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Conservation of resources theory

Dr. Simon Moss


Some individuals are resistant to stress--feeling unexcited about the challenges of life, enthusiastic about work, and experiencing a sense of control over their wellbeing. Interestingly, however, employees who experience stressful events at work are, subsequently, less likely to demonstrate this hardy and resilient temperament, particularly if their supervisors had been unsupportive.

This interesting observation, and many other findings, can be ascribed to the conservation of resources theory, propounded by Hobfoll (1989). According to this theory, individuals accumulate resources they can apply to accommodate, withstand, or overcome threats. They might accumulate personal resources, such as self esteem and optimise, material resources, such as money, condition resources, such as status, and social support. Stressful or traumatic events consume these resources, thereby augmenting their sensitivity to subsequent stressors.

Some resources, like reputation, enable individuals to secure other resources. To illustrate, when the reputation of individuals is favorable, they might be granted more autonomy& they can thus undertake the tasks they enjoy, which can improve performance and attract promotions. The requests of reputable individuals are also more likely to be heeded (Hochwarter, Ferris, Zinko, Arnell, & James, 2007). The suggestions of these individuals are also more likely to be regarded as credible.

Sources of emotions

According to this theory, individuals experience stress whenever resources are depleted and, therefore, potentially inadequate to resolve any impending demands. In particular, when resources are actually depleted--for example, when individuals lose money or status--they experience actual stress (Hobfoll, 1989). In contrast, when resources are threatened--for example, the possibility that individuals might lose money or status is raised--they experience a state called anticipatory stress (Hobfoll, 1989). Anticipatory stress can be as acute as actual stress (Hobfoll, 2001).

Persistent levels of actual or anticipatory stress can culminate in burnout. Burnout represents a sense of emotional exhaustion, coupled with both cynical attitudes about the organization and environment as well as a decline in the perceived capacity to perform effectively (see Maslach, Jackson, & Leiter, 1996). As conservation of resource theory indicates, burnout can evolved after persistent shortfalls in the resources that are needed to fulfill demands or regular failures to generate the expected returns on some investment (see Hobfoll, 1989, 2001).

Interestingly, changes in resources, rather than absolute levels of resources, are especially likely to affect mood states. That is, the decline in resources predicts depression, as shown by Ennis, Hobfoll, and Schroder (2000). In contrast, persistent levels of scarce resources are not strongly associated with depression (Ennis et al., 2000).

Furthermore, the decline in resources is more likely to affect emotions that is an increase in resources (Wells, Hobfoll, & Lavin, 1999). That is, a loss of resources can increase depression appreciably. However, the same gain of resources might not contain depression noticeably (Wells et al., 1999).

Boyce, Wood, Banks, Clark, and Brown (2013) confirmed that losses in income affect wellbeing more than do equivalent increases in income. This study included both a German and British sample, examined over a period of 8 to 10 years. The household income of each participant was recorded together with measures of satisfaction with life and general psychological health, epitomized by questions that seek the degree to which people feel "unhappy and depressed". Increases in log household income across consecutive years coincided with minor increases in life satisfaction and general psychological health. Yet, decreases in log household income across consecutive years coincided with more sizeable decreases in life satisfaction and general psychological health. These findings support the notion that people are more sensitive to losses than to gains as well as highlight that simply exploring the relationship between income and wellbeing overlooks the different effects of income loss and gain.

Pettit, Yong, and Spataro (2010) also showed that losses dominate gains. For example, in one study, participants reflected upon a time in which they felt they might lose or gain status. Later, they were asked to indicate the amount of money they would pay either to avoid this loss or achieve this gain. In general, participants paid more to preclude a loss in status than to achieve a gain.


Many studies have verified the proposition that individuals exposed to stress are indeed more vulnerable to subsequent stressors (e.g., Brewin, Andrews, & Valentine, 2000& Ozer, Best, Lipsey, & Weiss, 2003).

Applications to accerlate adjustment to IT implementation

To illustrate, Chen, Westman, and Eden (2009) applied the theory of conservation of resources to curb the stress that changes in IT can provoke. Specifically, Chen, Westman, and Eden (2009) developed an intervention that facilitates the acquisition of three resource--resources that could prevent or alleviate stress. First, this intervention was designed to increase means efficacy, in which individuals feel they can access the means, equipment, and materials that are needed to perform the job effectively, sometimes called external efficacy. Second, this intervention attempted to increase the social support that individuals experience (see Hobfoll, 2002), which has been shown to diminish stress during restructuring, for example (Shaw, Fields, Thacker, & Fisher, 1993). Third, this intervention enhanced perceived control, which is the degree to which individuals feel they can influence and shape the work environment (see Skinner, 1996).

