Motivation and emotion/Book/2014/Unemployment and motivation

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Unemployment and motivation:
What is the effect of unemployment on job search motivation?

Overview[edit | edit source]

Are you, a significant other or a loved one unemployed? Is unemployment having an effect on your motivation to search for a job? People are considered unemployed if they are "currently without work, but actively seeking employment". Unemployment is becoming an increasing reality to many individuals with the unemployment rates increasing in Australia in just one [what?]season by 11000 people (Australian Bureau of Statistics, 2014). It can have detrimental effects on motivation, pushing an individual to search for a job for a number of reasons. This chapter discusses unemployment and its effect on job search behaviour, or work motivation. Using theories including the Self-Determination Theory, Learned Helplessness Theory and the Expectancy-Value Theory, it will help to understand the underlying factors as to how and why job search behaviour may be affected by lack of employment. Finally, it will look at how the effects of unemployment on motivation and job search behaviour can be minimised and improved.

Work motivation “is a set of energetic forces that originate both within as well as beyond an individual’s being, to initiate work-related behaviour, and to determine its form, direction, intensity, and duration.” (Pinder, C. C., 1984, p11).

Job search behaviour; "the product of a dynamic self-regulatory process that begins with the identification of and commitment to an employment goal. This goal subsequently activates search behavior designed to bring about the desired goal" (Kanfer et al., 2001, as cited in Klehe & van Hooft, 2001, p4)

Consequences of unemployment[edit | edit source]

Studies show that unemployment can have detrimental effects on the psychological well-being of the unemployed individual[factual?]. Johada (1982) proposed the Latent Deprivation Model, theorising that employment provides gains in several psychological aspects, therefore unemployment supports the lack of these gains, often causing poor psychological well-being (Creed & Macintyre, n.d.). Johada’s (1982) theory and train of thought in general, in particular those of the psychological impacts of unemployment, have been proven via many studies[factual?].

A meta-analysis conducted (Murphy & Athanasou, 1999) found that unemployment has a negative impact on psychological well-being[Rewrite to improve clarity][Provide more detail]. A study by Kuhnert (1989) followed Johada’s (1982) theory and has suggested that, to better understand the consequences of unemployment, focus needs to be first put on the gains individuals achieve whilst employed. This study suggests that financial gains, social contact and inclusion, well-being and a sense of belonging are included in the gains of employment and suggest that when unemployed these gains are lost causing feelings of meaninglessness (Kuhnert, 1989).

The first consequence of unemployment that comes to mind is financial strain, however, in addition to this there have been studies carried out to find many psychological effects of unemployment. Many studies have found that due to sudden financial strain and the lack of structure and satisfaction previous employment may have offered, individuals may suffer with mental health issues such as depression (Vansteenkiste, Lens, De Witte & Feather, 2005; Vansteenkiste, Lens, De Witte, De Witte & Deci, 2004) and anxiety (Vansteenkiste et al., 2004), as well as somatic symptoms (Vansteenkiste et al., 2004) such as feelings of meaningless (Vansteenkiste et al., 2005), lack of life satisfaction and general feelings of unhappiness (Vansteenkiste et al., 2005). In addition, Vansteenkiste et al. (2004 & 2005) stated that other studies have suggested higher rates of suicide occur in unemployed individuals.

Findings from the Stress and Well-being in Australia survey (Australian Psychological Society, 2013) have shown that unemployed individuals in Australia show significantly lower levels of well-being and are the higher reporters of anxiety and depressive symptoms in comparison with employed people. Figure 3 shows that unemployed individuals are more likely to incur a mental disorder than any other employment status group.

Figure 3. Comparison of employment status and percentage of mental disorders in Australia, 2007 (ABS, 2008).

Although a majority of cases of unemployment on individuals results in a negative impact on psychological well-being (Murphy et al., 1999), unemployment occasionally effects individuals in a positive manner in producing the feeling of being free (Vansteenkiste et al., 2004). However, this usually only occurs when the individual's employment prior to becoming unemployed caused feelings of dissatisfaction (Vansteenkiste et al., 2004).

