More Autonomy = Healthier Employees

More Autonomy = Healthier Employees

Recently, some new research identified a distinct correlation between the amount of autonomy people have at work and their health. Essentially, the more independence you have on the job, the better off you might be.


Increased Likelihood of Death

Researchers from the Indiana University Kelley School of Business published a new study earlier this year in the Journal of Applied Psychology titled “This Job Is (Literally) Killing Me: A Moderated-Mediated Model Linking Work Characteristics to Mortality.” They concluded that a person’s mental health and mortality are strongly related to three key things:

  • The amount of autonomy a person has at their job,
  • A person’s workload and job demands,
  • And an individual’s cognitive ability to deal with those demands.

“We examined how job control – or the amount of autonomy employees have at work – and cognitive ability – or people’s ability to learn and solve problems – influence how work stressors such as time pressure or workload affect mental and physical health and, ultimately, death,”  said Erik Gonzalez-Mulé, assistant professor of organizational behavior and human resources at the Kelley School and the study’s lead author.

“We found that work stressors are more likely to cause depression and death as a result of jobs in which workers have little control or for people with lower cognitive ability,” he said.

Conversely, the data also indicated that a person’s working life could result in better physical health and a lower likelihood of death when paired with work responsibilities that provided greater levels of control. Co-author Bethany Cockburn, assistant professor of management at Northern Illinois University, explained this happens because job control and cognitive ability act as resources that help people cope with work stressors.

To build their findings, professors from the Kelly School of Business and Northern Illinois University used data from 3,148 Wisconsin residents who participated in the Midlife in the United States survey, which was a nationally representative, longitudinal survey conducted over a period of about 20 years. Unfortunately, in that timeframe, 211 survey participants died.


Stress and Depression: Deadly Combo

When things like stress and depression impact a person’s life deeply, they can lead to significantly reduced life expectancy. There are numerous ways in which this can happen, directly and indirectly, that all add up to negative health outcomes.

Stress is often accompanied by lots of other unhealthy factors, like smoking, substance abuse, accidents, and all kinds of other risky behaviors. Stress and depression can also have a big impact on a person’s immune system, increasing the risk for things like the flu, cancer, heart disease, and more.

Aside from these related conditions, heavy stress can be a big problem all by itself. A study from the National Institute for Health and Welfare earlier this year found that “life expectancy is influenced not only by the traditional lifestyle-related risk factors but also by factors related to a person’s quality of life. Being under heavy stress shortens life expectancy by 2.8 years.”


How Can We Mitigate the Risks?

Everyone handles the stresses of their jobs in different ways, but there are still strategies that employers can use to potentially reduce some of the associated health risks caused by stressful working environments. Essentially, there are three things to take into consideration:

  • An understanding of the demands placed on employees,
  • An understanding of an employee’s ability to handle those demands,
  • And ways that a person’s autonomy could be increased in their role.

“Managers should provide employees working in demanding jobs more control, and in jobs where it is unfeasible to do so, a commensurate reduction in demands. For example, allowing employees to set their own goals or decide how to do their work, or reducing employees’ work hours, could improve health,” Gonzalez-Mulé recommended.


Better Health, More Productive

Keep in mind that over time poor health conditions will likely cost your company a lot more than reducing stress levels – even though reducing stress might feel like also reducing hours of productivity in the short term. But the statistics are well-established. It would be more advisable to reduce the burden of stress on employees now than have to deal with the potential absenteeism, lost time, and lost revenue your company will likely encounter later. Thus, providing greater levels of autonomy for employees might very well save your company money in the long run.

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Category Features, Health