Public sector motivation: Have we turned to the dark side?




More research needs to be done to reveal whether going into the public sector for altruistic reasons can lead to extra pressure, stress and eventual burn out, or whether it actually increases job satisfaction and productivity, says a recent academic paper.

Researchers from Federation University and Newcastle University interviewed 455 local council workers in Victoria to find out their levels of public sector motivation (PSM) and whether this affected their levels of job satisfaction negatively or positively.

 Although there is not one concrete definition, PSM has been loosely defined as wanting to contribute to society/community and to the public policy process and it is often considered to go hand in hand with commitment, compassion and self-sacrifice, an attitude seen as different to the prevailing in the private sector.

 In the past, theorists have tended to focus on the positive side of PSM and its possible role in enhancing performance, reducing absenteeism and boosting staff retention. There is also an argument that high levels of PSM make employees more concerned about public service and duty and relatively less concerned about higher pay and shorter working hours.

 But the report, Testing an International Measure of Public Service Motivation: Is There Really a Bright or Dark Side? says attention is now being increasingly paid to the ‘dark side’ of PSM and its possible effects, including burnout, which can be characterised by diminished interest, cynicism, or de-personalisation at work.

 “High levels of PSM have, for example, been linked to lower job satisfaction due to frustrations with red tape, as well as increased pressure and stress, which in turn may result in employee burnout,” said the report.

 “Indeed, motivation to serve the community through public service work may result in negative effects where employees self-sacrifice to a level that it depletes their well-being.”

 So PSM can variously act as protection from burnout but too much of it could hasten exhaustion, “PSM may also possess a dark side. The notion of public service has taken on even greater importance in today’s customer-oriented public sector with ever increasing demands for quicker response time.”

 However, researchers from Federation University and the University of Newcastle said they were unable to find any meaningful connection between PSM, job satisfaction and behaviour but add: “This may suggest an opportunity for public sector managers to leverage PSM to harness the beneficial outcomes commonly associated with PSM.”

Why does it matter?

 Well, if PSM is found to have a positive influence on behaviour and cause people to work harder, not ring in sick and refrain from jumping ship then nurturing it becomes of the utmost importance.

­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­The report says: “For example, the level of PSM among employees can be increased through a variety of mechanisms such as attraction, selection, design of job packages and also managers can do more to avoid PSM being crowded out by the use of incentives and command systems.

 “Further, transformational leadership can be used by managers in organisations without severe value conflicts to increase individual levels of PSM, which in turn should increase performance. This may be achieved through socialisation, greater mission valance as well as via managers and supervisors and through communication style (Waterhouse et al. 2014).”

 Conversely, if high levels of PSM leave an employee more vulnerable to stress, emotional exhaustion and burnout, particularly when combined with budget cuts, bureaucracy and pressure to work more quickly, then aversive action should be taken.

 Such conditions can also turn people off working in the sector. A recent Government News story explored how Gen Y’s are avoiding local government as a career.

an public sector workers in Victoria,” and says this could be because public sector conditions are generally good in Australia.

 This is contrasted with China, where government workers described inferior conditions to the private sector, and those with higher PSM reported higher mental well-being but lower physical well-being than those with lower PSM.

 Researchers suggest replicating the study in other states and across all three tiers of government with a larger sample and carrying out in-depth interviews with public servants to find out what being public sector motivated means to them.

 “Therefore, to create understanding and better outcomes for deliverers and users of public services, we advocate broader investigation into the bright and dark sides of PSM and factors that can moderate and mediate such relationships.”

 The study was published in the Australian Journal of Public Administration and written by Julie Rayner and Vaughan Reimers from the Federation University and Chih-Wei (Fred) Chao from Newcastle University.

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