Work teams and psychosocial risks and work stress

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Peter Oeij, Karolus Kraan, Steven Dhondt, TNO, the Netherlands

Introduction

Teamworking is a ‘double-edged sword’. On the one hand, teamworking has been recognised as a way of reducing work-related stress work-related stress by enhancing employees’ job autonomy. Conversely, there is a risk that teamworking could increase employee stress levels by enhancing work pressure. This article starts with a definition and a typology of teamwork, followed by a discussion of the prevalence of teamwork in Europe. Next, an overview is given of how teamworking may affect workers’ health and well-being. Finally, findings of research on outcomes of work teams are also examined and discussed.

Work teams: definition and typology

Definition

The definition of work teams applied in a Eurofound study is adopted for the purposes of this article (pp. 2-3)[1]. This broad definition of work teams combines the concepts of teams [2] and group work [3]. Teams are defined as ‘groups of employees who have at least some collective tasks and where the team members are authorised to regulate mutually the execution of these collective tasks’. Group work is defined by a common task requiring interdependent work and successive or integrative action.

Key features of teamwork outlined by the above definition are:

  1. carrying out collective tasks (communality); and
  2. regulating task performance within the team (team autonomy).

These key features are important to understand, as they aid in a better understanding and appreciation of the different types of teams and, in turn, the design of work teams, such as: lean teams and self-managed teams [4]. Good team design is one of the main components necessary for cultivating and sustaining healthy working environments. The literature often depicts a contrast between lean teams versus self-managed teams. In general, lean teams are understood as a team design associated with more health risks compared to self-managed teams [2] [5] [6].

Typology of work teams

The design of teams is important in terms of its consequences for psychosocial risks and work stress [6] [7]. The literature [5] distinguishes several aspects which characterised teams:

  1. degree of team member autonomy and involvement in decision-making;
  2. scope of involvement in different activities (such as, recruiting and disciplining team members, or just carrying out production work);
  3. type of team leadership; and
  4. degree of standardisation of procedures within teams.

The main types of teams [5] can be grouped into two broad categories:

  1. Tayloristic and neo-Tayloristic type: This type of teamworking is characterised by a low degree of autonomy, limited involvement and commitment, standardised tasks and high division of labour, and limited possibilities for learning. The literature [5] refers to these types of teams as traditional work groups (often referred to as Tayloristic teams) and/or lean production teams (also referred to as neo-Tayloristic teams or ‘low road teamworking’).
  2. Self-managing or autonomous type: This type of teamworking is characterised by a high degree of autonomy, high involvement and commitment, high task variety and a limited division of labour, and many possibilities for learning. The literature [5] refers to such teams as flexible work teams and self-managed teams (also referred to as autonomous or sociotechnical teams, or ‘high road teamworking’). Research has identified autonomy as an important factor in successfully coping with possible psychosocial risks and work stress [1] [5] [6] [8].

Prevalence of different types of work teams

The Fifth European Working Conditions Survey provides figures on the prevalence of teamwork (i.e., working in a group of employees who have at least some collective tasks) with a different level of autonomy in the European Union (EU) and other European countries [9].

The level of autonomy referred to the possibility of making decisions on:

  1. the division of tasks;
  2. who will be a head of the team; and
  3. the timetable of the work. In general, the survey observed a number of different types of teamwork across Europe, including cases where teams have little autonomy and resemble what is referred to as ‘low road’ teamworking and lean production, and cases of self-managed teams (i.e., where the team members decide by themselves).

As Figure 1 presents, one third of the employees in the EU27 indicated that their work involves no teamwork at all). In Portugal and Turkey, almost half of the employed population does not work in teams. Conversely, almost four out of five employees (approximately 80%) in Norway and Bulgaria do work in teams. However, it should be highlighted that in Bulgaria, working in the same departments or just in the same premises is also considered as ‘teamwork’. This implies that there exist different meanings of what ‘working in a team’ means [1].

