Well-Being of Public Servants Under Pressure: The Roles of Job Demands and Personality Traits in the Health-Impairment Process

AuthorRick T. Borst,Eva Knies
Published date01 March 2023
Date01 March 2023
Subject MatterArticles
Review of Public Personnel Administration
2023, Vol. 43(1) 159 –184
© The Author(s) 2021
Article reuse guidelines:
DOI: 10.1177/0734371X211052674
Well-Being of Public Servants
Under Pressure: The Roles of
Job Demands and Personality
Traits in the Health-
Impairment Process
Rick T. Borst1 and Eva Knies1
The health-impairment process from job demands to lower well-being among
public servants is still understudied. This article therefore uses the Job Demands-
Resources model and answers the following question: What is the relationship
between sector-specific job demands and public servants’ work-related well-being, and
which of the Big Five personality traits ensure that either the hindering effect of these
demands is lowered or the challenging effect enlarged? Four public sector specific
demands are studied including organizational restructurings, technological
innovations, aggression from citizens, and integrity pressure. The analysis of two
representative subsamples of the Dutch public sector show that all job demands
negatively relate to well-being. Organizational restructurings is the strongest
hindering job demand, while technological innovations is the least hindering
demand. Moreover, some personality traits turned out to be demands instead
of resources, opening new doors for future research in the health-impairment
process of public servants.
well-being, public servants, health-impairment process, job demands-resources-model,
big five personality traits, burnout, work engagement
1Utrecht University, Utrecht, The Netherlands
Corresponding Author:
Rick T. Borst, Utrecht School of Governance, Utrecht University, Bijlhouwerstraat 6-8, Utrecht, 3511
ZC, The Netherlands.
Email: r.t.borst@uu.nl
1052674ROPXXX10.1177/0734371X211052674Review of Public Personnel AdministrationBorst and Knies
160 Review of Public Personnel Administration 43(1)
Employee well-being—defined as the overall quality of an employee’s experience and
functioning at work (Warr, 1987)—has been gaining increasing attention among pub-
lic organizations (Borst et al., 2020). This is a consequence of public organizations
facing several challenges that potentially impair public servants’ well-being, such as
rising societal expectations that public servants will perform better with fewer
resources (Hesketh & Cooper, 2017; Liu et al., 2015; Tummers et al., 2015), and the
changing nature of their work. Examples of the latter are the rapidly changing work
environment that results in organizational restructurings and the increasing number of
collaborations with citizens and non-profit and private organizations in designing and
providing public services (Voorberg et al., 2014). These challenges require substantial
psychological capabilities and adjustments by public servants to maintain their well-
being (Hesketh & Cooper, 2017; Schaufeli, 2013).
While various multidimensional conceptualizations of work-related well-being
exist, most share the idea that work-related well-being can have both a pleasant ener-
gizing side, often framed as work engagement,1 and an unpleasant energy-sapping side
known as burnout (Schaufeli & Salanova, 2014). Engaged public servants are vital,
proud, and enthusiastic, whereas burnt out public servants are exhausted. This emo-
tional exhaustion is often caused by the high emotional demands from customers or
clients (Maslach & Jackson, 1981). The growing challenges facing public organiza-
tions raise the question as to what extent public servants are becoming exhausted and
losing their pleasant, engaged side (Schaufeli & Taris, 2014).
These increasing challenges can result in various job demands. Four context-spe-
cific job demands in the public sector are: organizational restructuring (van der Voet &
Van de Walle, 2018; van der Voet & Vermeeren, 2017; Wynen et al., 2020), technologi-
cal innovations (de Vries et al., 2018), aggression (Tummers et al., 2016), and the
increasing complexity to remain integer (van der Wal, 2019). However, to what extent
these demands decrease the well-being of public servants is unknown. For example,
Tummers et al. (2016) call for research that examines whether workplace aggression
is indeed a job demand that negatively affects the well-being of public employees
using the widely applied Job Demands-Resources model (JD-R). More generally,
many public administration (PA) and HRM scholars call for a contextualized approach
in studying the relationship between job demands and resources, and the well-being of
public servants, to better grasp the health-impairment process, understood as the grad-
ual draining of mental resources that may occur due to job demands (Audenaert et al.,
2019; Bauwens et al., 2021; Fletcher et al., 2020).
Using the JD-R model, this study responds to these calls by studying the relation-
ships between four contextual job demands and public servants’ well-being. This arti-
cle makes two important contributions to the HRM knowledge base. First, it not only
examines four contextual job demands as such, but also studies whether public ser-
vants perceive these as hindering or challenging. While several PA scholars have
focused on job demands in the public sector, they have studied either general job
demands (Bauwens et al., 2021) or red tape as the classic public sector job demand

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