How an ‘Effort-Reward Imbalance’ Can Make Work Miserable

How an ‘Effort-Reward Imbalance’ Can Make Work Miserable

Life isn’t fair.

It’s a phrase so often repeated that it has become a cliché. But studies have shown that humans are hard-wired to want their fair share, as are other animals that have cooperative relationships, like monkeys, birds and wolves.

In one famous experiment, researchers trained two capuchin monkeys to hand them tokens in exchange for a cucumber snack. At first, the animals were happy with this arrangement — that is, until one of the monkeys received grapes instead, which are considered far more delicious. The other monkey, who continued to receive cucumbers, looked enraged, shook the walls of her enclosure and hurled the cucumbers out of reach.

She would rather have nothing, it seemed, than receive an inferior reward.

In the workplace, psychologists refer to this as effort-reward imbalance. The effort is the time, energy and emotional labor devoted to completing a task — and the rewards are what you get back from your workplace, such as compensation, benefits, recognition and opportunities.

In humans, the perception that you are getting less than others for the same amount of work can contribute to symptoms associated with burnout and lead to a higher risk of depression. The need for fairness is most likely a biological predisposition to avoid exploitation, explained Sarah Brosnan, a professor of psychology, philosophy and neuroscience at Georgia State University who co-led the capuchin study.

“We should care what we get relative to others,” she said. “We do best if we can work well with others, but it only benefits us if we’re working with someone who isn’t taking advantage of us.”

If you feel that your efforts in the workplace are not in line with your rewards, here are some steps that you can take to examine the situation and, hopefully, find more balance.

Equity theory, which was developed in the 1960s by a behavioral psychologist, says that in order to feel motivated, employees need to be convinced that the rewards they receive are fair and similar to those that their counterparts are getting.

But first ask yourself: Am I really being undervalued by my company, team or manager?

“You might have a different view of your skills and your marketability than others do,” said Ben Dattner, an organizational psychologist and executive coach in New York City.

If you are represented by a labor union, have a conversation with one of the leaders to get a better sense of how your compensation or other types of rewards compare to that of union members in similar roles. Consider also consulting with a career coach who can help you think through how to address potential inequities

Think of it like a scale where effort is balanced with rewards, said Dennis Stolle, the senior director of applied psychology at the American Psychological Association.

Ponder the intangible rewards too — are you learning a lot, deriving meaning from your work or making useful connections? Do you have a great boss or flexible hours? Do you receive recognition for your efforts?

Sometimes the grass isn’t greener when you tally up those benefits.

Once you identify your priorities, think: “What can I constructively do about this?” Dr. Dattner said.

Have a direct conversation with your manager about your goals, Dr. Stolle said. Are they realistic? Are they in line with what the company needs and wants? During the conversation, be as concrete as possible about what you want, he advised.

If you are looking for more compensation,take an objective look at the value you are adding to the company. This type of information will help your manager advocate on your behalf, Dr. Dattner said.

Dr. Stolle noted that when it comes to the less tangible rewards, like the opportunity to advance, “there’s more room for miscommunication and hurt feelings.”

He gave the hypothetical example of a young woman starting out in the marketing profession who wants to eventually be asked to attend client meetings. Her supervisor, however, is not aware she expects this to happen in her first year on the job. Having a conversation about her goals allows them to set a more concrete and realistic timeline.

Some people have difficulty stepping away from work, especially when technology enables us to stay continuously connected.

But this can lead to what psychologists call overcommitment, where people pour themselves into their work, even when the rewards do not justify that level of effort.

Overcommitment paired with low rewards can make workers especially vulnerable to emotional exhaustion, which is one of the signs of burnout, Dr. Stolle said.

“When you reach emotional exhaustion, you’re just too tired to control your emotions anymore,” which can lead to tears or outbursts, Dr. Stolle said.

If you have made your best effort and are still not being treated fairly, “you don’t have to live like that,” he added. “There are surely other opportunities. It may not happen tomorrow, but you can start looking.”