Work Design Principle #1: Give Employees More Control over Their Work

Decades of research demonstrate that workers' sense of control at work is a powerful lever for enhancing their health—or harming it.1 Broadly defined, control at work involves having meaningful discretion over how, when, and where work gets done.2 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.3

Promising Practices

This module describes a set of Promising Practices in three key areas of control at work: 1) job autonomy; 2) schedule control; and 3) workers’ voice on the job.

Promising Practice 1: Offer Employees More Autonomy & Task Variety

Older man skillfully using an electric power tool

Promising Practice 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.4 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.4 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.Several initiatives designed to enhance employee job control have shown benefits for worker well-being, including the two highlighted in this case study.

CASE STUDY: Improving Worker Well-Being & Job Performance

Strength of Evidence: Strong 
Background: Call center workers often have limited autonomy or say over how they do their work. Typically, they engage in highly repetitive customer interactions with only limited discretion in how they can handle customer problems and complaints. These dynamics can create burnout and high turnover and diminish job performance. 
The Work Design Initiative: This study aimed to improve the well-being and job performance of customer service agents in a British government call center by increasing their control at work. Call center workers in the intervention were given responsibility for a range of new tasks including managing teamwork activities, break times, and weekly team briefings, as well as handling customer complaints with less involvement from managers. These workers also received training in each of their new areas of responsibility.
What Changed? The workers given more say over administrative tasks reported a greater sense of job control and job-related well-being (more positive emotions about work), as well as higher job performance as rated by their supervisors. 
Further Evidence of Impact: These findings were then replicated, providing evidence these changes can work in a different setting. The same researchers conducted a similar experiment in a department of a large U.K. company providing health insurance and health care. The employees were a mix of call center and administrative support staff. One group of workers was given greater discretion and responsibility over certain aspects of their job, as well as training in these areas, and these workers were also involved in the design of a new IT system. At the end of the experiment, workers in this group reported higher job control and job-related well-being compared to employees whose jobs were not changed.

Promising Practice 2: Offer Employees More Control over Their Schedules

Woman riding the MBTA by herself

Promising Practice 2: Offer Employees More Control over Their Schedules

Schedule control involves providing employees with more say over when and where work happens.2 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.4 Work-family conflict experienced by employees also hurts their employers and is associated with lower job satisfaction and higher turnover intentions.6

Schedule Flexibility

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. One group of researchers found that mental distress decreased in hospital and call center employees who were allowed to choose from a range of scheduling options, including varied shift lengths or starting and ending times, and had the possibility of trading shifts with coworkers. Another high-quality experimental study to enhance schedule flexibility for employees in the IT division of a U.S. Fortune 500 company yielded a range of positive physical, psychosocial, and business outcomes. (See the “Less Stressed and Less Likely to Quit” case study listed below).

CASE STUDY: Less Stressed and Less Likely to Quit: When High-Tech Professionals Gain Control Over Their Work Schedules

Strength of Evidence: Strong 
Background: Executives in the IT division of a U.S. Fortune 500 firm were concerned that their highly skilled technical staff were “burned out” and at risk of leaving the company. In order to address these concerns, a research team was invited in to implement and evaluate a work design initiative called STAR that aimed to benefit both the company and its overstressed employees. The firm already had some flexible work policies on the books, but relatively few employees used those options. Employees felt pressured to work long hours, to be in the office whenever their bosses were there, and to be constantly available (via smartphone) for questions and work discussions. A high workload and the need to coordinate with staff in other countries meant many felt their work was never done.
The Work Design Initiative: The goal of the STAR program was to improve employee well-being and make work more manageable by changing three related aspects of work. First, professionals were given greater control over when and where they did their work. Second, managers and frontline professionals were trained to shift from valuing “face time” (long hours at the office) to a focus on “results” or concrete accomplishments only. Third, managers were encouraged to share their support for and interest in employees’ personal and family lives. All employees in the department were given blanket permission to work whenever and wherever they chose as long as they completed their work and met project deadlines. STAR involved eight hours of participatory training sessions for employees and managers to plan and troubleshoot together, so teams could maintain their productivity and coordinate well even with this increased flexibility and employee autonomy.
What Changed? STAR brought benefits to both employees and the company. Workers who took part in the STAR program were less burned out, less stressed, and felt less squeezed for time. With fewer interruptions, they often felt more productive (better able to concentrate and innovate). Enhanced schedule control enabled employees to adjust their work arrangements to better fit their personal lives, and helped parents spend more time with their children. These changes at work benefited physical health, with increased sleep and reduced risk of diabetes, heart disease, or stroke. Employees also experienced greater job satisfaction and were less likely to look for other jobs or to quit.
Context Matters: However, STAR is not a panacea. A version of this program was also implemented in a nursing home setting with low-income hourly shift workers, but the findings were more mixed.7 The researchers speculate this was due to having less latitude in scheduling within a highly structured setting. Together, these findings highlight the promise of schedule flexibility practices while recognizing the importance of tailoring interventions to occupational context.


