Decades of research demonstrate that workers’ sense of control at work is a powerful lever for enhancing their health—or harming it.Broadly defined, control at work involves having meaningful discretion over how, when and where work gets done. Workers lack control at work when they feel they have little or no say in how they accomplish their daily tasks, are subject to excessive levels of supervision or surveillance or cannot reasonably predict their schedules from week to week. 

A lack of control over important aspects of one’s work life is highly stressful. Research has found that stress caused by low job control (in other words, low discretion in how work gets done) in combination with high work demands significantly increases the risks of diabetes and of death from cardiovascular causes. Stressful working conditions are associated with increased absenteeism, tardiness and turnover intentions (that is, a desire to quit) —with negative impacts on companies and their bottom lines. But research also shows that giving employees the opportunity to decide how and when they complete their tasks and greater input into work-related decisions can enhance their ability to work effectively and efficiently.Consider these three key areas of control at work: job autonomy; schedule control and workers’ voice on the job.

1: Offer Employees More Autonomy and Task Variety

Through job redesign initiatives, organizations can enhance employees’ control over how they do their work, including their autonomy in deciding how to approach work tasks and their opportunity to use a wide range of job skills.Autonomy can contribute to a sense of mastery that comes from competently performing varied or challenging work. Conversely, low job autonomy—think of an employee who must perform the same limited tasks repeatedly and with no opportunity to improve the process—can diminish the rewards of work and result in stress and depression. Research has demonstrated that job autonomy is one of the most important predictors of job satisfaction and work motivation and that it positively affects job performance—in part by increasing motivation and in part by permitting employees to use their skills and knowledge of the job to work more efficiently.

2: Offer Employees More Control over Their Schedules

Schedule control involves providing employees with more say over when and where work happens. Changes in communications technology and the nature of work in the twenty-first century mean that employees often face increased work demands and 24/7 work environments. This has left many families struggling to integrate their work and family lives. Given these changes, workers’ ability to achieve greater schedule control is both more challenging yet more imperative than ever before. Stress that results from managing the conflicting needs of work and personal life has well-documented health consequences, including hypertension, sleep problems, higher levels of alcohol consumption and other mental and physical health problems. Work-family conflict experienced by employees also hurts their employers and is associated with lower job satisfaction and higher turnover intentions.

One key aspect of schedule control is schedule flexibility, or the extent to which employees can vary their working time (for instance, when they start and end the day) and work location in order to better manage their work and personal lives. Several high-quality studies of initiatives designed to enhance schedule flexibility have shown the value of this approach.

3: Create Opportunities for Employee Influence

Employees’ ability to influence their work conditions, individually or collectively, is another important aspect of job control. Recent research suggests that workers want more say in the workplace than they have currently. Giving employees greater input into the nature of their working conditions can be an effective way to enhance their sense of job control and well-being. Employees should be invited to play an active role in problem identification and implementation of workplace changes. The strategy is intended to both enhance worker empowerment and commitment as well as improve organizational performance. Experimental research exploring the effects of participatory strategies has found structured interventions that incorporate worker voice are particularly effective in enhancing worker well-being.