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Workplace stress - make it visible - Part I.

Does workplace stress exist in agile environments? What models exist to make it visible? We will show you the Demand-Control Model.

The damaging effects of stress at work - which not only affects our mental health, but also our performance - are widely known. As agility advocates, we are in the fortunate position of having a methodology where we have the opportunity to do something for the mental health of those who work with us, and it pays off not only for them, but for the organisation. A framework that makes the problem both tangible and measurable can help us to properly manage stress in the workplace. This is the Demand-Control model.


Demand-Control model (Krasek) - For visibility of stress at work

The theory focuses on workplace stress as opposed to workplace conditions: stress leads to strain when the workplace environment is not suitable to meet the demands. According to the model, work stress arises from the relationship between demands and control. In this context, requirements are understood in a psychological way (pressure of work, stressful work, overwhelming expectations, time constraints). There are two components of control: control over skills (the worker has the opportunity to develop and use his or her knowledge in the work) and control over decision-making (the person has a say in the way and pace of work).

By combining the high and low values of the two components of the model, four types of work can be distinguished:

  1. High-stress tasks: lack of decision-making power and/or lack of competences to do the job, in addition to high psychological stress.
  2. Active work: under pressure, the work environment provides sufficient control to ensure that there are no barriers to getting the job done. In this case, the fulfilment of requirements is perceived as a manageable task, a challenge. In this situation, there is an opportunity to learn new skills and to develop.
  3. Relaxed work: low demands with high control. Although the right decision-making powers are available, low expectations mean that there is no opportunity to make the best use of skills.
  4. Passive work: characterised by low requirements and low control, which leads to a loss of skills and motivation.

Two aspects of peer support were later added to the model:

  1. social-emotional support from staff
  2. help from management to complete tasks.


Adequate peer support acts as a protective factor in the same way as control in the face of high demands and helps in the midst of isolation caused by the epidemic.  

In fact, if we work according to the Agile Manifesto - "The best architectures, requirements, and designs emerge from self-organizing teams." - we have also ensured that we have the right controls. However, change does not happen overnight and it is often not clear that team members have the necessary control. It can also be difficult to detect psychological stressors. More withdrawn team members or a lack of trust may mean that the necessary information is provided only very late or not at all. This is especially true in the current situation where most of the time we only see each other through a monitor. It is then much harder to judge if someone has an unspoken problem. This is (also) where the importance of transparency comes in. 

Knowing the model, it is worth finding ways to measure the components of demand and control in your team and their relationship to each other. In the second part of this article we will help you to do this.


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