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Research & Impact

Changing the way we work-Prof Arnold B Bakker discusses the concept of work engagement

Changing the way we work-Prof Arnold B Bakker discusses the concept of work engagement

Hong Kong people are among the hardest-working in the world, clocking in an average of 2,300 hours on the job per year, well above the 1,700 hours reported in most developed countries. We are a city of workaholics.

But these long hours come at a cost. In addition to experiencing high rates of sickness, absenteeism and chronic fatigue, we are among the unhappiest people in the world. In the 2016 World Happiness Report published by the United Nations Sustainable Development Solutions Network, Hong Kong ranked 75th, behind less developed countries such as Libya, Mexico and Venezuela.

Hong Kong is certainly not alone in having to cope with the stress of overwork and its related problems. It is a worldwide phenomenon that takes a toll not just on working people but also on the organisations that employ them through lower productivity and higher staff turnover.

A new model for work engagement

One of the pioneering researchers addressing this issue is a Dutch psychologist, Professor Arnold B Bakker of the Erasmus University Rotterdam, who is also a visiting adjunct professor at Lingnan University's Department of Applied Psychology.

Prof Bakker was among the first to investigate work engagement and the problem of burnout. In collaboration with Prof Evangelia Demerouti of Eindhoven University of Technology, he developed a

framework - the Job Demands-Resources (JD-R) model - for identifying stress points in an organisation's


Although the specific duties and tasks of jobs vary greatly, they are all characterised by the same kind of demands and resources. "We believed that every job has certain demands and resources," says Prof Bakker. "Job demands such as work pressure and emotional demands are features of the job that cost you energy."

To prevent fatigue and burnout, these demands can be buffered by providing sufficient job resources such as being given social support, performance feedback from colleagues or supervisors, and more autonomy at work.

"For example, when you are very busy at work and you have a lot of tasks and time pressure, if you are offered social support by a colleague who takes over some of your workload, it will be easier to deal with the time pressure," according to Prof Bakker.

Prof Bakker worked with Prof Demerouti to devise the JD-R questionnaire that is currently used to determine job demands and resources. As he points out, the model is flexible and can be applied to any job in any field. Industries from which Prof Bakker and Prof Demerouti have received requests for interventions include medicine, air traffic control, law enforcement and call centres.

Creating your own resources

When people are engaged, they are energetic, dedicated and totally immersed in their job duties. They find meaning in their work and greater satisfaction in their lives. But this can only happen when they learn how to optimise their own work environment.

Creating an environment conducive to work engagement on the organisation side is usually the responsibility of the Human Resources Department. As part of their HR strategy they should recommend that sufficient job resources be provided, such as additional coaching and training, so that employees can do their work well.

On the individual level, employees can proactively change facets of their work to make it more engaging and draw on what Prof Bakker calls "ego resources", such as increasing energy by taking micro breaks or talking to happy colleagues.

"We teach them 'job crafting' so they can modify their own jobs and daily experiences," Prof Bakker explains. "This is part of job crafting theory - you can ask for job resources such as feedback or training, or

ask for different types of tasks that allow you to make better use of your skills."

The idea of drawing on resources to create work engagement can be applied even to dull and repetitive jobs by having staff rotate roles throughout the day.

As researchers and organisations continue to discover the JD-R model, Prof Bakker is hearing from organisations around the world wanting to know more. "I get emails every day from Taiwan, Australia, South America, South Africa, all the countries in Europe. In Chile, for example, the Fundación Chile in Santiago is using the questionnaire to foster innovation and creativity in the country."

An engaged researcher

Prof Bakker himself is highly engaged in the work he does. "I really love what I'm doing; it is indeed my mission, and maybe the only reason I am still doing this work after 25 years."

For now, he likes the idea of being able to make a difference in people's lives through his research, interventions, presentations and the books and articles he writes. "I have made some meaning for myself and for others," he says. "That is what drives me."