Balances in well-being at work. Determinants, measurements and improvements of the quality of working life.
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Capelle a/d IJssel : Labyrint Publication
Number of pages
University of Groningen, Management & Organization, 18 oktober 2001
Promotor : Zwaan, A.H. van der Co-promotor : Witte, M.C. de
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Personeelsmanagement - t/m 2007
SubjectNON-RU research; Onderzoek niet-RU
In the past century and especially the most recent decades, work and working condi-tions have changed dramatically due to the introduction of new technology, compe-tition from other countries, access to new markets, fluctuations in the demographic situation, etc. This study deals with the effects of these changes on the quality of working life. Chapter 1 presents some labor trends in The Netherlands that are illustrative of these changes. First, the employment structure has changed from highly agrarian into a service economy. A second important trend is the emergence of the phenome-non of mass unemployment since the seventies. Most striking, although today there is a labor shortage, is the structural character of the unemployment, due to an imbal-ance between job demands and workers' competencies. This results in long-term unemployment. Trends in working population concern the growing participation degree of women and the increasing number of flexible labor contracts. This results in changes in household situations as well as in the work situation. Although many of these developments can be interpreted as improvements of the quality of working life, increased workloads are an obvious drawback. Next to work pressure, work stress and burnout, this is one of the emerging risks that can have a negative impact on safety and health at work. Because of the growing problems with regard to workload and its consequences, it is interesting to elaborate on the quality of working life. There is not a universal definition of the quality of working life, and the research field is complex and widespread. Chapter 2 presents different theoretical view-points. Different theories and approaches use different definitions and take different positions regarding the content of the concept of quality of working life. Theories differ with respect to the dimensions of working life they cover, the theoretical per-spectives to which they adhere, the objectivity of the norms they use to judge the quality of working life, and the way they measure the quality of working life. The most important discussions in this regard concern the theoretical perspectives and the objectivity of the norms. Usually, discussions on these aspects are closely linked and choices for a theoretical perspective often determine the objectivity of the norms. Moreover, the dimensions and the way of measuring are related to these discussions as well. Three theoretical perspectives can be distinguished from the different theories and approaches: characteristics of the work (e.g., difficulty, autonomy, industrial relations), characteristics of the worker (e.g., gender, education, work orientation, household situation), and the relationship between work and worker (e.g., education utilization, fulfillment of need strength). Different approaches value these perspec-tives differently, in the sense that they do or do not use characteristics of the worker and the fit in their analyses. Taking the fit into account means that the work charac-teristics as well as those of the worker should be used in the analyses. My view is that all three perspectives are equally important in the study of the quality of work-ing life. This view is summarized in the conceptual model for this study (see Figure 2.2). On the right hand side are the outcomes of the work (e.g., commitment, satisfaction, physical and mental reactions, health). These are the dependent variables in the model. The independent variables (on the left hand side) are the three perspectives work characteristics, fit, and characteristics of the worker. The relations between the dependent and independent variables are derived from three different approaches. The relationship between the characteristics of the work and the outcomes of the work is based on Sociotechnical Systems Theory (SST). The relationship between characteristics of the worker and the outcomes of the work is deduced from the Delft Measurement Kit (DMK). The relationship between the fit and the outcomes of the work is based on fit models, such as the Job Characteristics Model (JCM). To the best of my knowledge, these different relationships have never been tested and com-pared with each other in the same study; this is the main goal of this study. Based on the conceptual model, the main question in this study (presented in Chapter 3) reads as follows: What are the contents, determinants and range of the quality of working life? This question is divided into the following three research questions, each representing another dimension of the discussions: 1. What are the results of different ways of measuring the quality of working life? (empirical dimension) 2. What are the most important determinants of quality of working life? (theo-retical dimension) 3. How can the quality of working life be improved? (practical dimension) To answer these questions, I gathered data in four organizations (n = 1,189): two organizations for home care and two bicycle factories. In each sector, one organiza-tion is traditionally designed and the other has a team-based design. This was to test the sociotechnical