In the demands-control model of occupational stress a situation is created whereby high demands are placed on the individual with little opportunity to exercise control over the work environment or the task design. This is the most common type of workplace stressor and it has been shown to have an impact on cardiovascular health. But is the problem simply a matter of demands/control stress diathesis? Why isn’t everyone succumbing to heart disease? Indeed, many individuals seem to thrive even in work environments where personal control is minimal and job demands are chronically high. How?
At least a partial explanation can be found in self-efficacy. Self-efficacy is the perception that personal resources are adequate to meet life’s demands. Even in situations of low control/high demands, adequate self-efficacy can act as an important protective factor.
When personal resources are perceived as lower than perceived job demands, low self-efficacy results. Task demands are felt to exceed coping abilities, which often creates emotional and physiological overload. Prolonged exposure to occupational stress with low self-efficacy increases vulnerability to burnout, which is characterized by physical and emotional exhaustion, interpersonal difficulties, apathy toward personal accomplishment, and occupational disengagement through cynicism about the importance or worth of one’s work contribution.
Individuals with adequate self-efficacy believe that their available personal resources are sufficient and may even exceed what is required by their workloads. In day-to-day work activities, this belief in one’s adequate resources accompanies the process of assessing tasks and personal capabilities: in most instances, the perceived balance is in favor of having more than what it takes and the task is undertaken with vigor and confidence.
Perceived self-efficacy can be an important predictor of stress levels, and therefore of the likelihood of an individual’s success in approaching, handling and completing work tasks. Moreover, efforts to reduce occupational stress by increasing job control appear to be ineffective in individuals with perceived low self-efficacy. It appears that simply adding more responsibility over the design and environment of the task (a classic definition of increasing control) can do more harm than good in individuals who believe that their personal resources are inadequate no matter what the circumstances. Indeed, a perception of low self-efficacy can be a core belief that impinges upon the very perception of the self, which makes it particularly refractory to external modification.
How does one get more self-efficacy?
The simple path to more self-efficacy is through internal change. Three cognitive-behavioral changes can produce lasting increases in self-efficacy levels: modifying one’s beliefs and cognitions about the self, rewriting of one’s personal narrative, and improving the access and utilization of support.
The first requires an acceptance of the axiom that our behavior is the product of our thoughts and beliefs. “Change the thoughts, change the person.” The second requires a reexamination of one’s life history and a culling out of the negative assessments that have resulted from traumatic events, with the intent of rewriting a personal narrative that externalizes the problems one may have encountered. “That was then, now is an opportunity.” The third requires a willingness to take risk, i.e. the risk of engaging, of asking for help, of collaborating with others towards a better personal future.