When we think of the word ‘stress’ often the first thing that pops into our mind is work. No matter what your job is you are likely, at some point, to find it stressful. We’re often told that stress is bad for our health and sure, that’s true, but as we’ve written about many times the key to stress is taking control of it rather than letting it take control of you.
The keyword here is ‘control’. When we feel that what happens to us is out of our control we are much more likely to feel depressed, stressed and even to suffer from more physical health problems such as heart problems and auto-immune disorders [1,2]. When we feel in control, however, even if faced with a difficult situation, we are much better able to cope and to face the challenge head-on.
A recent study on stress in the workplace has thrown this into stark relief. Researchers at the Indiana University Bloomington analysed data from over 2000 individuals aged 60 and over measured over 7 years. They found that working too hard was associated with an increased risk of death over the 7 years. But, there was an important caveat. People in high-demand jobs – in other words jobs that were stressful and time-pressured – who had a low level of control over when and how they did the jobs were more likely to die. However, people in high-demand jobs who had a high level of control were much less likely to die. It wasn’t the work itself which predicted ill health but how much control people had over it .
This is where managers can take note. People who had high job control weren’t just the bosses. They were people who felt that they had control over the speed and time at which they did work, the order in which they completed tasks and the number of decisions they could make about their own work. These are relatively small levels of control which, it appears, can make a big difference. If an employee has a high demand job with low control over how they do it it can be very difficult to feel a sense of satisfaction about the work completed because it is likely to feel far removed from them and out of their hands. If, on the other hand, an employee has a demanding job that they can take control over, it is easier to feel part of the end product and pride in what has been achieved.
While giving employees full control over projects is not always possible there are small changes that can give a sense of control such as letting people choose what order they do tasks in or, to a certain extent, when they do them. Increasing control can reduce stress and, ultimately, improve employees’ health. So, the next time you feel yourself micromanaging a project take a step back, delegate and let someone else take a little bit of control back into their life.
- Lachman, M.E., S.D. Neupert, and S. Agrigoroaei, The relevance of control beliefs for health and aging. Handbook of the psychology of aging, 2010: p. 175-190.
- Zilioli, S., L. Imami, and R.B. Slatcher, Socioeconomic status, perceived control, diurnal cortisol, and physical symptoms: A moderated mediation model. Psychoneuroendocrinology, 2017. 75: p. 36-43.
- Gonzalez‐Mulé, E. and B. Cockburn, Worked to Death: The Relationships of Job Demands and Job Control with Mortality. Personnel Psychology, 2016. 00: p. 1-40.