Working in a team without autonomy (i.e., a lack of autonomy in the three aforementioned aspects) was reported by 26% of the employees in the EU27. More specifically, this practice is relatively common in Bulgaria (47%) and Cyprus (42%), and least so in Denmark (8%), Finland (11%) and Sweden (12%). Working in a team with moderate autonomy (i.e., autonomy in one or two aspects) is prevalent among 30% of the employed population in the EU27 and is relatively uncommon in Turkey (11%), whereas a relatively high proportion of employees working in teams with a moderate degree of autonomy can be found in the Nordic countries (Denmark (47%), Norway (41%), Sweden (39%) and Finland (39%), and in the Netherlands (43%). Furthermore, in the EU27 in total, an estimated 11% of the employees reported working in a team with a high degree of autonomy (autonomy in all three aspects). A relatively high proportion of employees in Sweden (22%), Norway (22%), Finland (20%) and Ireland (21%) work in such teams. However, teamwork defined by a high degree of autonomy was only marginally prevalent in Portugal (1%), Cyprus (4%) and Slovakia (6%).

Figure 1: Percentage of employees in teamwork by degree of autonomy of the teams, in the EU27 and in other European countries. [9].

Notes: Base = employees in workplaces/establishments/local sites with 10 or more employees. Calculations by TNO based on the fifth EWCS (2010)

The results indicate that at the European level, teamwork with moderate to low levels of autonomy is most typical. Teamwork defined by high levels of autonomy is less prevalent; although, it is more commonly observed in the Nordic countries and the Netherlands. This type of self-managed teams seems to be uncommon with only 11% of European employees working in teams with significant levels of autonomy. Teams without autonomy, such as Tayloristic teams, occur more often with around a quarter of all employees working in this type of team. In addition, almost a third of the employees work in teams with moderate level of autonomy (which may have some features of lean and of flexible teams).

Research on work teams and teamworking

Studies that systematically link types of teamwork to psychosocial risks and stress are sparse and not always of recent date. Firstly, three earlier published (review) studies that concentrate on the teamwork types of lean and self-managed teams (but not on tayloristic and flexible teams) and their associations with health risks and autonomy will be discussed [1] [5]. This is followed by a more recent dissertation presenting a case study on team design and the quality of work [4]. Next, the article discusses three recent meta-review studies that look at the relation between teamwork and psychological variables as outcomes. The first of these reviews studies psychological variables, but not specifically health or stress related variables [10]. The second study examines team design (but not using the typology described by this article) and health related effects [11]. The third examines health risks related to organisational design (namely organisational practices and psychological risks), but these are not always teams [12].

Workteam research and type of teams

A literature review carried out by Parker and Williams [5] focused on team-based working and its relationship to employee well-being. Two types of teams (i.e., self-managed teams and lean production teams) were studied. Revised studies demonstrated that self-managed teamworking is beneficial to employee well-being and can be beneficial for performance. The benefits of self-managed work teams include decreased absenteeism; decreased turnover; and reduced accident rates and in terms of performance, improvements in problem-management actions and strategies, increased product quality, and increased levels of innovation. Studies that have investigated lean production teams tend to find contradictory evidence. Two studies on lean production found very different effects of “just-in-time” production (a key element of lean production) on employee well-being. Whilst the introduction of “just-in-time” production decreased job satisfaction in one study [13], it was found to increase job satisfaction in another study [14]. Another study [15] found that there were little overall differences in Work-related stress for those in lean production teams, compared to those in traditional methods of working. There is little support for positive effects of lean production teams. Conversely, there is evidence that lean production has negative effects on employees' mental and physical health [5].

The inconsistency in findings on lean production parallels the debate within the literature, where some researchers have highlighted the potential negative effects of lean production teams on employees; whilst others argued that by rotating jobs and sharing responsibilities, multi-skilled workers have enriched jobs. A case-study, carried out in the Flemish metalworking sector, observed the relationship between team design and quality of working life [4]. This study, conducted amongst blue-collar metalworkers, showed that working in a team (there were Tayloristic and lean teams with low levels of autonomy present) had only a limited impact on workers’ stress levels. But assembly-line work remained the determining negative factor, whether it is team-based or not. Therefore, according to this study, assembly-line tasks, being tied to a specific work pace and location, strongly determined stress levels among workers.