In the study conducted by Chen, Westman, and Eden (2009), an IT system was implemented at an organization. Before this system was instituted, some of the participants complete a workshop, intended to elevate the level of resources that were available to accommodate this change. Other participants did not attend this workshop.

The workshop was completed within four hours to clusters of 5 to 18 individuals. In short, a series of films were presented and exercises convened to raise awareness of means efficacy, social support, and perceived control and to highlight opportunities to extend these resources. For example, to enhance means efficacy, the workshop showed the benefits of the updated IT system relative to the extant system and the motivations of managers to introduce this change. Benefits to the work satisfaction and productivity of the users were emphasized. In addition, various forms of social support were illustrated in a movie and simulation exercises were organized. Furthermore, the participants reflected upon the resources they could utilize to accommodate change and also received a sticker that stipulated the telephone numbers of individuals they could contact.

Before, two weeks after, and two months after the implementation of this IT system, participants completed a questionnaire. The questionnaire assessed means efficacy (e.g., "(This system) could be an effective tool for me", social support (e.g., "How often did your colleagues provide you sympathetic understanding and concern?"), perceived control (e.g., "What extent do you have sufficient resources to make decisions?"), IT satisfaction, vigor, and burnout.

The workshop increased means efficacy, which in turn was positively correlated with IT satisfaction and negatively correlated with burnout. The workshop, thus, bolstered one form of resources, which enabled individuals to withstand the difficulties of this transition. Nevertheless, the workshop was not sufficient to boost social support or perceived control--perhaps because these resources demand more time to change.


According to the conservation of resources model, a persistent threat to valued resources ultimately culminates in burnout (Hobfoll, 1989). The loss of existing resources is more likely to provoke burnout that is the inability to achieve gains.

Consequently, as Naidoo et al (2012) showed, if individuals primarily strive to avoid losses, rather than to approach gains (cf., approach versus avoidance motivation), they are more inclined to conceptualize problems as a threat to their existing resources. Burnout becomes more likely. In contrast, if individuals primarily strive to approach gains, this problem dissipates. Individuals are not as sensitive to the loss of existing resources. Instead, they are more likely to extend their resources--resources that may subsequently increase their resilience.

To assess this possibility, Naidoo et al (2012) examined the relationship between burnout and goal orientation. Individuals tend to adopt one of two goals: the goal to outperform other people or standards and the goal to master skills and knowledge, called a performance orientation and a mastery orientation respectively. Yet, each of these goals can emphasize approach or avoidance. Therefore, participants completed a scale that gauges four goal orientations: performance avoidance (e.g., "I just want to avoid doing poorly in my courses"), mastery avoidance (e.g., "I worry that I may not learn all that I possibly could in my courses"), performance approach (e.g., "It is important for me to do better than other students"), and mastery approach (e.g., "I want to learn as much as possible from my courses"). Furthermore, participants completed a measure of burnout.

Structural equation modeling largely confirmed the hypotheses. The avoidance scales were positively associated with two facets of burnout: exhaustion and disengagement. Mastery approach was negatively associated with exhaustion as well as disengagement and, as predicted, was positively associated with a sense of personal efficacy. Performance approach was positively related to personal efficacy.

Related models and theories

Resources and perception model

According to the resources and perception model (Harber, Einev-Cohen, & Lang, 2007), individuals sometimes feel they have accumulated many resources. Their self esteem might be elevated, or the social networks may be extensive, for example. When individuals feel they have accrued many resources, their perception is more accurate. Specifically, they do not inflate the threat or danger of potential hazards and difficulties. In contrast, when individuals do not feel they have accrued many resources, they tend to inflate these threats or dangers.

Harber, Yeung, and Iacovelli (2011) uncovered some findings that align with this model. In one study, some participants were asked to remember a time in which they helped someone else. This instruction increases self worth and thus boosts resources. Other participants, in contrast, were asked to remember a time in which they failed or betrayed someone. Next, in a darkened room, a wooden tarantula or a cat toy were presented at various distances from participants. In essence, the task of participants was to estimate whether these objects were close or far relative to some flags that had appeared earlier. If participants remembered a time in which they offended, rather than helped, someone else, the spiders were perceived as closer than were the cat toys.

In the second study, self esteem was measured. In addition, participants entered and then exited a lift and were asked to a stand on a landing in a stair case, several stories from the ground. Some of these participants were then asked to hold the hand rail. Other participants were asked to place their hands behind their back, increasing the level of hazard. Finally, these individuals were asked to estimate their height from the ground, which could be observed between the rails. If self esteem was low and participants placed their hands behind their back, they were especially likely to overestimate their elevation. That is, they overestimated the threat.


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Last Update: 5/15/2016