An experimental study of the job demand-control model with measures of heart rate variability and salivary alpha-amylase: Evidence of increased stress responses to increased break autonomy
We assessed in an experimental design whether the stress response towards a work task was moderated by the autonomy to choose a break during the assigned time to complete the task. This setting is defined in accordance with the theoretical framework of the job-demand-control (JDC) model of work related stress. The findings from naturalistic investigations of a stress-buffering effect of autonomy (or 'buffer hypothesis') are equivocal and the experimental evidence is limited, especially with relation to physiological indices of stress. Our objective was to investigate if increased autonomy in a particular domain (break time control) was related with adaptive physiology using objective physiological markers of stress; heart rate variability (HRV) and salivary alpha amylase (sAA). We used a within-subject design and the 60 female participants were randomly assigned to an autonomy (free timing of break) and standard conditions (fixed timing of break) of a word processing task in a simulated office environment in a random order. Participants reported increased perceptions of autonomy, no difference in demand and performed worse in the task in the break-time autonomy versus the standard condition. The results revealed support for the manipulation of increased autonomy, but in the opposing direction. Increased autonomy was related with dysregulated physiological reactivity, synonymous with typical increased stress responses. Potentially, our findings may indicate that autonomy is not necessary a resource but could become an additional stressor when it adds additional complexity while the amount of work (demands) remains unchanged. Further, our findings underscore the need to collect objective physiological evidence of stress to supplement self-reported information. Self-report biases may partially explain the inconsistent findings with the buffer hypothesis.