Eurofound [1] studied teamwork as a new form of work organisation. Teamwork was measured by asking employees whether or not their job involves ‘doing all, or a part, of your work in a team’. Data analysis did not reveal a clear-cut positive relationship between the presence of teamwork and autonomy. The degree of employee autonomy was merely related to the profession. Teamworkers representing legislators and senior officials and managers, professionals, and technicians and associate professionals (so called higher ISCO categories) displayed greater autonomy, compared with other employee categories (in methods of work, pace of work and order of tasks). Craft and related trades workers, and plant and machine operators and assemblers reported very low levels of autonomy despite a high incidence of teamwork. Teamwork in general was also associated with a number of negative aspects, such as higher pace of work and greater amount of work. These aspects seem to be associated with low autonomy, like in Tayloristic and lean teams. As studies indicate, increased work intensity and work pressure may have a negative impact on employees’ health. Teamwork may take many forms and the quality of working life is closely linked to the way teamwork is implemented in a company [1]. The study namely states that Finland is an example of a good practice as teamworkers were found to have greater autonomy, better access to training and a greater chance of learning new things.

Research on psychological variables and work teams

Three more recent studies investigated outcomes of teamwork, although they do not differentiate between the aforementioned types of teamwork. Studies on work teams can be distinguished between those looking at: inputs (i.e,, organisational, team, individual characteristics); processes which describe team members’ interactions directed toward task accomplishment (i.e, how inputs are transformed in outcomes by the ‘mediating’ effect of actions and behaviours); and outcomes (i.e., results and by-products of team activity that are valued by one or more constituencies) [16]. Most outcome studies concentrate on performance related variables, including: team performance, team effectiveness, speed of task accomplishment, healthy competition in groups (to motivate individuals and help the team excel), developing relationships (bonding, avoidance of conflicts), team satisfaction, and team members sharing qualities [16] [17] [18] [19]. However, relatively few studies have investigated work team outcomes such as psychosocial risks and work stress work stress.

In a review of 55 scientific articles published in the period 2000-2005, Rasmussen and Jeppesen [10] found an almost consistent pattern of positive associations between psychological variables (such as, job satisfaction, team cohesion, team commitment and team potency) and teamwork. In only one study (of these 55), autonomous teamwork was found to be associated with individual job autonomy and a reduction in employee well-being. Furthermore, the reported psychological factors were also observed to be positively linked to team autonomy and team interdependence (i.e., performing tasks that require interdependence between members). In 47 of the included studies, relationships between psychosocial factors and teamwork were found, but the researchers could not specify the direction of causality (a cross-sectional design was applied). In the other 8 studies, where a longitudinal design was used including one quasi-experiment, results indicated both positive and negative outcomes were associated with teamwork. Positive outcomes were perceived performance, safety behaviour, potency, team climate and shared vision. Negative outcomes were higher strain, lower cohesiveness, uncertainty, lower job satisfaction and turnover intention. None of these 8 studies investigated the role of team autonomy or interdependence. The types of teamwork mentioned earlier were not applied.

Bambra and colleagues [11] conducted a meta-analysis of the health and psychosocial effects (with reference to the demand–control–support model [10]) of changes to the work environment brought about by the restructuring of tasks and the work organisation. The task-restructuring interventions (i.e., reorganisations) that were studied and are related to teams are ‘teamworking’ and ‘autonomous groups’ [11]. In teamworking, workers are given more collective responsibility and decision-making power. However, similar to traditional work teams mentioned earlier, workers still do their work rather as individual tasks, meaning that responsibility is not shared(because employees do not always work on the same location, like postal workers). As responsibility is not shared the hierarchal supervisory structures remain in place. Teamworking as applied in task-restructuring interventions seems to be associated with the Tayloristic type of work teams.

Work groups (‘autonomous groups’according to Bambra et al) included in this study involved interventions that were specific for mass production environments (e.g., car manufacturing). In such cases, it is often used to reduce the prevalence of traditional production line characteristics (such as, individualised, isolated, repetitive tasks) by increasing skill variety and collective involvement. It combines aspects of job enrichment and teamworking as well as increased worker participation (within-group democracy). These work groups are further divided into two subgroups by Bambra et al. [11]:

  1. “Lean production’’ and ‘‘just in time’’. Lean production resembles the earlier presented description of ‘lean teams’, while ‘‘just in time’’ is a related variant, requiring products to be made ‘‘just in time’’, avoiding costs for stockpiling of products, et cetera.
  2. “Autonomous work groups” resembling ‘self-managed teams’.