assumption that team-based organizations should report better quality of working life than traditionally designed organizations. To measure the concepts in the conceptual model, I used two methods: an expert instrument and a questionnaire. The expert instrument for judging the quality of working life was WEBA (Vaas et al., 1995), which is based on SST and therefore particularly suited to test the sociotechnical assumptions regarding the quality of working life. The questionnaire was constructed from existing scales in other ques-tionnaires. The work characteristics were derived mainly from the NOVA-WEBA questionnaire (Dhondt and Houtman, 1992), which is based on the WEBA method. Fit and worker characteristics originated mainly from a questionnaire used by Van der Parre (1996). The outcome variables originated mainly from VBBA (Van Veld-hoven, 1996). The data gathered using these methods in the four organizations form the basis for answering the three research questions. Chapter 4 answers the first question (What are the results of different ways of measuring the quality of working life?). WEBA and NOVA-WEBA are both based on SST, however WEBA results in an observer's rating and NOVA-WEBA presents questionnaire results from workers. Since both instruments have the same background, their results should be the same. To test this hypothesis, I compared these instruments with regard to construct, pre-dictive and content validity. The conclusion is that construct validity is low, because the results are different. Predictive validity is higher for NOVA-WEBA, because the relations between independent and dependent variables are stronger. Content valid-ity, however, is better for WEBA, because it generates more detailed information about the origins of the risks with respect to the quality of working life. This means that questionnaire data are better suited to answer the question about the most im-portant determinants of the quality of working life. Observers' ratings are better suited to serve as risk audits and as a basis for measures to improve the quality of working life. However, observers' ratings are very time-consuming and expensive. In order to save time and money in organizations with many jobs, it is recommended to use a Cascade approach: first use a questionnaire for determining the jobs in which risks are present, then use observers' ratings to determine the origins of the risks in those jobs. As a result, to answer the second research question (What are the most important determinants of the quality of working life?), in Chapter 5, I used the questionnaire data. With the help of several regression analyses I tested the explanatory powers of characteristics of the work, the worker, and the fit. The most important conclusion of these analyses is that the work characteristics (particularly control need) are the most important determinants of the quality of working life. This conclusion confirms the sociotechnical assumption that adheres to a conditional approach regarding the quality of working life; it is a function of the structure of the division of labor and the possibilities for sufficient control capacity in this structure. Therefore, according to SST, the quality of working life is determined by the work characteristics (more specifically, the balance between control need and control capacity) independent from the worker who carries out the work. However, alternative ways of testing the sociotechnical assumption result in a more differentiated conclusion. If the sociotechnical assumption regarding the qual-ity of working life is valid (as the regression analyses show), respondents in organi-zations or jobs designed according to sociotechnical standards should report better quality of working life than do other respondents. I tested this hypothesis by com-paring the results of traditionally designed and team-based organizations; I also compared jobs that meet WEBA standards and those that do not. These comparisons do not result in significant differences. Therefore, I cannot confirm this hypothesis: the organizations and jobs in this study that meet sociotechnical standards do not report better quality of working life. This results in a paradoxical conclusion with respect to the sociotechnical as-sumption regarding the quality of working life. On one hand, this study confirms the hypothesis that work characteristics are the most important determinants; on the other, it shows that work designed according to sociotechnical standards does not result in better quality of working life. Reasons for this paradox can be found in the empirical results. The design differences between traditional and team-based organi-zations are not as large as hoped for. Besides this, the team-based organization for home care is still in the process of change. This negatively influences the results of the questionnaire, however it shows that work characteristics are not the only deter-minants of the quality of working life. Moreover, the regression analyses show that the fit between work and worker is also an important determinant of the quality of working life. In the same analyses, the characteristics of the worker proved not im-portant. Overall, this means that it is not only important to investigate the work characteristics, but to take into account the fit between work and worker as well. This has important practical implications. These implications are the topic of Chapter 6, which answers the third research question: How can the quality of working life be improved? There is a close rela-tionship between determinants