Work-life balance - The influence of job demands and rewards, and perceived control

Work-life balance - The influence of job demands and rewards, and perceived control

Dr. Peter Mills is a Medical Director for Cigna in the UK and Europe.
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Achieving work-life balance is a topical subject. The consequences of not having a good balance between work and home can include burnout and a host of negative physical and psychological effects. [1]

It is clear that successfully embracing work into your life is more complicated than just taking steps to work fewer hours. Each job role has demands and resources and these can affect an individual’s personal reaction to stress, based on their perceived control of the situation.

Job demands

The research into the psychosocial influences in the workplace has produced several theories. One of the most well-known, the Demand-Control model, looks at the influence of the psychological demands of work alongside the amount of opportunity someone has to make decisions on how they work. High demands alongside little opportunity to take decisions creates psychological strain. The model also introduces the concept of positive stress, which can be motivational, against negative stress, which can be detrimental. [2]

At a recent Wellbeing Insights Forum Dr. Peter Mills, Associate Medical Director at Cigna, confers: “There are several concepts in job satisfaction. One is demand-control, when we talk about balancing demand with the control that you have. So people can accept more demands if they have more control over their working life; how, where, when, and what they work on, to a certain extent.”

People can accept more demands if they have more control over their working life.

Perceived control

While it may be expected that further up the managerial ladder a higher workload and increased responsibility would lead to greater stress, it can in fact be the opposite. Researchers followed workers in the UK Government over several years, and found an inverse relationship between grade of employment and deaths from coronary heart disease (CHD). Workers in the lowest grade had a three times greater mortality rate over 10 years than those in the highest grade. Less than half of this difference could be explained by known heart disease risk factors such as smoking and obesity. [3] 

One explanation for differences in deaths from CHD explored was the variation in job control between the grades. The findings suggested that even though those in higher grades would have greater job demands, they would also have greater job control. The researchers concluded that low job control in the lower grades – both perceived and independently assessed – was associated with an increased risk of CHD. [3]

Job rewards

A recent study supports the notion that job rewards are wider than just earnings. In a sample of UK GPs, researchers stated that the positive effect of monetary rewards on retention only lasted around five years. They found that other policies that enhance job satisfaction and work-life balance could have a more long-term impact in retaining staff. [4]

Dr. Peter Mills continues: “You’ve got to balance the effort that you are expecting an individual to put into a role with the reward that they get. And the reward isn’t necessarily just monetary; many things actually trump the monetary reward – the corporate culture, the recognition, the flexibility, all of those different things.”

How an organisation can empower their employees

An organisation can take action to improve available resources and empower their employees. This would include identifying areas to make progress in workload and management support, and improving internal change management systems. The World Economic Forum recommend various strategies focused on demands, abilities, support, and control for reducing work stress. [5]

  • Implement and enforce health and safety policies and practices: including identifying illness or substance misuse, and providing resources to manage them.
  • Programmes for career development: such as training and progress reviews to ensure employees have or develop the capabilities to perform their jobs effectively.
  • Inform staff that support is available: provision for encouragement from line management, and resources, such as employee assistance programs (EAP), provided by the organisation.
  • Involve employees in decision-making: identify opportunities for an employee to have personal input in the way they do their work and participation in small or large organisational changes.
  • Support a healthy work-life balance: through initiatives such as flexi time and job-sharing.
  • Recognise and reward the contribution of employees: by providing opportunities for achievements to be recognised by managers and colleagues.

“There is plenty of research that has shown that work is good for your mental health. We have to find a balance; and each person’s balance is individual,” concludes Dr. Peter Mills.


  1. Job burnout: How to spot it and take action. Mayo Clinic. Updated 12 November 2018. Accessed 13 March 2020.
  2. Demand/Control Model: a Social, Emotional, and Physiological Approach to Stress Risk and Active Behaviour. International Labour Organization (ILO) Encyclopaedia of Occupational Health and Safety. Updated 16 November 2019. Accessed 13 March 2020.
  3. The Whitehall study. The Centre for Social Epidemiology. Accessed 13 March 2020.
  4. Chilvers R, Richards SH, Fletcher E, et al. Identifying policies and strategies for general practitioner retention in direct patient care in the United Kingdom: a RAND/ UCLA appropriateness method panel study. BMC Fam Pract. 2019 Sep 12;20(1):130. doi: 10.1186/s12875-019-1020-x.
  5. Seven actions towards a mentally healthy organisation. MQ: Transforming mental health. Accessed 13 March 2020.
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