The New Stress of Self-determination at Work


Monday is the beginning of the week where the unknown is ahead, where the free days end and where work calls. Most people struggle with mondays as if this day is worse than any other week day. Remembering that one seventh of our lives consists of Monday's, I got curious what's the point, what stresses us about work? An often mentioned reason why we might struggle with Mondays is because there is an output that is exepected from us at the end of the week and we may fear not achieving this output. High expectations from others may make us feel as a "resource" instead of a human being. Another and maybe increasingly relevant reason may be that we see no purpose in what we do. We have high expectations to ourselves that we may not be able to deliver. In the search of a purpose of our work, we are being hunted by burnouts, depressions and stress. Understanding this new stress of self-determination, we have to go back 50 years ago, where nothing similar existed.

Between the mid 1960s and the end of the 1970s, most European countries were progressing widely and offering full employment and well defined career structures. At this time employees were committed to their organization in exchange for the presumption of lifetime employment.  By now, with fewer employment opportunities and fewer  welfare resources, the “job for life” model has officially been declared dead (Lawler, 2005).

Beginning in the 1980s, more and more organizations changed their contract model to have higher flexibility in matters of staffing and talent usage. The trends of downsizing, re-sizing, and  re-engineering have resulted in organizations valuing capabilities more than loyalty, offering  challenges rather than guarantees, and adopting generally a short-term perspective (Hamel and Prahalad, 1996). Because of these changes, Early Xers (born 1960 to 1970) and Late Xers (born 1970 to 1980) did not expect lifetime employment when they entered the workforce. Instead, they had started early to gain valuable capabilities by participating in improved academic  training and opportunities for increasing international experience.

Today, we particularly strive for self fulfillment at our workplace (Gagné and Deci 2005). There are two factors that shape our self-determination: extrinsic and intrinsic motivators. Intrinsic motivation means doing an activity because one finds the activity inherently interesting and satisfying. In contrast, extrinsic motivation refers to doing an activity for an instrumental reason (e.g. money, honouring of colleagues, fame). Interestingly self-determination (what we strive for) and, thus, the related feeling of happiness that I explain in another article, is mainly driven by intrinsic motivation and actually disrupted by extrinsic motivators. Money, if we follow the latest research, does not lead to self-fulfillment, at all.

In the search of intrinsic motivation and tasks that we want to do for its own sake, we stress ourselves more than ever before. We say to ourselves: "There has to be some bigger achievement than just money for what I work!". We look out for the next Job opportunity, maybe for a start-up or maybe for a year of traveling that could fill our lives with purpose. Since jobs usually struggle providing this original purpose, we stress ourselves more than ever before. 

I am curious if you agree on that. There has been a lot of research that claims too high expectations by your boss or disagreements with your colleagues as factors of stress at work. I think that all of this could be dealt with if we would do the assigned task because of its own sake. What are reasons that stress you at work? Do you feel self-fulfilled when working? Please leave a comment or share this article if you liked it.

Thanks to Omid Scheybani as inspiration for this article.