Impact of job control and demands on temporary and permanent workers

A recent Belgian study explored the role of autonomy and workload in relation to job satisfaction, organisational commitment and life satisfaction. Based on an analysis of the responses of temporary and permanent employees, the study found that there was a difference in the views of temporary and permanent employees to the issues of autonomy and workload. It appears that, when it comes to job satisfaction and organisational commitment among temporary workers, autonomy is not an influencing factor. Moreover, with regard to their life satisfaction, workload is not a determining element. However, for permanent employees, the opposite was shown to be true.

The recent increase in temporary employment has provided an opportunity to re-evaluate well-established stress models. Models that proved to be predictive among permanent workers are being retested among temporary workers, that is, employees who hold dependent jobs of limited duration, as in the case of fixed-term contract workers. In light of this, a recent study has investigated the influence of autonomy (job control) and workload (job demands) on temporary workers’ job satisfaction, commitment to the organisation, life satisfaction and self-rated work performance. Their answers were compared with those of permanent staff; for the latter group, both autonomy and workload are determining factors when it comes to job satisfaction, commitment to the organisation, life satisfaction and self-rated work performance.

Study hypothesis

Theoretically, and taking into account the well-known job demand–control model developed by Robert Karasek in the 1970s, temporary employment could be associated with low autonomy, which is likely to yield harmful psychological outcomes for the workers. However, temporary employment might also be connected to low workload, which is likely to yield favourable psychological outcomes. In fact, a low workload may mask the harmful psychological impact of low autonomy, while low autonomy, in turn, may disguise the possible positive effects of a low workload.

Due to this balancing situation between these two factors, it might be expected that, with regard to psychological outcomes, no significant differences would therefore emerge between temporary and permanent workers (see Figure). When autonomy and workload act as controls for one another, it is assumed that they mediate the relationship between type of employment contract and psychological outcomes. The study by De Cuyper and De Witte investigated this possibility of mediation by job characteristics, as well as the possible interaction effects of job characteristics and type of employment contract.

Balanced effect of job characteristics

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Source: De Cuyper and De Witte, 2006

Conceptual framework of the study

Research methodology

In the spring of 2004, employees from various divisions of eight Belgian companies filled out a survey questionnaire on the quality of working life. In terms of the sectors covered, one company was a manufacturing business while the seven other enterprises were smaller retail organisations. The response rate in the manufacturing company was 86.7%, whereas the response rates in the retail businesses varied from 12.3% to 58%.

The companies, as well as the sectors of activity, were selected on the basis of an expected variation in employment contracts, with the possibility of generalising the survey findings. A special effort was made to include fixed-term contract workers in the survey. These workers had been hired to augment staff to meet peaks in workload, or to cover the short-term or long-term absence of permanent workers. A total of 560 persons were surveyed, amounting to 189 temporary and 371 permanent workers; the participants completed confidential questionnaires during working time or at home.

Survey findings

After conducting a range of statistical analyses, the study showed – as with other research – the beneficial effects of autonomy and the harmful effects of high workload among permanent workers. However, the impact of these two job characteristics on temporary workers’ responses was much more complex and not what was expected. Autonomy was not a determining factor for temporary workers in terms of job satisfaction and organisational commitment, just as workload did not impact on their life satisfaction.

Previous research has assumed similar reactions from temporary and permanent workers in relation to factors that cause stress, such as low autonomy and high workload. This study challenged this assumption by adding interaction terms. Some of the interactions helped to explain employees’ responses on the outcome variables, suggesting that temporary and permanent workers differ in their reactions to comparable job characteristics. In other words, the assumed positive nature of high autonomy and negative nature of high workload, as depicted in the Figure, were not detected in the responses of the temporary workers.

Implications

As De Cuyper and De Witte state, these results may have important theoretical implications, as well as implications on the ground. Temporary and permanent workers use different criteria to evaluate their employment relationship, and this is evident from their responses. The job–demand control model predicts that, in the case of a high workload, autonomy might be a means of increasing job satisfaction and organisational commitment. However, this study highlights that this seems not to be the case for temporary employees. Furthermore, the results suggest that temporary and permanent staff have different perceptions of what constitutes a stress factor; thus, they may react differently to similar work situations.

Reference

De Cuyper, N. and De Witte, H., ‘Autonomy and workload among temporary workers: Their effects on job satisfaction, organisational commitment, life satisfaction, and self-rated performance’, in International Journal of Stress Management, Vol. 13, No. 4, 2006, pp. 441–459.

Guy Van Gyes, Higher Institute for Labour Studies (HIVA), Catholic University of Leuven

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