Psychosocial risks and job performance

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John Klein Hesselink, Peter Oeij and Karolus Kraan, TNO, the Netherlands.

Job performance

In this article, we concentrate on explaining job performance from the perspective of psychosocial risks in the work environment. Many risks may hinder good job performance. The article does not concentrate on physical (such as, carrying heavy loads) or environmental risks (such as, extreme heat or cold) which also affect job performance [1]. The psychosocial risks examined in this article in relation to job performance are related to job characteristics such as workload, lack of control, social context, career outcomes, job conditions, and acute stressors.

Definitions of job performance

Job performance indicates how well an individual worker achieves in accomplishing daily work. It is the sum of behaviours and opinions of an individual to perform in a job, and includes concepts, such as: involvement in the job, satisfaction in the job, and being skilled in the job. In fact, job performance is an individual characteristic of a worker that describes a dimension that ranges from very poor to very well. Production or productivity is an outcome of job performance. However, it is important to note that productivity is dependent on a multitude of factors beyond job performance exclusively [2]. Therefore, good job performance, for instance, does not always equate to high productivity. Consider, for example, car sellers job performance may be impaired during economic bad times; whilst, in contrast, job performers may achieve high productivity in favourable circumstances.

Job performance is not always directly visible by looking at an individual performing a job. Definitions of job performance, therefore, include sets of characteristics that describe the intentions and behaviours of an individual to perform. There is a long history in examining these concepts. At the end of the twentieth century, the definitions were integrated into some agreed conceptualisations to be used by scientists [3]. We concentrate on definitions of job performance relevant with psychosocial risks. Definitions, which we do not discuss here, are those that, for example, concentrate on subjects such as personnel selection or career development.

Rotundo and Rotman [2] define job performance as actions that contribute to organisational goals and that are under the individual’s control. They group the concept of job performance into three categories of behaviours: task performance, organisational citizenship, and counterproductive performance. Task performance is behaviour that contributes to the production of goods or the provision of a service. Organisational citizenship behaviour adds to the goals of the organisation by contributing to its social and psychological environment. Behaviours implied are helping others, keeping others informed, promoting the image of the organisation, volunteering, and making suggestions for improvement. Counterproductive performance is behaviours that are intended by the individual, but violate organisational norms and harm the well-being of the organisation. Examples of these behaviours are the misuse of time and resources, inappropriate verbal actions, or intended poor quality work.

Rosen and colleagues [3] embrace the three category definition mentioned by Rotundo and Rotman [2], but add two additional categories. The fourth category is cognitive functioning. Cognitive processes such as, working memory, reaction times and attention span, are affected by stressors in organisational settings, subsequently influencing job performance. The fifth category is team performance. More and more employees work in teams with their own types of stressors, such as waiting for input or working with inadequate results of other workers. A sixth category, proposed by Hanisch and Hulin and closely related to counterproductive behaviour, is withdrawal [4]. It is defined as employees' attempts to remove themselves from their work tasks or environment, for instance by means of absenteeism, tardiness, and turnover.

How to measure job performance

In measuring or appraising job performance, the goal of the measurement is important to consider. In general, there are two groups of professionals interested in job performance. Firstly, practitioners (like trainers, educators and personnel selectors) who want to optimise organisational staffing and career paths; and secondly, scientific researchers who want to understand and enhance theoretical insight. Both groups often measure job performance by collecting information directly from employees (i.e., self-report data), but in case of job performance, answers of employees may be subjected to social desirability bias. This is the tendency of respondents to answer questions in a manner that will be viewed favourably by others. An improvement, therefore, is to ask the opinion and ratings of the supervisor, but it is important to consider that the opinion of superiors may also be one-sided/ biased [5].

To prevent a one-sided bias, 360-degree performance appraisals systems came into use [6]. In these systems, performance measurement of the target employee is provided by all persons surrounding the target person to be appraised, such as: the supervisors, peers, subordinates, internal and/or external customers, and/or the ratee him/herself. One important characteristic of the 360-degree performance appraisal system in organisations is the agreement by its users that it is a fair system, which will also result in a better acceptance by the users. Martell and Leavitt [7] refer in this case to the ‘Zeitgeist’ surrounding flatter organisations, with the ideal of team-oriented, egalitarian and collaborative culture. The 360-degree performance appraisal system fits well in these kinds of working environments, where discussion and feedback on the contribution of employees is part of the culture. However, 360-degree appraisal is time consuming and costly and the benefits, in general, may be overvalued in comparison to the effort, when too much and too much overlapping information is collected [6].