The ‘Tayloristic’ teamworking interventions tended to improve the psychosocial work environment for many, but not for all workers. The health effects, however, were less apparent. The autonomous work groups, especially ‘lean production’ and ‘just in time’ workgroups, contrary to the stated aims of such interventions, created an observed deterioration in the work environment. The resulting health effects, such as job anxiety and depression and musculoskeletal symptoms, were correspondingly mostly adverse.[11]. Bambra and colleagues [11] say that it is important to note that interventions did not always greatly alter the psychosocial work environment at all, and so could not be expected to have a measurable effect on health.

Bambra and colleagues’ [11] review of nineteen performed studies (i.e., experimental and quasi-experimental study designs) led to the general conclusion that task-restructuring interventions that increase demand (more workload) or decrease control (less autonomy) adversely affect the health of employees. The review suggests that the interventions that enhance the perceived level of control amongst workers seemed to affect health positively. The findings point to work teams with much autonomy and job control, like ‘autonomous groups’, although this picture is not always consistent. Bambra and colleagues [11] explain this by stating that the evidence base in only partial and the studies included in the review were subject to a number of methodological limitations.

Westgaard and Winkel [12] performed a meta-review of 144 studies to identify occupational musculoskeletal musculoskeletal and mental health mental health effects of production system rationalisation, as well as organisational-level measures that may improve health outcomes (further referred to as “modifiers”). Rationalisation refers to an organisational strategy to make a company more competitive. These strategies are related to the design of organisations and jobs, but not always explicitly to the design of teams. Although some rationalisation strategies implicitly favour the idea of ‘teams with more autonomy’ compared to other strategies. Rationalisations, in general, showed a dominant negative effect on health and risk factors, such as: musculoskeletal symptoms , psychosocial risks , stress , job demands and job satisfaction . The rationalisation strategy High Performance Work System (HPWS) was, however, associated with the highest fraction of positive outcomes for health and risk factors compared to other types of rationalisations (especially, on downsizing and restructuring ). HPWS consists of a bundle of organisational and human resource practices. HPWS resembles work with autonomy and challenging tasks, whilst other rationalisation strategies, such as lean practices and parallel instead of serial production (neo-Tayloristic and Tayloristic work), do not. These more Tayloristic and lean types of rationalisation reported intermediate results. HPWS is, in other studies, often associated with autonomous work teams; although Westgaard and Winkel [12] do not mention that explicitly. Worker participation, resonant management style (i.e, empathic and listening style), information (i.e, about the rationalisation process), support, independent group working (i.e. in fact group autonomy ) and procedural justice were ‘modifiers’; with favourable influence on measured health outcomes. Westgaard and Winkel [12] concluded that production system rationalisation represents a pervasive work life intervention without a primary occupational health focus. It has considerable and mostly negative influences on worker health, but this can be reduced by paying attention to and inclusion of high levels of ‘modifiers’, such as group autonomy (team autonomy) [see also in the same vein [19].

It can be learned from this overview that Tayloristic and lean work design appear to be associated with healthy work environment. Jobs with control and autonomy seem to be associated with less health risks. In relation to the previous sections it seems appropriate to assume that self-managed work teams, by definition, feature the highest autonomy compared to Tayloristic, lean and flexible work teams; and, therefore, team members are confronted with relatively lower levels of psychosocial risks and work stress.

Concluding remarks

The current article has examined the relationship between teamworking and the psychosocial work environment. From the overall picture from the scientific literature on how teamworking may affect worker’s health and other work outcomes, it can be concluded that healthy teamworking likely depends on the organisation of work processes in organisations, which influences the presence of psychosocial risks and work stress. It can be concluded that workteams may buffer psychosocial risks and decrease work stress, but only when employees have control and autonomy to regulate the workload and how the work is done. This seems to be associated more with self-managed teams compared to tayloristic, lean and flexible teams. ‘Organisational choices’ about the design of work teams, such as common tasks and level of autonomy of teams, may significantly affect psychosocial risks and work stress for team members (see also [20]). Still, more rigorous research is needed to build up a stronger evidence-base for this postulation. The connection between psychological outcomes and type of work team is perhaps not one-way and straightforward. It may be assumed to be influenced by such intervening factors as organisational context, labour market, line of business and management philosophies.

References

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Links for further reading

Eurofound – European Foundation for the Improvement of Living and Working Conditions, European Working Conditions Survey (EWCS). Retrieved 31 January 2013, from: [3]

Eurofound – European Foundation for the Improvement of Living and Working Conditions, European Working Conditions Survey (EWCS), Survey mapping tool. Retrieved 31 January 2013, from: [4]