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Fixed work activities are a thing of the past. Hannah Berkers, who recently obtained her PhD as an organisational psychologist, discusses employees’ tasks, how these change and how this impacts employees, their motivation and organisations. ‘There’s still a lot to learn about sustainable employee well-being.’

Kantoorgebouw Eureka

People who see their job as a calling – this has benefits, but also a downside. People who derive a sense of purpose from their work and consider it a way to contribute to society, will go the extra mile or take on additional tasks without protest. But seeing work as a calling may also keep them from taking a critical look at the work itself and at their own performance, Hannah Berkers has observed. In January, she defended her doctoral thesis What do you do and who do you think you are? Activities speak louder than words at the UvA. The organisational psychologist not only studied the matter for years, she also has direct personal experience of the impact of work on employees, their well-being and performance. 'I’m one of those crazy people who are passionate about their jobs,' she says, looking back on the burnout that hit her during her doctoral research. 'Now, I realise instantly, when things are not going so well, that I have to check: am I still doing the right things?'

'I’m one of those crazy people who are passionate about their jobs'

Broad research

What is it that makes work meaningful to people, and what does the work mean to them? What is the impact of changes in work activities, and who can cope well with such changes? These questions are at the heart of Berker’s dissertation.
'Meaningful work is very subjective', says the researcher, who now has a research position at the TU Eindhoven. Whether or not someone perceives their work as meaningful has both an internal and an external aspect. The internal aspect is whether this person’s work tasks fit with their professional identity. 'For a teacher this would for example be teaching, for a physician it would be seeing patients. Are you spending most of your time on the activities that made you choose this profession?' The external aspect is about "doing what matters": activities that are significant to the organisation – for example a teacher organising a school trip – or to the higher goals of the profession.

Various debates

In a time of continuous change in what is being asked of employees, it is crucial to know what exactly people do and what it means to them, Berkens says. Although there is a lot of talk, the public discussion misses the key point: ‘Everybody agrees: work is changing, we have the unbounded career and so on. But nobody looks into what exactly people are doing.’
For example: the debate between employers’ organisations and the AOb teachers’ union about work pressure focuses on issues such as the number of hours worked, the number of students per class and wages, but in online forums, teachers are getting worked up about different issues. ‘To them, work pressure is often synonymous with increasing regulatory workload: 'I didn’t become a teacher to do administration ten hours a day so there’s no time left to do a good job preparing classes!

Hannah Berkers

Online vacancies deciphered

To shed light on what employees do, Berkers and fellow researcher Vladimer Kobayashi developed an algorithm analysing online vacancies. Using text mining, a total of 71 different tasks were distilled from large numbers of online vacancies for nurses. Although interviews and observations yielded more detail (121 tasks), Berkers finds such big data analyses very useful: ‘If the tasks are known at a high level, one can move more quickly to in-depth investigations.’ Knowing the tasks, one can for example investigate how people perceive those tasks and changes in them.

The algorithm has since been adapted and applied to IT jobs, which also yielded useful information on the tasks involved. ‘The algorithm can in principle be applied to any type of vacancy.’
Once the tasks, changes in the tasks and the way this is perceived by the person performing them are clear, it is easier to adjust tasks to make work more meaningful.

Open to change?

Knowing what tasks a job consists of is one thing, knowing who can handle change well is another. Berkers developed the Work Identity Rigidity Scale, which measures the rigidity of someone's work-related identity. She had expected that people who see their work as a calling would be more apprehensive about changes in their tasks, but she was surprised by the results. ‘Some people who are extremely motivated and strongly identify themselves with their work turned out to be more prepared to transform themselves to get better or remain able to perform well when requirements change.’ The willingness to change among employees seems more linked to the way someone handles change in general. For example, people who are not very flexible, cannot cope well with ambiguity, have little self-confidence and experience negative emotions more often, typically score high on the rigidity scale.

‘If you know who is less well-equipped to handle change, you may be able to give them extra support.’

Different qualities

The scale is not meant to stigmatise people who score high on rigidity, Berkers stresses. On the contrary: ‘If you know who is less well-equipped to handle change, you may be able to give them extra support.’ That way, the people in this category, who have their own qualities and contributions, can also thrive.
Furthermore, communication is crucial when it comes to change processes, Berkers knows from experience: ‘Sensegiving is important. If you want staff to empty their waste baskets into containers down the hall, say for example “we want to recycle more, handle waste in a more sustainable way”. That could help avoid rumours of disguised cost-cutting measures and a preferential treatment of some waste basket owners over others. In her current research in Eindhoven studying meaningful work amidst robotisation in logistic warehouses, Berkers also sees what can happen if employees are not convinced changes are useful: people leave and robots are sabotaged.
Organisations implementing change should also beware not to overdo their quest for efficiency, Berkers argues, pointing to the benefit of simple tasks. 'These provide room to task-switch, moments when one doesn’t have to perform.'

In her dissertation, Berkers offers some tools that can help smooth the ongoing change processes.
However, more research is needed, she argues, pointing to the huge impact developments such as technological innovation: "There’s still a lot to learn about sustainable employee well-being."