The Demand-Control
Model of Job Stress

Increasing Autonomy to Combat Stress

The Demand-Control Model of Job Stress - Increasing Autonomy to Combat Stress

© iStockphoto

In a high-strain job, you have little control over your workload.

Imagine a business executive and an assembly line worker who work at the same organization.

Both find their jobs stressful, but while the executive leaves work each day feeling content, the assembly line worker feels exhausted and anxious. Why do these two workers feel so different?

One way to answer this question is to look at the Demand-Control Model of Job Stress, which argues that when people are in demanding jobs, they experience less stress if they have control over their own work.

It’s one of the most widely studied models of occupational stress, and, although it isn’t a new model, it’s still highly relevant. In this article, we’ll look at it, and we’ll then discuss how you can apply its principles to your own job, and to your team.

About the Model

Robert Karasek developed the Demand-Control Model of Job Stress in 1979, and published his findings in Administrative Science Quarterly.

In his article, he defined two key parameters that affect the amount of stress that people experience: job demands and decision latitude.

  • Job demands are stressors in the work environment, such as tight deadlines, high targets, regular interruptions, and conflicting pressures.
  • Decision latitude (also known as "autonomy") refers to the extent to which people can control their work.

During his research, Karasek saw that people whose jobs rated high in demand but low in decision latitude/autonomy felt more tired at the end of the day, had trouble waking in the morning, and experienced more depression and anxiety. He also noted that when workers in high-demand roles had more decision latitude, they experienced less stress.

Figure 1, below, illustrates Karasek's theory.

Figure 1 – Karasek's Demand-Control Model of Job Stress

Karasek's Demand-Control Model of Job Stress Diagram

Diagram reproduced from Kain and Jex (2010), © Emerald Publishing Group.

According to the model, when your role is high demand but you have little or no decision latitude, the result is a "high-strain" job. By contrast, when high job demands are matched with high decision latitude, the result is an "active" role, with lower stress and higher job satisfaction.

Jobs that fall on the left-side of the model (low job demand with high or low job decision latitude) are either "passive" or "low-strain."

Researchers have studied how applying the model can positively affect physical and emotional health. For example, in one study, researchers looked at how the model applied to nurses. They discovered that a group with greater perceived control and the same objective measures of workload had lower blood pressure and levels of cortisol (a hormone released in response to stress) than a group with less autonomy.

However, other researchers have suggested that, for younger workers, work-related problems and time pressure were more significant predictors of job stress than a lack of autonomy. In older workers, rigid schedules and a lack of ability to solve problems played a greater role in predicting job stress.

Applying the Model to Your Role

Although the model has some weaknesses, it does highlight the relationship between perceived job strain and autonomy.

You can apply its insights by building more autonomy into your job, particularly in high-demand situations. You're likely to feel less stress and more job satisfaction as a result.

Actively Reduce Stress

First, list the tasks or situations that cause you stress. (You may need to keep a Stress Diary for a week to identify these.)

Next, think about how you could actively increase your autonomy within these tasks. For example, if you find compiling reports stressful because colleagues don't supply their contributions on time, you could give earlier deadlines, or you could supply draft copy that people can simply check and sign off.

If your stress is caused by bottlenecks or pressure points in your organization's processes, talk to your boss about whether these processes can be improved. You may find that this also reduces stress for colleagues and customers.

Set and Monitor Boundaries

Clear boundaries help you understand and look after your own needs. They're essential in a high-strain role, when people and tasks are competing for your time. Once you've set your boundaries, monitor them carefully. If you find that they're regularly ignored, rehearse ways to restate your needs assertively – our article "'Yes' to the Person, 'No' to the Task" will help you here.

It's also important to learn how to handle unreasonable requests. Short deadlines or tasks that fall outside your normal responsibilities can cause your stress levels to spike, especially if they happen regularly. Learn to say "no" when you feel that a demand isn't reasonable.

Build Good Relationships

When you feel supported at work, and you make time to support your colleagues, you'll likely experience much less stress. Sometimes, a reassuring chat with a trusted colleague can go a long way to lowering your stress levels, when you've had a tough day.

This is why it's important to build good work relationships. Make an effort to connect with colleagues on a personal level, and offer to help when you can.

Minimize Interruptions

Your stress levels will rise if you're interrupted while you're working to meet a deadline. So, do your best to manage these interruptions when you need to focus on a particular task. Small actions can make a big difference: shut your office door, turn off your cell phone and email alerts, and consider using an automatic email response to let people know that you are currently not available.

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Stress can cause severe health problems and, in extreme cases, death. While these stress management techniques have been shown to have a positive effect on reducing stress, they are for guidance only, and readers should take the advice of suitably qualified health professionals if they have any concerns over stress-related illnesses or if stress is causing significant or persistent unhappiness. Health professionals should also be consulted before any major change in diet or levels of exercise.

Applying the Model to Your Team

If you manage people in high-stress roles, you can also use Karasek's model to increase your team members' autonomy.

Where appropriate, give your team members more freedom to make their own decisions. For example, once you've assigned a task, take a step back, and let them decide how they want to do the work.

You can also help your team members develop greater autonomy by coaching them on the concept of the Locus of Control. People who have an internal belief in their own success (an internal locus of control) feel less stressed, and are more able to adapt to changing conditions.

Finally, consider allowing your team members to work a flexible schedule, or to work from home. People who can choose when or where they work often feel that they have more autonomy than those who work set hours.


Keep in mind that not all employees thrive with higher autonomy. For example, some people find it difficult to stay on task without supervision and direction.

Use your judgment to determine whether team members want more freedom. Our article "Helping People Take Responsibility" shows you how to encourage accountability and autonomy in your team.

Key Points

Robert Karasek's Demand-Control Model of Job Stress shows that workers in high-demand jobs who have low autonomy experience greater stress than workers in high-demand jobs with greater autonomy.

To apply the model to your job, do what you can to increase autonomy in your own role. Look for support, learn to say "no" to unreasonable requests, and craft your job to fit you better.

If you're in a management role, you can also use the Demand-Control Model of Job Stress to help reduce stress and increase job satisfaction in your team.