of quality of working life and measures to improve this quality. Many times, determinants can be considered measures as they turn out parameters that can be altered. Based on the conclusions in Chapter 5, measures must be aimed at the work and fit characteristics in order to be effective. In general, measures can be work-bound or person-bound. This results in three types of meas-ures for improving the quality of working life: organizational design, organizational change, and personnel development. Organizational design measures are work-bound and aim at improving the work characteristics. Sociotechnical redesign, which aims at decreasing control need and increasing control capacity, is a fine example of this kind of measure. An important concern is to avoid sub-optimization by partial measures. However, a complete organizational redesign is fairly rigorous, and one of the most frequent criticisms of SST is that it lacks an intervention strategy for successful organizational change. Therefore, measures based on organizational change theories might be very helpful in successful implementation of these work-bound measures. Organizational change measures are work-bound and aim at fit improvement. This kind of measure focuses on the process of organizational change and accounts for the employment relation-ships in organizations. There are two general approaches to organizational change: a design and a development approach. The design approach is particularly suited in stable and predictable situations where problems and solutions are known. In this approach, top management initi-ates, directs and controls the change process, which is aimed mostly at reducing organizational complexity. A development approach is suited when the problems are not yet clearly defined and the directions of the change are not yet clear. Most char-acteristic of this approach is the continuous tuning between design (or direction of change) and development (or stage) of the change process. There is an important role for all concerned parties in the change process; keywords are participation and learning. The third kind of measure consists of personnel development measures. These are person-bound and aim at fit improvement. Whereas organizational change aims at fitting the work to the worker, personnel development aims at fitting the worker to the work - allocating the right person to the right job. This has, thus far, been part of the area of personnel management. Instruments or techniques suited to allocate the right person to the right job consist of selection, recruitment, training and planning. In connection with organizational change, in which participation and learning are important, the most effective instruments are training and planning - competence management. At any rate, taking integrated measures (a coherent set of work-bound and person-bound measures) will be more effective than single of measures of either kind. Finally, in Chapter 7, I present the most important theoretical conclusions and their practical implications. Additionally, I present a number of methodological comments regarding the design of the questionnaire and the selection of the cases (that do not fully accomplish the desired design). Notwithstanding these comments, the conclusions in this study give rise to the following definition of the quality of working life: The extent to which characteristics of the work offer opportunities to create such a balance between control need and control capacity, that meets the demands and competencies of the workers. This definition is a combination of a conditional and a fit approach. As a result of this definition, bad quality of working life, resulting in negative outcomes of the work, can be caused by a lack of opportu-nities for creating a balance between control need and control capacity (work char-acteristics), and a misbalance between these opportunities and the worker's demands and competencies (fit characteristics). This definition offers various possibilities for improving the quality of working life. First and foremost, the characteristics of the work must be the object of intervention. Then, the fit between work and worker should be the focus for improvements. This offers possibilities to create more dy-namic and integrated approaches for dealing with occurring problems. In this respect there is an important role for Human Resource Management (HRM) theories that combine knowledge about organizational design, organizational development and personnel development. In this chapter, I also present recommendations for risk audits concerning the quality of working life. This study shows that observers' ratings are best suited for serving as risk audits, as they generate the most detailed information about the ori-gins of the risks. They are, however, very expensive and time-consuming. As a re-sult, depending on the goal of the risk audit and the size of the organization, a ques-tionnaire or cascade approach is useful as well. These theoretical and practical implications show that it is important to strengthen the knowledge about the relations among quality of working life, quality of the organization and HRM, especially since organizations struggle with the ques-tion of how to attract and motivate their personnel in times of shortages on the labor market. Improving the quality of working life can be a major contribution to reach-ing this goal. Moreover, paying attention to and improving the balance between work and family may be a major contribution as well.
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