides at work, in spite of a personal and professional life that did not seem to be unduly troubled. Nowadays, the employee identifies less closely with a group of workers, which explains the decrease in unionization, but is more exposed as an individual. The employee undergoes a performance evaluation to find fulfillment in his or her work and private life, depending on rewards associated with work (recognition/salary). Suffering at work is an affliction that has increased over the last twenty years. The main cause seems to be that the worker’s position in the international professional sphere has changed a great deal. Nevertheless, occupational psychology studies provide simple management keys to help build a healthy environment enhancing happiness at work and, so, professional commitment.
Find out more:
Key questions regarding work engagement, Bakker, A. B., Albrecht, S. L. and Leiter, M. P., European Journal of Work and Organizational Psychology, 20: 1, 4 – 28 (2011), https://psycnet.apa.org/record/2011-03226-003
Psychological conditions of personal engagement and disengagement at work, W. A. Kahn, Academy of Management journal 33 : 4, 692 (1990), https://www.jstor.org/stable/256287
Blog of Prof. A. Bakker, http://www.arnoldbakker.com/jdrmodel.php
Work Engagement, Job Satisfaction, and Productivity—They’re a Virtuous Cycle, https://www.psychologicalscience.org/news/releases/work-engagement-job-satisfaction-and-productivitytheyre-a-virtuous-cycle.html
An evidence-based model of work engagement, A. B. Bakker, Invited paper of Current Directions in Psychological Science vol. 20 no. 4 265-269 (2011) https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/abs/10.1177/0963721411414534
Souffrance et plaisir au travail, Christophe Dejours, psychoanalyst and researcher in work psychodynamics https://www.cairn.info/revue-travailler-2016-1-page-17.htm