Autonomy in the workplace has positive effects on wellbeing and job satisfaction

Autonomous employee
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Employees who have higher levels of autonomy, an important indicator of the quality of work, report positive effects on their overall wellbeing and higher levels of job satisfaction.

This research, published in the journal Work and Occupations, examined changes in reported wellbeing relative to levels of autonomy using two separate years of data for 20,000 employees from the Understanding Society survey.

Both wellbeing and the quality of work have risen to the policy forefront in recent years prompting academic, practitioner and policy debates surrounding methods of improving job quality, and its relationship with wellbeing.

The quality of work features in the UK Government’s Taylor Review of Employment Practices in the Modern Economy, which is currently underway and will run to mid-2017.

The Taylor Review will study a number of themes of relevance to job quality in the modern labour market, including involuntary freelancing and self-employment, the ‘gig’ economy and the impact of ‘disruptive’ business models and technologies.

Men were found to be more impacted by job tasks, the pace of work, and task order.

What does ‘good work’ look like?

Existing research has attempted to identify the constituents of job quality and ‘good work’. Aspects of paid work argued as affecting the relative quality of jobs include:

  • pay (including relative income levels)
  • skill level
  • variety within the job
  • the intensity of work
  • the length of the working day/week
  • job security
  • opportunities for training and development
  • availability of flexible working arrangements
  • levels of autonomy (the focus of my research outlined in this article)

What did my research on autonomy say about wellbeing?

This research showed that those working in management report the highest levels of autonomy in their work, with 90% reporting ‘some’ or ‘a lot’ of autonomy in the workplace.  Professionals report less autonomy, particularly over the pace of work and over their working hours.

For other employees, 40% to 50% of those surveyed experienced much lower autonomy while around half of lower-skilled employees experience no autonomy over working hours at all.

Within the findings made in the research, an overall pattern is clear, in that greater levels of both control over work tasks and schedules has the potential to generate significant benefits for the employee, evident in reported levels of wellbeing.

Moreover, the positive effects associated with informal flexibility, and working at home, found in the research offer further support to the suggestion that schedule control is highly valued, and important to employees enjoying work.

Does autonomy affect men and women differently?

The findings also revealed that the effects of autonomy are different for men and women.

The manner of work and control over work schedules was found to be more relevant to the wellbeing of female employees. For women, flexibility over the timing and location of their work appeared to be more beneficial allowing them to balance other tasks such as family commitments.

Meanwhile, men were found to be more impacted by job tasks, the pace of work, and task order.

These findings highlight that employers can benefit not only from providing greater opportunities for autonomy, but that specific consideration needs to be given to the relative benefits that different forms of autonomy provide to different employees.

The role of the manager in autonomy for employees

Although reporting high levels of autonomy themselves, it would appear that managers, in many cases, remain unwilling to offer autonomy and its associated benefits to their employees as their primary role remains one of control and effort extraction.

Managers, further, have considerable influence over the level of flexibility experienced by employees, which formed the focus of related research previously reported in Work, Employment and Society.

Given the evident links between autonomy and the quality of work, low levels of autonomy reported in many occupations, e.g. sales and customer service and elementary occupations, associated with the adoption of highly routinized systems of work, could have detrimental effects on employee wellbeing.

The manner of work and control over work schedules was found to be more relevant to the wellbeing of female employees.

This is also relevant in professional occupations as the results of this, and other existing, research suggests significantly lower levels of autonomy than is reported among managers in at least some aspects of paid work, along with intense work routines.

Autonomy v high-strain working environments?

Employers may be concerned that workers will shirk if greater autonomy is offered and instead continue to favour ‘high-strain’ (low-discretion, high demand) work organization.

In some cases managers may similarly view micro-management of their employees as a method of ensuring the health of their organization, not to mention their own role within it.

However, ignoring the benefits of providing employees with greater levels of autonomy, and the differentiated benefits which may be derived by men and women from access to alternative forms of autonomy, represents a significant missed opportunity for employers.

Methods including the screening of employees could offer a manager-friendly solution to some of these concerns. Without manager buy-in, little change is likely to occur, and these benefits will remain unrealised.

Organizations should take responsibility to improve the quality of work experienced by their employees, as improvements in employee wellbeing not only benefit the employee, but also offer potentially significant benefits with respect to employee productivity and retention.

Indeed, recent research by the Department for Business Innovation and Skills has identified that increased wellbeing at work is associated with increases in workplace performance.

It is important to acknowledge that not all forms of autonomy can be offered to all employees. For example, for practical reasons autonomy over work schedules is often not possible in occupations which are customer facing.

Nevertheless, the findings of the research into autonomy and employee wellbeing provide clear recommendations for employers with respect to exploring ways of providing greater opportunities for autonomy to their employees in at least certain aspects of paid work.

About Daniel Wheatley

Daniel Wheatley

Dr Daniel Wheatley is Senior Lecturer in the Department of Business and Labour Economics at University of Birmingham. Areas of research include subjective well-being, time-use, work-life balance, flexible working, the quality of work, work-related travel, and the household division of labour. He is author of Time Well Spent: Subjective Well-Being and the Organization of Time. His work has appeared in edited volumes, and in peer-reviewed journals including Cambridge Journal of Economics; Industrial Relations Journal; New Technology, Work and Employment, and; Work, Employment and Society. Contact at: [email protected].

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