Theories[edit | edit source]

There are many theories which can be used to understand the effect unemployment has on the motivation an individual experiences when engaging in job search behaviour. Three theories in put the effects of unemployment on motivation into context: Deci and Ryan’s (1985) Self-Determination Theory, Seligman’s (1975) Learned Helplessness Theory, and Bandura's (1977) Expectancy-Value Theory.

Learned helplessness theory[edit | edit source]

Seligman (1975) proposed the learned helplessness theory which suggests an individual experiences 'learned helplessness' because of past failings and it occurs when an individual perceives outcomes as uncontrollable (Rodriguez, 1997). The theory suggests that if an individual has previously failed at a task, for example; to gain a job after several applications, the individual will assume helplessness because of believed incapability, and discontinue attempts of achieving their original goal. According to Seligman (1975), this perception on the individual's part causes learned helplessness, which produces cognitive, motivational and emotional deficits. These three deficits are also seen in individuals living with depression (Rodriguez, 1997). In the context of unemployment, this theory seems to have high value as whilst in a situation of unemployment it is likely that helplessness and uncontrollability is experienced (Rodriguez, 1997).

Self-determination theory[edit | edit source]

Self-determination theory (SDT) focuses on types of motivation. In line with SDT, these types of motivation are initially categorised into 1) Intrinsic Motivation and 2) Extrinsic Motivation. SDT proposes that "different types of motivation will result in different types of outcomes" (Vansteenkiste et al., 2005. p272). Along with the two types of motivation categorised as intrinsic and extrinsic, SDT discusses two additional sub-categories of which are named autonomous and controlled motivation. Controlled motivation seems to have just the one type which can be defined as being pressured to engage in a behaviour (Deci, 2012). Ryan and Deci (2000) believe there are two types of autonomous motivation; intrinsic and identified. These are described as "two flavours" by Deci (2012) and consist of "interest and enjoyment" and "values and beliefs" to engage in a behaviour.

  • Intrinsic Motivation; "doing something because it is inherently interesting or enjoyable." (Deci & Ryan, 2000, p55)
  • Extrinsic Motivation; "doing something because it leads to a separable outcome." (Deci & Ryan, 2000, p55)

Sarah is unemployed. She spends her days searching for jobs because she genuinely enjoys the prospect of what new jobs there will be available to apply for each day, imagining herself in the role while applying. Sarah is displaying the use of intrinsic motivation.

John is unemployed. He spends his days searching for jobs online because he has to prove to centrelink that he has applied for 20 jobs a week in order to receive his benefits. John is displaying the use of extrinsic motivation.

Figure 4. Self-determination theory and the three psychological needs; Competence, Relatedness and Autonomy

SDT theorises that an individual must feel three psychological needs (autonomy, competence and relatedness) (Vansteenkiste et al., 2005) in order to gain the highest levels of motivation.

  • Competence refers to an individual having a sense of task mastery and the feeling of improving their skills and knowledge.
  • Relatedness refers to the sense of belonging
  • Autonomy refers to the sense of control in terms of their personal goals and behaviour

(Vansteenkiste et al., 2005).

Deci and Ryan (1985) theorised that if these three psychological needs are met, the individual becomes intrinsically self-determined to pursue their goal (as cited in Vansteenkiste et al., 2005).

Expectancy-value theory[edit | edit source]

The expectancy-value theory (EVT) is cognitive-motivational theory and, as the name suggests, there are two aspects; expectancies and values. Bandura (1977) theorised that the motivation levels in an individual to achieve a goal is associated with the individual's expectation of achieving the goal, along with the value of which the individual has put on the goal being achieved (Vansteenkiste et al., 2005). In line with EVT, if the individual assesses a task, such as looking for a job, as having personal value as well as the expectation of success, the individual is likely to attempt the task.

