A direct link between the amount of autonomy employees have at work and their life expectancy has been uncovered in new research from the Indiana University Kelley School of Business.

Entitled This Job Is (Literally) Killing Me, the 20-year study zeroed in on more than 3,100 Wisconsin residents who had taken part in the national, longitudinal survey Midlife in the United States, conducted in 1995 and 1996. During the study period, 211 of those participants had died.

Kelley School assistant professor of organisational behaviour Erik Gonzalez-Mulé – the study’s lead author – explained: “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.

“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 went on: “We believe that this is because job control and cognitive ability act as resources that help people cope with work stressors. Job control allows people to set their own schedules and prioritise work in a way that helps them achieve their work goals, while people [with higher cognitive ability] are better able to adapt to the demands of a stressful job and figure out ways to deal with stress.”

Gonzalez-Mulé stressed: “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. Organisations should select people high on cognitive ability for demanding jobs. By doing this, they will benefit from the increased job performance … while having a healthier workforce.”

He added: “Covid-19 might be causing more mental health issues, so it’s particularly important that work not exacerbate those problems. This includes managing and perhaps reducing employee demands, being aware of employees’ cognitive capability to handle demands and providing employees with autonomy are even more important than before the pandemic began.” (Indiana University Kelley School of Business, 19 May 2020)

Which steps should organisations take to boost their employees’ job control and autonomy?

The Institute of Leadership & Management’s head of research, policy and standards Kate Cooper says: “For a long time now, we at the Institute have been campaigning for greater organisational uptake of flexible working – not just in light of the business case for reduced office space and enhanced productivity, but because of the contribution that flexible work styles can make to employee wellbeing. One major reason for that is the autonomy and control that flexible work gives people over their working lives. And as the Kelley School study implies, being able to choose, to some extent, when and where you work is a really positive contributor to mental health.”

She notes: “In new research of our own, published this week, we found that men have been more likely to struggle with their wellbeing during lockdown, with 79% of males who live alone suffering from feelings of isolation and 39% believing that their mental health has declined due to working at home. And as Covid-19 restrictions ease, teams will be coming back to the workplace amid a host of new anxieties around commuting. So managers will have to be increasingly mindful of staff mental health. Offering workers as much flexibility and autonomy as possible within any given job is the first thing they should be thinking about: ‘How can I support the wellbeing of those who are returning to the office?’”

Cooper adds: “Where jobs are not allowing for that – as the Kelley School report indicates is a problem – let’s conclude that that’s inadequate. Let’s reexamine job design, and how we manage the whole employee experience. People are not machines. And just as we hear so much about the advance of artificial intelligence and robotics, and how jobs are going to be replaced by automation, we must also acknowledge that there are certain human qualities that cannot be replaced. That’s what employers should be thinking about.”

For further insights on the themes raised in this blog, check out the Institute’s resources on the healthy workplace.

Please also check out key episodes of our recent After Covid-19 webinar series, here, here and here.

Source ref:

Indiana University Kelley School of Business, 19 May 2020