by William Craig

One simple way to help employees stay healthy

Feb 22, 2017
CareersIT Leadership

Research shows that employees with more control over their jobs actually live longer.

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Credit: Thinkstock

We’ve known for a while that the time we spend at work — and how we spend it — can have some truly profound effects on the quality of our lives. But what if there was something happening at work that was literally cutting our lives shorter?

Based on a paper presented by Erik Gonzalez-Mulé and Bethany Cockburn, we now know there is such a factor: lack of job control.

Research turned up by this study indicates employees with low control over their jobs faced 15.4% higher “odds of death” compared with their counterparts who had a higher degree of control over their jobs.

That’s a bit startling, but it’s true. Using data gleaned from 2,363 working individuals over seven years, this paper details something we’ve long suspected but never knew how to talk about: Demanding much from employees who have little control over their jobs is decreasing our job satisfaction and even our lives.

So, what can the modern employer do about it?

Give employees more control over their jobs

The takeaway prescribed by Gonzalez-Mulé and Cockburn’s paper is deceptively simple: To live longer and more satisfying lives, we need more control over our jobs. If such a simple factor can play such a significant role in our working lives, doesn’t it make sense to make it a priority?

But what does control look like, practically speaking? What small changes can an employer make to grant employees a fuller feeling of control over their professional lives? Here are a couple ideas to get started.

Let employees work the way they want to

While each one of us has our own quirks and preferred methods of getting work done, imposing our own productivity paradigm on somebody else rarely delivers the return we’re looking for. So, step one for helping your employees feel more empowered has to do with letting them work the way they want to.

This starts with encouraging your employees to experiment with a variety of methods and tools and then choose what works best for their particular pace, approach and strengths. For office jobs, this means letting go of control of things like spreadsheet formats and which digital tools your team should use. For more physical job environments, it might mean letting your employees try different workflows or physical placement for key pieces of machinery.

Whatever sort of work you do, listen to your employees when they bring issues to the table about how that work could be done more efficiently or enjoyably.

Let employees set their own goals

Every workplace has its own definition of success, whether it’s leads generated, clicks clicked or units sold. But not every benchmark translates equally well to your different teams and employees. If morale is low or employees feel out of touch with the company’s overarching goals, it might be because you’re assessing their performance using the wrong metrics.

And everybody grows at a different pace, too — no two employees are alike. For all of these reasons, it just makes good sense to let employees set their own goals for what they want to accomplish on the job and how they want to develop. By all means, provide the framework and, if necessary, the tools required to either track or report on the results of this goal-setting. But if they’re hoping to push in new directions or pick up new skills, let them explore that impulse freely, provided it doesn’t interfere with the work they’re already doing.

If you’re feeling generous, you can provide incentives, too, since a good learning program at work always involves rewarding people who go above and beyond.

Let employees set their own schedule

How flexible are your scheduling policies? Whether you hire predominantly wage-based employees or your workforce is salaried, there’s almost always some wiggle room somewhere, and you might be surprised by the results if you let your employees take advantage of it.

If, for example, most of your daily work “hustle” falls between the hours of 11 a.m. and 3 p.m., what difference does it really make if an employee rolls in at 9 a.m. and stays until 5 p.m. or comes in at 10 a.m. and stays until 6 p.m. instead? The answer is probably “not a lot” — so why not let your employees make their own determination when it comes to start and stop times? Life is full of surprises, so let them roll with the punches a bit.

And this is just one example of ways to offer more flexible schedules. Feel free to think of your own, and remember: The data is with you. Flexible scheduling doesn’t just produce happier employees — it also results in better productivity.

Death and taxes

The paper referenced above ends with an important reminder: The preservation of life is outlined in the U.S. Constitution and the constitution of the World Health Organization as an unalienable right for all the world’s peoples. If something as simple as empowering employees to steer the course of their jobs could make a literally measurable improvement in the length of our lives, shouldn’t we do it?

As with all things, moderation is key here. Every social institution eventually fails without reasonable restrictions in place, and some employees might take advantage of a looser leash, but there’s really no harm in trying. If employees will feel better about their lives and work more effectively while they’re doing it, it sounds like we’ve found one of those rare win-win situations. Make the most of it!