There are also other techniques that can be used to avoid one-sided bias in employee performance appraisal. It is important however to always make sure that facts are not confused with opinions. Opinions are context dependent and prone to social desirability bias. Also, reliably constructed scales with different questions covering different aspects of the concept can be used. Researchers also use other measurement techniques, such as: direct observation, observation by others, and document research. One important distinction often used is subjectively rated versus objectively rated performance [8].

An important issue central to our understanding of performance measurement is whether or not an individual’s job performance is static or dynamic [4]. In other words: is job performance a stable or a dynamic construct? Does it develop during the career path or during the lifecycle of an employee? Theory suggests that job performance should improve with training, work experience, and mentoring/coaching. But also providing feedback on the results in a performance appraisal should alter an employee to improve their job performance.

Job performance and psychosocial risks

Different models and theories can be used to increase understanding of the relationship between psychosocial risks and job performance. The association between psychosocial risks and job performance is complex, because of the many different types of psychosocial risks that may relate in different ways to job performance [3]. Besides that, causality in the relationship is often circular or reciprocal. The reason is that psychosocial risks not only contribute to job performance, but also that job performance contributes to psychosocial risks [3], for instance when decreased performance adds to a piling workload. From this point of view, low job performance can even be seen as a psychosocial risk itself.

There are many models and theories that may help explain the relationship between psychosocial risks and job performance. However, after a century of research, scientists still have difficulty predicting why and how the relationship between work stressors and job performance exactly works [3]. One reason is that there are many work stressors, different job performance definitions, and aspects of job performance. Depending on the definition of job performance, work stressors may have different effects. Psychosocial risks that are often studied in relation to job performance are described in Rosen and colleagues [3] and include: role ambiguity, excessive workload, situational constraints, lack of control, social characteristics, poor career outcomes, poor job conditions, and acute stressors. Another psychosocial problem typically examined is a poor balance between work and private life.

Six theories that may help explain the relationship between psychosocial risks and job performance are presented below. The job-demands-resources model proposes that employee health, well-being and performance are stimulated by designing work with an adequate amount of job demands and control over work [9] [10]. The effort reward imbalance model emphasises that health, well-being and performance will be stimulated by a balance between effort (extrinsic job demands and intrinsic motivation to meet these demands) and reward (in terms of salary, esteem reward, and security/career opportunities - i.e. job security, promotion prospects and status consistency) [11] [10]. Expectancy theory predicts that the motivation of an employee is determined by how much individuals want a reward (Valence), the assessment of the likelihood that the effort will lead to expected performance (Expectancy) and the belief that the performance will lead to reward (Instrumentality). Motivation is the product of the individual’s expectancy that a certain effort will lead to the intended performance, the instrumentality of this performance to achieving a certain result, and the desirability of this result for the individual [12] [13]. According to social exchange theory, individuals engage in a series of interdependent interactions that generate obligations among the exchange parties. Mutual exchanges, that improve for instance social support and positive interpersonal interactions, strengthen the quality of the relationship between the exchange parties, which thereby produces beneficial and productive behaviours such as job performance [14] [15] [16]. The psychosocial safety climate theory proposes that shared perceptions of organisational policies, practices and procedures for the protection of worker psychological health and safety, that stem largely from management practices, determine work conditions and subsequently, psychological health problems and work engagement [17]. Finally the work engagement theory stimulates organizations to invest in energetic and dedicated employees: people who are engaged with their work. Organizations expect proactivity, initiative and responsibility for personal development from their employees. Engaged employees are fully involved in, and enthusiastic about their work [18] [19].

Implications for psychosocial risk management

From the point of view of psychosocial risk management, two questions on the relation of job stressors with job performance are important.

Do psychosocial hazards decrease job performance?

Empirical findings on the relationship between psychosocial risks and job performance are found, in general, to be small and inconsistent [3] [10] [20]. This has been attributed to the fact that most occupational stress researchers only make general predictions about the relationship between stressors and job performance [10], and to the fact that there are many types of stressors [3] that do not have the same impact on job performance for all situations. Chang, Rosen and Levy [21], for instance, showed that three different stressors (perceived organisational politics, role ambiguity, and role conflict) are differentially related to performance. All three are negatively related to job performance, but perceived organisational politics more in public than in private sectors, role ambiguity more among managers than among workers, and role conflict more in jobs with less autonomy, with interpersonal contacts with others, and among workers with less experience.

Rosen and colleagues [3] provided an updated review of research examining the relationships between occupational stressors and job performance. They concluded that stressors, such as role ambiguity and situational constraints (lack of information, time, budget, tools, equipment, materials, etc.), showed a stronger and more consistent negative impact on job performance than other stressors. Stressors such as high workload, interpersonal demands (conflicts, aggression, harassment), and job insecurity had a fluctuating effect on job performance, depending on the characteristics of the situation and individual differences. The authors, therefore, recommended researchers to shift their focus from theory development to testing existing theories more precisely, and to focus on examining potential moderators and mediators of this relationship. For more information on this subject the reader is referred to the work-related stress Wiki article.