Within this theory, Bandura (1977) suggests there are two types of expectancies; efficacy-expectations and outcome expectations:

  • Efficacy-expectations - "the conviction that one can successfully execute the required behaviour to produce the outcome." (Bandura, 1977, as cited in Vansteenkiste et al., 2005). This definition can be interpreted as the individual's expectations surrounding their ability to actually produce the behaviour that can in turn, create the wanted outcome.
  • Outcome expectations - "a person's estimate that a given behaviour will lead to certain outcomes." (Bandura, 1977, as cited in Vansteenkiste et al., 2005).

EVT suggests that along with expectancies, values play a major role on an individual's motivation levels. If an individual places high value on an outcome, such as getting and job and therefore becoming employed, the more likely the individual is to have high levels of motivation, and in this case, high levels of job search behaviour.

What does the literature say?[edit | edit source]

There have been many studies conducted surrounding the issues of the effect unemployment has on motivation and therefore, job search behaviour as well as many journal articles compiled on this same topic. Many of these base their research upon a theory or two, providing a comparative report. In the following section some of these are discussed.

A look at self determination theory in context[edit | edit source]

Vansteenkiste et al., (2004) conducted two studies using the theoretical basis of SDT, to find out the ‘why’ and ‘why not’ of the motivation behind job search behaviours in individuals. The first study conducted involved 254 unemployed individuals and was used to produce an accurate questionnaire that would be able to predict autonomy, control and amotivation in terms of job search behaviour and the lack of motivation associated with not searching. (Vansteenkiste et al., 2004). The second study conducted was used to analyse the relationships between job search behaviour, experiences of unemployment and well-being of an unemployed individual (Vansteenkiste et al, 2004). In line with SDT the hypotheses of these studies were that concepts associated with levels of autonomy, such as autonomous and controlled motivation were probable of having high correlation (Vansteenkiste et al., 2004). Furthermore, it was hypothesised that concepts such as autonomous motivation and amotivation would show less correlation than those concepts mentioned in the first hypothesised statement (Vansteenkiste et al, 2004). The results showed that the hypothesised statements were correct, showing that autonomous motivation, in this case to engage in job search behaviour, was positively correlated with concepts that involve a level of autonomy (Vansteenkiste et al., 2004). On the other hand, amotivation was negatively linked to autonomous motivation (Vansteenkiste et al., 2004). The results directly align with the SDT where it is theorised that autonomous motivation is required in order to gain the most motivation to acquire a personal goal, such as gaining employment.

Figure 5. Autonomous motivation positively effects job search behaviour[factual?]

Gagne & Deci (2005) wrote an article on SDT and its relationship with work motivation. The purpose of the article was to explain how SDT best suits the topic of work motivation (Gagne et al., 2005). SDT explains the intrinsic and extrinsic motivation in a clear and concise way in order to fully understand the way work motivation occurs, making it a more clear and concise theory to use in this domain. SDT aims to prove that where both intrinsic and extrinsic motivators are present, work motivation is high. However, Gagne et al. (2005) discuss that early studies conducted inferred that in work situation where extrinsic motivators were highly present in comparison to intrinsic motivators, work motivation could be at a lower level. Therefore, when understanding the effects of intrinsic and extrinsic motivators on work motivation and even job search behaviour, it is clear that intrinsic motivators are most important in the scenario in order to gain high levels of motivation whether searching for a job, or currently employed. In addition to SDT creating an understanding of both intrinsic and extrinsic motivators and their effects on motivation, it also offers an understanding of the effects extrinsic motivators have on intrinsic motivators (Gagne et al., 2005). As discussed above, SDT discusses an individual’s needs of autonomy, competence and relatedness. Gagne et al. (2005) state that there have been many studies including Reis et al (2000) of which tested these needs in an individual for use in everyday life. Reis et al (2000) found that the well-being of an individual altered in line with the level of satisfaction of these three needs (as cited in Gagne et al., 2005). This research can be utilised in the domain of work motivation and job search behaviour as it assists in the understanding surrounding personal well-being at any given time, therefore providing understanding as to job search behaviour and the motivation, or lack of, when engaging in the behaviour. Gagne et al. (2005) also discuss the importance of supporting autonomy within an individual through those close to the individual. This will be discussed later in the chapter. Gagne et al. (2005) concluded that many studies have confirmed SDT’s concepts of intrinsic and extrinsic motivators as aids in motivation. Additionally, it is apparent that in some circumstances it is satisfactory to support not only autonomous intrinsic behaviour, but autonomous extrinsic behaviour in order to gain motivation (Gagne et al., 2005). However, this is sometimes detrimental to motivation and psychological well-being so must be treated cautiously (Gagne et al., 2005).

