Jobs that give employees control over their work are better for mental and physical health, new research reveals.
When employees are given control over their work, even in the face of high demands, their health is improved.
Typical ways of giving employees control are to let them set their own schedules and allow them to decide how the work gets done.
However, jobs that put huge demands on employees without giving them control are damaging to mental health.
The study shows the importance of control at work for both mental and physical health.
Dr Erik Gonzalez-Mulé, the study’s first author, said:
“When job demands are greater than the control afforded by the job or an individual’s ability to deal with those demands, there is a deterioration of their mental health and, accordingly, an increased likelihood of death.”
The study included 3,148 people in Wisconsin who were tracked over 20 years.
Dr Gonzalez-Mulé explained the study’s aim:
“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.”
Being given control at work, though, improved physical and mental health.
Smarter people were also able to adapt to more stressful jobs without letting it affect them.
Dr Gonzalez-Mulé said:
“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 prioritize work in a way that helps them achieve their work goals, while people that are smarter are better able to adapt to the demands of a stressful job and figure out ways to deal with stress.”
Dr Gonzalez-Mulé has this advice for managers:
“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.
Organizations should select people high on cognitive ability for demanding jobs.
By doing this, they will benefit from the increased job performance associated with more intelligent employees, while having a healthier workforce.
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.”
About the author
Psychologist, Jeremy Dean, PhD is the founder and author of PsyBlog. He holds a doctorate in psychology from University College London and two other advanced degrees in psychology.
He has been writing about scientific research on PsyBlog since 2004. He is also the author of the book “Making Habits, Breaking Habits” (Da Capo, 2013) and several ebooks:
- Accept Yourself: How to feel a profound sense of warmth and self-compassion
- The Anxiety Plan: 42 Strategies For Worry, Phobias, OCD and Panic
- Spark: 17 Steps That Will Boost Your Motivation For Anything
- Activate: How To Find Joy Again By Changing What You Do
The study was published in the Journal of Applied Psychology (Gonzalez-Mulé et al., 2020).