A more promising way to investigate the relation between psychosocial hazards and job performance is to look at the outcomes of intervention studies. Intervention studies not only confirm relationships in an existing situation, like cross-sectional or longitudinal studies do, but also test if this relationship can be influenced. A successful and well controlled intervention study is the best way to confirm the existence of a relationship. Intervention studies are scarce however, but the few studies available show promising results [3]. Also experimental studies in laboratory settings are lacking [3]. These studies in particular can investigate the precise causal links between psychosocial risks and job performance in a detailed way.

Do good psychosocial conditions enhance job performance?

In the beginning of this article it was already indicated that the relationship between job performance and productivity also depends on many other influences, sometimes also on factors that cannot be influenced, such as the economy. Studies on factors that influence job performance are scarce however, certainly when it also involves organisational performance. Meyers and colleagues [22] found only four out of 15 studies that investigated changes in company performance levels in a positive direction. No significant increases were found for the gross margin and the volume of sold products (both as percentage of targets set) of sales managers, and the service delivery rate of primary care practices.

The European Foundation for the Improvement of Living and Working Conditions (EUROFOUND) published a report with qualitative results from a number of case-studies in organisations on positive links between quality of work and performance [23]. Training, for instance, is a factor that contributes to better performance through increased ability of the employee to act in the organisation and to meet customer demands. This can also be achieved through creating mutual trust, because the employers on their side show that they are ready to invest in the employees. Career and employment security contribute to improved performance in a similar way, by ensuring that the employees are secure in their employment, but also by ensuring that career advancement is possible in the company. In general, good management of safety and health (OSH) risks, including psychosocial risks interventions contributes to improved performance through decreasing sick absences and insurance payments. But it also increases employee satisfaction and decreases voluntary staff turnover. Work-life balance contributes to better performance, because it contributes to the recruitment of well-educated and trained employees who are now able to combine work and private duties and motivated employees who can combine work and family life more effectively.

Managing psychosocial risks and preventing work-related stress is a legal obligation for employers aiming primarily at protecting workers’ health. The article shows that this is very beneficial for the performance of workers. On the opposite, a poor psychosocial work environment affects performance negatively.

Positive occupational psychology goes beyond the legal obligations, by focusing on and enhancing engagement of individual workers. There are many good methods for effective interference in organisations to improve the job performance of individual workers. In the case of prevention of psychosocial risks, a large body of research exits which is comprehensively reviewed by Rosen and colleagues [3], but more intervention studies are needed. Meyers and associates [22] found that the evidence suggests that positive psychology interventions are a promising tool for enhancing well-being and probably also for enhancing performance, but only two out of four studies confirmed the positive effect of positive psychology interventions on performance. Positive psychology interventions might also alleviate stress, depression, burnout, and anxiety of employees.

Kaplan and colleagues [8] reviewed the relationships between positive and negative factors in the organisation on workers, including the three performance dimensions of Rotundo and Rotman [2]. Positive and negative factors predicted task performance in the hypothesized directions, but the relationships were strongest for subjectively rated versus objectively rated performance. Positive affect was related to organisational citizenship behaviours, but not to withdrawal. Negative factors were related to organisational citizenship behaviours, withdrawal behaviours, and counterproductive work behaviours.

Two conclusions from the Kaplan and colleagues’ [8] study are noteworthy to consider. The first one is that interventions should focus on minimising negative emotions (e.g., stress and anxiety) but also promoting positive ones (e.g., excitement and enthusiasm). This also counts of course for interventions on workplace health promotion and positive occupational health psychology. The second conclusion is that organisations need to be especially alert to diminish the effects of negative affect and counterproductive behaviours. The relationship between these two is the strongest examined and may obstruct a good job performance in employees. Despite these findings, the consensus in this area is that more intervention studies are necessary.


Psychosocial risks impede job performance, but not in a consistent way. The main problem in research is that there are many psychosocial risks and different types of job performance. So there are potentially many theoretical relationships between psychosocial risks and job performance. Each psychosocial risk may have a unique influence on job performance. Empirical findings on the relations between psychosocial risks and job performance are found to be small and inconsistent therefore. A more promising way is to concentrate on intervention studies. Not many of these studies have been carried out until now however. Negative affect and counterproductive behaviours should be avoided, because negative influence is more harmful to job performance than positive guidance.


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Links for further reading

Eurofound, Links between quality of work and performance, Dublin: European Foundation for the Improvement of Living and Work conditions, 2011. Retrieved on 1 March 2013, from: [4]