Self determination theory in comparison with expectancy-value theory[edit | edit source]

Figure 6. Controlled motivation correlates negatively with psychological well-being[factual?].

An interesting study by Vansteenkiste et al. (2005) compared expectancy-value theory and self-determination theory in order to understand unemployed individual’s experience of job search behaviour and well-being. Feather and Brian (1986, as cited in Vansteenkiste et al., 2005) stated in a previous study that it would be of some value for future studies to explore the domain of work motivation whilst using more than one theory. Hence, Vansteenkiste et al’s (2005) study was conducted. This study used 481 participants and used questionnaires in the form of the Satisfaction with Life Survey (Diener, Emmons, Larsen & Griffen, 1985, as cited in Vansteenkiste et al, 2005), the General Health Questionnaire (Goldberg, 1978, as cited in Vansteenkiste et al., 2005), a measure of unemployed individual’s past job search behaviour as well as an assessment of the individual’s feelings of meaningless and social isolation (Vansteenkiste et al., 2005). In line with EVT, the first hypotheses[spelling?] tested was that individual’s that[grammar?] hold high value on gaining employment would negatively correlate with low levels of well-being. In addition, they hypothesised that having both high levels of expectancy and value on gaining employment would correlate positively to job search behaviour, and would also reduce the effects of unemployment on an individual’s well-being. In line with SDT Vansteenkiste et al. (2005) also hypothesised that autonomous motivation would predict positive job searching motivation as well as controlled motivation to negatively predict job search behaviour. In addition, Vansteenkiste et al. (2005) predicted controlled motivation to predict negative overall feelings and well-being during unemployment. They then used the results of these to compare the two theories (SDT & EVT) in relation to job search behaviour (Vansteenkiste et al, 2005).

The results of this comparative study proved Vansteenkiste et al’s (2005) hypotheses to be correct. The study found that individual’s with both autonomous motivation and high value on employment have greater job search motivation (Vansteenskiste et al., 2005). Amongst other statements, Vansteenkiste et al. (2005) stated that it was those individuals whom held high expectancy and value on employment who correlated with negative psychological well-being. This statement claims that because the unemployed individual holds high expectations and value on being employed, the individual is more likely to hold feelings of worthlessness and other negative feelings. Overall, this study is valuable in understanding the effects unemployment has on both job search behaviour and psychological well-being and bears the question as to whether using more than one theory for explanations as to the ‘whys’ and ‘why nots’ of job search behaviour in unemployed individuals is effective or not.

Supporting job search motivation[edit | edit source]

In line with both SDT and the research that has been carried out on job search behaviour, we can see that autonomy and intrinsic motivation are an important part of gaining levels of motivation to assist in job search behaviour. The following section will explain what the unemployed individual can do, and what the people surrounding the unemployed can do to assist in achieving high levels of job search behaviour. Ryan and Deci (2000) wrote an article on the facilitation of motivation and well-being. Among many statements within the article, they speak of motivation being able to grow only if the circumstances allow it (Ryan & Deci, 2000). As in the SDT Ryan & Deci (2000) state that there needs to be supporting components of each of the three psychological needs in order to gain optimal motivation. Consequently, studies have shown that support structures such as positive performace feedback (Ryan & Deci, 2000) and opportunities of choice (Stone, Deci & Ryan, 2008) correlate positively with autonomous and intrinsic motivation.

