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Leadership Today - Practical Tips For Leaders

Jul 29, 2018

Demanding jobs can actually be a good thing for us, provided we have a sense of freedom and control. Without this control, the negative health effects are dramatic. This podcast includes two ideas for improving control.

Welcome to episode three of the Leadership Today podcast. Each week we provide practical advice to address some of today’s biggest leadership challenges. This week we’re looking at control and your health - how having demanding jobs can actually be a good thing, provided we have a sense of freedom and control.

Autonomy is recognised as one of the core motivators people have in the workplace. With greater freedom and control over the way we perform our work comes higher levels of motivation and commitment. Recent research suggests that greater job control also improves our health and reduces our likelihood of dying over a seven year period. Autonomy isn't just motivating - it might just save your life. 

We've traditionally seen stress as a killer - that high job demands have a negative impact on our health. But this research shows that this isn't always the case. In fact, job demands can sometimes help improve our health, provided we retain a sense of control over our work.

Researchers* used a Wisconsin longitudinal study to track people over a seven year period to explore the relationships between job factors and health. They looked at the impact of job demands (including workload and time pressure) and control (the freedom an individual feels they can exert over their job) on health outcomes.

For jobs where people had low control, the research showed that high job demands did indeed negatively impact health outcomes. In fact, the odds of dying over the seven year period increased by 15%. For those who did make it through the seven years, this combination led to an increase in body mass index. In short, a demanding job where you feel little control is bad for your health.

Interestingly, for jobs where people had high control, high job demands were linked to a 34% decrease in the odds of dying over the same period when compared to low demand jobs. Higher job demands actually had positive health outcomes provided people had control over their work.

These findings are similar to my own research. I looked at people who rated their job demands as high. Those who felt their job provided freedom and autonomy of how they achieve results experienced 20% lower negative stress, and 52% higher engagement than those who lacked such freedom. 

What does this all mean for leaders? Here are two ideas. 

  • Seek out and provide autonomy: We know that autonomy motivates - people love having freedom and control over their work. Seek out more freedom in your own work. Negotiate greater flexibility and build your sense of control over the work you perform. If you're a leader, provide your team with more freedom. Give them opportunities to vary the way they perform their work. Manage them around the results they produce rather than how they produce results. 
  • Challenge yourself and others: Seek out greater accountability. Once you have control, it's important to ensure you are stretched and challenged. As a leader, provide your team with greater accountability alongside the greater authority you've granted. Discuss the goals people have, and vary the work to capitalise on what motivates your people. 
    Autonomy and challenge aren't just good for business - they're good for our health too!

*Worked to Death: The Relationships of Job Demands and Job Control with Mortality

Erik Gonzalez-Mulé, Bethany Cockburn 2016 Personnel Psychology