This study explored the role of personal demands in the health impairment process of the JD-R model. In order to do so, we first refined the conceptualization of personal demands to create a better fit with the JD-R model [9
]. We subsequently conducted a survey study among master students in four faculties at a Dutch University. Based on the Transactional Model of Stress [17
], we expected that personal demands could affect the health impairment process in two ways. By influencing the perception of the study situation to be more demanding (primary appraisal), personal demands may be associated with elevated levels of student burnout (i.e., mediation hypothesis). Furthermore, we theorized that personal demands might hinder students to successfully handle challenging study requirements and feel confident about their capability for successful enactment (secondary appraisal), which would increase the strength of the relationship between study demands and student burnout (i.e., moderation hypothesis).
Findings provided only support for the mediation hypothesis. Hence, with increasing levels of personal demands, students perceived more study demands, which in turn related positively with burnout symptoms. The results did not support the moderation hypothesis.
4.2. Theoretical Contributions and Implications for Future Research
In line with the primary appraisal process of the Transactional Model of Stress [17
], the present findings revealed that students with high personal demands tend to experience higher study demands. Hence, individuals who have a tendency to set irrationally high-performance standards, a high need for control, and a high tendency to awfulize are more inclined to appraise study situations as demanding. Moreover, the findings show that personal demands relate positively and indirectly to student burnout by influencing the perception of the study demands. These findings are in line with previous findings of a study showing that compulsive working is associated with perceiving more job demands and, indirectly, with higher levels of burnout [8
]. Additionally, our findings underscore the theorizing of Bottos and Dewey [26
], who suggested that perfectionistic students are more likely to generate their own stress because they are more likely to perceive situations as a hassle. Finally, our findings fit into a long line of studies showing that with increasing levels of study demands, students report more burnout symptoms [4
Taken together, whereas only a few studies have examined the construct of personal demands [20
], the results of the present and previous studies [8
] suggest that personal demands can be considered as a predictor of the perceived level of study (or job) demands, which indirectly increases the risk on burnout. In other words, according to the present findings, personal demands may be regarded as a lens through which individuals perceive the demands in their study (or work) environment. These results point towards the relevance of including personal demands as a factor for understanding and investigating the occurrence and etiology of burnout in the context of a study (or work) environment.
Relating our results to the JD-R model, personal demands can be considered as a predictor of perceived study demands and work-related ill-being (i.e., burnout) in the health impairment process. Consequently, personal demands appear to have a similar place within the health impairment process as personal resources have within the motivational process [9
]. Based on a variety of empirical studies (e.g., [11
]), personal resources have been positioned as predictors of job resources and work-related well-being (i.e., work engagement) in the motivational process [9
]. Hence, it appears that both personal resources and personal demands can be regarded as predictors of study (or job) resources and study (or job) demands, respectively, within the JD-R model.
At the same time, previous research revealed that personal resources might buffer the impact of job demands on strain [9
]. The present study did not find a significant interaction effect between personal demands and study demands on burnout. Therefore, we concluded that our data do not lend support for a moderating role of personal demands in the health impairment process of the JD-R model. Nonetheless, because the present study is one of the first studies exploring the role of personal demands in the health impairment process, it is possible that other personal demands would alter the relationship between study demands and work-related ill-being (see [9
]). Earlier studies do report that having an external locus of control, which can be viewed as a personal demand, relates to elevated levels of stress when individuals are confronted with demanding situations [28
]. It would be interesting to see if current studies can replicate this finding with similar control-related personal demands, such as external locus of control or irrational need for control, as well as other personal demands, such as irrational beliefs or dysfunctional coping mechanisms. Furthermore, some personal resources have been found to boost the impact of job demands on motivation and, so to say, cross moderate between the processes within the JD-R model [13
]. In a similar manner, personal demands could also cross moderate the motivational process within the JD-R model.
All in all, with the present findings, we offer initial information on the potential role of personal demands in the health impairment process of the JD-R model. Specifically, we demonstrate that irrational performance demands, awfulizing, and irrational need for control, as a latent construct of personal demands, predict the perceived level of study demands, which indirectly relates to burnout. Moreover, personal demands do not appear to moderate the association between study demands and burnout. We would advise future researchers to examine these and other personal demands within different contexts (e.g., employee contexts), using multiple designs (i.e., daily or weekly designs), and testing mediating, moderating, and cross moderating effects within the health impairment and the motivational process of the JD-R model.
4.3. Study Limitations
This study has some limitations that need to be addressed. First of all, the use of a cross-sectional design to test our hypotheses limits us in drawing causal conclusions and increases the risk of common method bias, for instance, by inflating the relationships among the study variables [39
]. In order to test whether personal demands indeed influence the perception of study demands and burnout, interventions and longitudinal designs would be needed. However, as mentioned by Spector [40
] (p. 129), it also “makes sense to start new areas of inquiry with the most efficient methods to provide initial evidence that a research question is deserving of attention”. Consequently, as our main aim was to operationalize the concept of personal demands and to explore its role in the JD-R model, we deemed it suitable to start with cross-sectional data to explore the relationships between personal demands, study demands, and burnout [9
]. Another limitation of this study is that we subjectively measured study demands [31
]. Although we selected validated concepts based on group interviews with students from all four faculties, we are unable to relate objective study demands to personal demands, subjective measurements of study demands, and student burnout. Future researchers may want to include objective measures of study demands, such as average study time or teacher ratings of the workload, to further unravel students’ appraisal processes in relation to their personal demands. Furthermore, since only 30% of the total invited students participated in the study, we should be cautious with generalizing the current findings to all graduate students. Finally, the generalizability to a broader student context (e.g., undergraduate students, students of applied universities, or high school students) may be limited as we measured a specific set of study demands and personal demands based on focus groups of graduates (i.e., master level) university students. Similarly, we should also be careful with generalizing the current findings towards student populations in other countries with varying cultures and school systems. Although we are confident that the chosen demands are relevant to the present student sample, in order to be able to generalize the present findings to a broader student population, it is important to replicate this study with different student samples from different countries.