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Siobhan Wray

York Business School, York St. John University

Senior Lecturer

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“That’s not what I signed up for!” Linking job role, illegitimate tasks and wellbeing…


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This article was co-written by Siobhan Wray, Senior Lecturer in Research Methods at York Business School, and Dr. Gail Kinman, Professor of Occupational Health Psychology at the University of Bedfordshire.

“So, what do you do for a living?”. It is a question that forms much of our early interactions with each other. It also tells us something about how important our job often is to our sense of self. This may be particularly true for people in professional or vocational jobs such as accountancy, healthcare, and indeed human resource management.

Professional and vocational jobs usually require several years of training and are frequently associated with membership of a professional body. Professionals also tend to belong to networks of people in the same or similar areas of work, outside their employing organisations.

Membership of, and excellence in, a profession is often a source of pride and self-esteem for the individual and a key aspect of their identity.

A strong professional identity has been associated with high levels of commitment to work and a deep sense of personal mastery. In short, the roles that we embody in our professional lives are often very important to our sense of self.

Illegitimate tasks – a new occupational stressor

There is growing evidence that stressors that are linked to identity (known as identity stressors) may have a particularly strong effect on employees.

Illegitimate tasks are those that an employee is directed to undertake that sit outside what they can be reasonably expected to do in their role.

Norbert Semmer and colleagues, who have led research in this area, conceptualise this form of identity stressor as “an offence to self”. It is argued that if an individual feels that their professional role has been devalued, or that the job they do and their professional identity are misaligned, this may lead to strain as a result of role stress.

The concept of illegitimate tasks was recently developed to investigate this type of stressor.

Illegitimate tasks are those that an employee is directed to undertake that sit outside what they can be reasonably expected to do in their role.

Examples of tasks that may be considered illegitimate include:

  • a teacher being asked to clean a classroom
  • an HR manager being asked to undertake administrative tasks for other operational managers in a unit

Illegitimate tasks can violate an employee’s perception of their role and may threaten their sense of professional identity.

A second group of tasks that sit within this framework are “unnecessary tasks” – those that the employee feels should not be done at all.

Examples include entering personnel data on to two separate systems because the organisation has not invested in an integrated IT system. Unnecessary tasks are frustrating because they draw resources away from role-relevant goals and targets.

What is the impact of illegitimate tasks?

Emerging research suggests that people who do more tasks that they consider to be illegitimate at work report less self-esteem, lower job satisfaction and more anger.

In a recent survey of academics in the UK, we found that such tasks were also a strong predictor of burnout in staff.

Furthermore, employees who reported higher levels of strain related to role ambiguity and role conflict tended to see more of their everyday work tasks as illegitimate or unnecessary which, in turn, was likely to lead to burnout.

Illegitimate tasks as organisational citizenship

It should be noted that tasks are perceived as illegitimate when the employee feels that they have no control over their completion.

Tasks undertaken voluntarily to support other employees, a customer or service user, or to help out in a crisis do not elicit the negative consequences associated with illegitimate tasks.

Employees regularly take part in activities outside of their specific job roles for a wide range of reasons – this can often be a positive experience, reinforcing self-esteem and a sense of professional identity, as well as strengthening relationships at work and improving team performance.

Managing illegitimate tasks in the workplace

Our initial findings with academics in the UK suggest that clear, agreed role boundaries may be important when tackling illegitimate tasks in the workplace. “Role creep”, where new tasks are added to roles without consultation, can increase the sense of illegitimacy felt by employees, particularly if these tasks do not fit within the accepted scope of the role.

Additionally, organisations should identify the assigned tasks that exist because of outdated or duplicating systems, and eliminate these wherever possible.

Finally, acknowledging and supporting extra-role effort and flexibility in function can increase staff self-esteem and wellbeing.

Nonetheless, it is important to recognise that if roles undertaken voluntarily then become an unofficial part of a job role, this may inhibit such behaviours in the future. 

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Siobhan Wray

Senior Lecturer

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