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.

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.”

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