Supporting autonomy[edit | edit source]

Deci (2012) spoke briefly about SDT and went on to speak about the importance of autonomy support in order to provide an environment of which can support an individual's motivation. Click here to watch Ed Deci speak about SDT and autonomy support. Deci (2012) stated several points as to which should be implemented when attempting to support autonomy. These are:

  • Understanding the individual's perspective
  • Provide choice to the individual
  • Support the individual's exploration of different routes
  • "Provide meaningful rationale " (Deci, 2012).

To extend on these points, Stone, Deci & Ryan (2008) wrote an article based upon several steps in creating and supporting autonomous motivation using the basis of SDT. Although this particular article has a basis of companies and employees within them, the information can be easily translated into ‘how to create and support autonomy amongst unemployed individuals'. Firstly, they spoke of asking open-ended questions. In the context of unemployment, this would relate to the unemployed individual’s family and friends asking open ended questions such as, ‘tell me what avenues you have used so far in your job search.’ This opens up a conversation and assists in the individuals exploration of different routes. Whereas if a family member asks, ‘haven’t you looked on Z website?’, the unemployed individual may interpret this as controlling, and therefore is not supportive of their autonomous motivation (Stone et al., 2008). Sequentially to this, Stone et al., (2008) discuss the importance of active listening to autonomy support. Not only does this provide a feeling of value, but also acknowledges your understanding of the individual’s perception of the situation (Stone et al., 2008, Ryan & Deci, 2000).

Furthermore, Stone et al, (2008) discuss the importance of offering choice. In the context of unemployment, it is essential to allow the individual to have a choice while searching for a job. Ie. When they search, how they search etc. To aid in the individuals choice, it can be useful to provide a meaningful rationale (Stone et al., 2008, Ryan & Deci, 2000).

Another idea Stone et al., (2008) suggest in line with SDT is to minimise extrinsic motivation in order to raise intrinsic motivation is to minimise external rewards such as rewards and pay rises. Studies have found that where extrinsic motivation is in the forefront of an individual’s motivation, intrinsic motivation fades, making the quality of motivation lower (Stone et al,, 2008, Ryan & Deci, 2000). In addition, studies have found that “the more strongly people value money, the poorer their psychological health” (Grouzet et al., 2002; Ryan et al., 1999 as cited in Stone et al., 2008).

Conclusion[edit | edit source]

Numerous studies show the effects of unemployment on psychological health as well as job search behaviour[factual?]. It is clear that some of the psychological effects of unemployment are depression, anxiety, low levels of self-esteem and in some cases suicide. Along with unemployment, these psychological effects have a major effect on motivation levels and the extent to which the individual engages in job search behaviour. This chapter has discussed the theories of learned helplessness and expectancy-value, however focused on self-determination theory in order to identify and understand the effects of which unemployment has on job search behaviour. After analyses of the literature and research in this field, it is apparent that the effect unemployment has on job search behaviour and consequently overall motivation is severe[factual?]. As a result of unemployment, well-being of the individual is low, causing job search behaviour to be minimal[factual?]. This is because of many aspects including lack of autonomy, relatedness and competence. In line with SDT, without these three psychological needs, motivation, in this case job search behaviour becomes low.

  • Autonomy is lacking whilst unemployed because the individual feels they have no choice but to search for a job, thus engaging in controlled motivation.
  • Relatedness may lack due to unemployment because the individual is no longer a part of a group ie. a workplace.
  • Competence will lack the longer an individual is searching for a job and not gaining employment as this causes the belief of being able to act to gain a job to become non-existent.

Therefore, when a loved one is unemployed it is apparent that supporting their autonomous motivation is critical, as is avoiding becoming controlling. The effect of unemployment on job search motivation is that unless the three psychological needs, in particular autonomy, are fostered, job search motivation diminishes because of the lack of the three psychological needs.

