Illegitimate tasks as a source of work stress

Work Stress. 2015 Jan 2;29(1):32-56. doi: 10.1080/02678373.2014.1003996. Epub 2015 Mar 2.


Illegitimate tasks represent a task-level stressor derived from role and justice theories within the framework of "Stress-as-Offense-to-Self" (SOS; Semmer, Jacobshagen, Meier, & Elfering, 2007). Tasks are illegitimate if they violate norms about what an employee can properly be expected to do, because they are perceived as unnecessary or unreasonable; they imply a threat to one's professional identity. We report three studies testing associations between illegitimate tasks and well-being/strain. In two cross-sectional studies, illegitimate tasks predicted low self-esteem, feelings of resentment towards one's organization and burnout, controlling for role conflict, distributive injustice and social stressors in Study 1, and for distributive and procedural/interactional justice in Study 2. In Study 3, illegitimate tasks predicted two strain variables (feelings of resentment towards one's organization and irritability) over a period of two months, controlling for initial values of strain. Results confirm the unique contribution of illegitimate tasks to well-being and strain, beyond the effects of other predictors. Moreover, Study 3 demonstrated that illegitimate tasks predicted strain, rather than being predicted by it. We therefore conclude that illegitimate tasks represent an aspect of job design that deserves more attention, both in research and in decisions about task assignments.

Keywords: fairness; job design; justice; role stress; self; strain; threat to self; well-being.

Grant support

Part of this research was supported by a grant from the Swiss National Science Foundation.