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9. Balancing demands and control

Managers have an important and challenging role to help balance the demands of employees’ work with appropriate levels of control, support and resources to create healthy and productive teams.

Why it matters

The demands of an employee’s role, as well as how much control or say they have about the way they do their work affects their mental health and performance.1 If an employee has work or task demands outside of their abilities or coping strategies, and has little say or control in how they do their work, it can lead to mental ill health.

The APS State of the Service Employee Survey shows that we can do better in this area.2 Workers’ compensation data for APS workplaces shows a significant number of psychological injury claims are attributed to work pressure, second only to those attributed to workplace harassment and bullying.3 On the other hand, if an employee does not have enough challenging work, or their work is boring or repetitive, they may become disengaged and their mental health might be at risk.

The APS is facing increasing pressure to deliver programs and services in tight timeframes.4 The drive for improved performance, competitiveness and greater efficiency means that terms like ‘operational demands’, ‘workforce capability’ and ‘efficiency dividends’ are now part of our everyday language. At the same time, there is a need to ensure that the workforce is engaged, safe and healthy.

‘Employees in workgroups with high morale and supportive leaders are much less likely to perceive their workload as excessive, or to submit workers’ compensation claims.’5

How it’s done

Specify task and job requirements, allocate individual roles for employees and support them to achieve goals and successful outcomes.6

Match the demands of the role to the capability of each team member, in consultation with them. Having work goals and demands in balance with employee capabilities is a prerequisite for successful work teams.7

Support individual learning and development and provide opportunities for people to use their skills and knowledge in their work.

Use Individual Action Plans and performance conversations to have regular conversations with employees about their role, demands, control and balance.

When designing work and employee roles, consider whether:

  • employees have adequate and achievable demands
  • peoples’ skills and abilities are matched to the job
  • employees’ concerns about their work environment are adequately addressed.8

Consider the possibility of redesigning roles to reduce risks. For example, increase the variety of tasks or provide individuals with clearly defined scope on how much work should be completed.

Employees should have an appropriate degree of control over the nature and pace of their work.9 Increasing employee control is a factor in creating resilience in times of high demand. You increase control and autonomy by giving employees scope to plan their work, make decisions about how their work should be completed and how the challenges should be overcome. Doing this will tap into creativity and diversity that is inherent in your team.

Recognise and respond to warning signs of employees who are not coping with the requirements of the role, for example unplanned absences, decreased engagement or performance, and a rapid increase in hours worked. Decreased engagement is often a sign of low work demands where employees feel bored or do not have enough meaningful and challenging work.

If an employee is not coping with the demands of their role, you do not necessarily need to reduce the demands. Often, the demands of the role are important as they give meaning, sense of purpose, improved competency and can lead to high productivity. Instead, when an employee is experiencing high demand, look at how the work can be redesigned to support the employee. This includes:

  • increasing the level of control and autonomy over how the work is performed
  • providing the employee with additional resources to perform the role including performance feedback and high quality working relationships with others.10

It is important to keep checking in to see how employees are going and offer support and resources to help them to succeed in their role.

The Mental Health Capability Training Package developed by the Department of Education, Employment and Workplace Relations (DEEWR)

In July 2012, as part of the National Mental Health Reform package, DEEWR released an online Mental Health Capacity Building training package. The package is designed to assist Employment Services Providers and Department of Human Services front line staff to better identify and assist people with mental illness to gain employment and better connect them with the appropriate services. It consists of six e-learning modules:

  • Mental health awareness – strategies for developing mental health literacy skills to identify job seekers with mental illness.
  • Communication and engagement – strategies to engage job seekers with mental illness.
  • Identification and management of barriers – skills to address barriers to employment and build employment related skills for job seekers with mental illness.
  • Engagement and marketing strategies for potential employers – skills to engage with employers and market job seekers with mental illness.
  • Strategies to maintain job seekers’ employment – highlight and address issues about maintaining employment for job seekers with mental illness, including employer issues.
  • Building partnerships – strategies to connect and collaborate with services and programs relevant to the job seeker.

For further information about the training package please contact providercapability [at] deewr.gov.au.

‘Job design is the process of deciding on the contents of a job in terms of its duties and responsibilities, on the methods to be used in carrying out the job, in terms of techniques, systems and procedures, and on the relationships that should exist between the job holder and their superior, subordinates and colleagues.’
Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development11

Useful tools

Other relevant information sheets:

1 Health and Safety Executive (HSE), Management Standards for work related stress, Viewed 9 April 2013.

2 Australian Public Service Commission 2011, State of the Service Report, 2010-11, APSC, Canberra, ch. 2. www.apsc.gov.au

3 Safety, Rehabilitation and Compensation Commission 2011, Compendium of OHS and Workers’ Compensation Statistics, SRCC, Canberra. p. 24.

4 Advisory Group on Reform of Australian Government Administration 2010, Ahead of the Game: Blueprint for the Reform of Australian Government Administration, Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet, Canberra, p. viii.

5 Comcare 2008, Working Well – An organisational approach to preventing psychological injury, Comcare, Canberra, p. 11.

6 HSE, Roles in Tackling Stress – Line Manager, viewed 10 April 2013.

7 Sinisammal, J, Belt, P, Harkonen, J, Mottonen, M & Vayrynen, S 2012, ‘Managing Wellbeing at work during 2010s – Expert Viewpoints’, Open Journal of Safety Science and Technology, vol. 2, pp. 25-31.

8 HSE, Management Standards, op. cit.

9 HSE, Management Standards, op. cit.

10 Bakker, A, Van Veldhoven, M & Xanthopoulou, D 2010, ‘Beyond the Demand-Control Model: Thriving on high job demand and resources’, Journal of Personnel Psychology, vol. 9, no. 1, pp. 3-16.

11 Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development (CIPD), Job Design, viewed 18 April 2013.