Quiz: test your knowledge[edit | edit source]

1 According to SDT, which of the following is not one of the three psychological needs?

A. Connectedness
B. Relatedness
C. Autonomy
D. Competence

2 Which of the following are psychological consequences of unemployment?

A. Obesity
B. Autonomy
C. Depression and Anxiety
D. Connectedness

3 According to Deci (2012), which of the following is one aspect to supporting autonomy?

A. Offering a cash reward
B. Controlling the behaviour with statements
C. Providing a meaningful rationale
D. Drinking a coffee

4 __________ is an example of an open-ended question.

A. Do you want to get a job?
B. What avenues have you taken in your job search?
C. Have you tried Z website to search for a job?
D. Have you got a resume?

See also[edit | edit source]

References[edit | edit source]

Australian Bureau of Statistics (2014). National Survey of Mental Health and Wellbeing: Summary of Results, 2007 Retrieved from:

Australian Psychological Society (2013). Stress and wellbeing in Australia survey: 2013 Retrieved from:

Creed, P. A., & Macintyre, S.R. (n.d.). The relative effects of deprivation of the latent and manifest benefits of employment on the wellbeing of unemployed people. Retrieved from:

Deci, E. L., & Ryan, M. R. (2000). Intrinsic and Extrinsic Motivations: Classic Definitions and New Directions. Contemporary Educational Psychology, 25, 54-67. doi: 10.1006/ceps.1999.1020

Deci, E.L. (2012, August 14). Promoting motivation, health, and excellence: Ed Decit at TEDxFlourCity Retrieved from:;search%3Apromoting%20motivation

Gagne, M., & Deci, L. D. (2005). Self-determination theory and work motivation. Journal of Organizational Behavior, 26, 331-362. doi: 10.1002/job.322

Klehe, U.C., & van Hoofte, E. A. J. (2001). Job search behavior as a multidimensional construct: A review of different job search behaviors and sources. Oxford Handbook of Job Loss and Job Search (in press). New York: Oxford University Press. Retrieved from: file:///C:/Users/Gareth/Downloads/Chapter%20Different%20Job%20Search%20Behaviors%20in%20press.pdf

Kuhnert, K. W. (1989). The latent and manifest consequences of work. Journal of Psychology, 123, 417-428. Retrieved from:

Murphy, G.C., & Athanasou, J. A. (1999). The effect of unemployment on mental health. Journal of Occupational & Organizational Psychology, 72, 83-99. doi: 10.1348/096317999166518

Pinder, C. C. (1984). Work Motivation: theory, issues, and applications. Glenview, United States of America: Scott, Foresman and Company.

Rodriguez, Y. M. (1997). Learned helplessness or expectancy-value? A psychological model for describing the experiences of different categories of unemployed people. Journal of Adolescence, 20, 321-332. doi: 10.1006/jado.1997.0088

Ryan, M. R. & Deci, E. L.(2000) Self-determination theory and the facilitation of intrinsic motivation, social development, and well-being. American Psychologist, 55, 68-78. Retrieved from:,%20Social%20Development,%20and%20Well-Being.pdf

Stone, D.N., Deci, E.L., & Ryan, R.M. (2009). Beyond talk: creating autonomous motivation through self-determination theory. Journal of General Management, 34 (3) p75-91. Retrieved from:

Vansteenkiste, M., Lens. W., De Witte, H., & Feather, N. T. (2005) Understanding unemployed people's job search behaviour, unemployment experience and well-being: A comparison of expectancy-value theory and self-determination theory. British Journal of Social Psychology, 25, 269-287. doi: 10.1348/014466604X17641.

Vansteenkiste, M., Lens, W., De Witte, S., De Witte, H., & Deci, E, L. (2004). The ‘why’ and ‘why not’ of job search behaviour: Their relation to searching, unemployment experience, and well-being. European Journal of Social Psychology, 34, 345-363. doi: 10.1002/ejsp.202.

External links[edit | edit source]