Illegitimate Tasks: Accumulating Evidence for a New Stressor Concept

Semmer, Norbert; Jacobshagen, Nicola; Kottwitz, Maria Undine; Mühlethaler, Céline; Kälin, Wolfgang; Elfering, Achim; Meier, Laurenz; Beehr, Terry (18 May 2013). Illegitimate Tasks: Accumulating Evidence for a New Stressor Concept (Unpublished). In: Work, Stress, and Health. Los Angeles. 16.-19.05.2013.

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INTRODUCTION: Task stressors typically refer to characteristics such as not having enough time or resources, ambiguous demands, or the like. We suggest the perceived lack of legitimacy as an additional feature of tasks as a source of stress. Tasks are “illegitimate” to the extent that it is perceived as improper to expect employees to execute them – not because of difficulties in executing them, but because of their content for a given person, time, and situation; they are illegitimate because a) they are not conforming to a specific occupational role, as in “non-nursing activities” (called unreasonable) or b) there is no legitimate need for them to exist (called unnecessary; Semmer et al., 2007). These features make illegitimate tasks a unique task-related stressor.
The concept of illegitimate tasks grew from the “Stress-as-Offense-to-Self” theory (SOS; Semmer et al, 2007); it is conceptually related to role stress (Kahn et al., 1964; Beehr & Glazer, 2005) and the organizational justice tradition (Cropanzano et al., 2001; Greenberg, 2010). SOS argues that a threat to one’s self-image is at the core of many stressful experiences. Violating role expectations, illegitimate tasks can be regarded as a special case of role conflict. As roles shape identities, this violation is postulated to constitute a threat to one’s professional identity. Being assigned a task considered illegitimate is likely to be considered unfair. Lack of fairness, in turn, contains a message about one’s social standing, and thus, the self. However, the aspects discussed have not received much attention in the role stress or the justice/fairness tradition.
OBJECTIVE: Illegitimate tasks are a rather recent concept that has to be established as a construct in its own right by showing that it is associated with well-being/strain while controlling for other stressors, most notably role conflict and lack of justice. The aim of the presentation is to present the evidence accumulated so far.
METHODS AND RESULTS: We present several studies employing different designs, using different control variables, and testing associations with different criteria. Study 1 demonstrates associations of illegitimate tasks with self-esteem, feelings of resentment against one’s organization, and burnout, controlling for distributive justice, role conflict, and social stressors (i.e. tensions). Study 2 yielded comparable results, using the same outcome variables but controlling for distributive as well as procedural / interactional justice. Study 3 demonstrated associations between illegitimate tasks and feelings of stress, sleeping problems, and emotional exhaustion, controlling for demands, control, and social support among medical doctors. Study 4 showed that feeling appreciated by one’s superior acted as a mediator between illegitimate tasks and job satisfaction and resentments towards the military in Swiss military officers. Study 5 demonstrated an association of illegitimate tasks with counterproductive work behavior (Semmer et al. 2010). Studies 1 to 5 were cross-sectional. In Study 6, illegitimate demands predicted irritability and resentments towards one’s organization longitudinally. Study 7 also was longitudinal, focusing on intra-individual variation in multilevel modeling; occasion-specific illegitimate tasks predicted cortisol among those who judged their health as comparatively poor. Studies 1-3 and 6 used SEM, and measurement models that used unreasonable and unnecessary tasks as indicators (isolated parceling) yielded a good fit.
IMPLICATIONS & CONCLUSIONS: These studies demonstrate that illegitimate tasks are a stressor in its own right that is worth studying. It illuminates the social meaning of job design, emphasizing the implications of tasks for the (professional) self, and thus combining aspects that are traditionally treated as separate, that is, social aspects and task characteristics. Practical implications are that supervisors and managers should be alerted to the social messages that may be contained in task assignments (cf. Semmer & Beehr, in press).

Item Type:

Conference or Workshop Item (Paper)


07 Faculty of Human Sciences > Institute of Psychology > Work and Organisational Psychology

UniBE Contributor:

Semmer, Norbert Karl, Jacobshagen, Nicola, Kottwitz, Maria Undine, Mühlethaler, Céline, Kälin, Wolfgang, Elfering, Achim, Meier, Laurenz


100 Philosophy > 150 Psychology




Nicola Jacobshagen

Date Deposited:

27 Jun 2014 15:58

Last Modified:

02 Mar 2023 23:24

Uncontrolled Keywords:

Illegitimate Tasks


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