Schedule Predictability

Many low-wage workers in today’s economy experience erratic work schedules that change from week to week or even day to day. Increasingly, employers in certain industries, like retail or food service, are using ‘just-in-time” scheduling technologies to routinely cut, extend, or otherwise alter employee schedules with little advance notice. As a result, practices such as on-call or “clopening” shifts (working a closing shift followed by an opening shift), last-minute cancellations, and variable or insufficient work hours are a common occurrence in these industries.8 Emerging research finds that workers exposed to this kind of regular scheduling uncertainty are more psychologically distressed and unhappy, have greater household economic insecurity, poorer sleep quality, higher work-family conflict, and poorer family functioning (which often manifests in children showing heightened anxiety and acting out). Moreover, schedule uncertainty also imposes costs on companies by increasing the risk of employee turnover.

In contrast, schedule predictability provides workers with ongoing schedule stability that makes it possible to coordinate life outside of work and maintain a stable income. To our knowledge, there is only one rigorous experimental study to date of an employer-based initiative to increase schedule predictability for hourly workers. The results of this research provide strong evidence that a shift towards stable schedules can improve both business and health outcomes. (See “Lessons from Gap Inc.” case study listed below).

CASE STUDY: Lessons from Gap Inc.: The Benefits of Stabilizing Workers' Schedules

Strength of Evidence: Strong 
Background: In the retail industry, employers have assumed that unstable or “just-in-time” schedules are inevitable. In an industry with razor-thin profit margins, corporate leaders have supposed that it is necessary to closely match staffing with changes in consumer demand in order to minimize labor costs. This study challenges the conventional wisdom that implementing stable schedules for hourly workers will necessarily hurt the bottom line.
The Work Design Initiative:

This study evaluated an intervention to enhance schedule stability in Gap Inc. stores in San Francisco and Chicago. Stores participating in the intervention increased schedule stability by:

  • improving the consistency of associate shifts (so employees had similar daily start and end times and weekly days and times);
  • boosting the adequacy of work hours for a core team of  part-time employees;
  • increasing associate input into scheduling through an app that enabled associates to swap shifts without manager involvement.
What Changed? Associates’ self-rated sleep quality improved by 6-8% on average as a result of the intervention, and those who were parents or held second jobs also reported decreased stress. Notably, giving employees more schedule stability also was good for business. The stores that implemented the additional stable scheduling practices experienced a 7% increase in their median sales and an increase in labor productivity of 5% (amounting to a $2.9 million increase in revenue). The increase in productivity was likely driven by improved retention of the more seasoned sales associates, who had been offered more adequate weekly hours. More stable schedules appear to be a promising practice for both retailers and their employees.
Context Matters: Contrary to widespread industry assumptions, fluctuating customer demand turned out not to be the primary source of instability in weekly payroll hours in this study. Instead, schedule instability was significantly influenced by last-minute decisions made at headquarters—about promotions, shipments, and leadership visits. For maximum effect, stable scheduling initiatives should address sources of instability that originate not just at the store level (which was the focus of this study) but also in corporate-level decision-making.

Promising Practice 3: Create Opportunities for Employee Influence

Smiling young man wearing an apron in retail setting

Promising Practice 3: Create Opportunities for Employee Influence

Employees’ ability to influence their work conditions, individually or collectively, is another important aspect of job control; scholars often refer to this as worker voice. Recent research suggests that American workers want more say in the workplace than they have currently. In one nationally representative survey, more than a third of respondents indicated they have less influence than they want over different aspects of their work conditions (such as how they do their jobs, their schedules, and the time available to do their work). 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. 

Worker voice can be incorporated into work design initiatives through a participatory approach in which employees are 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.The following case study highlights a high-quality experimental study that successfully used a participatory approach to improve well-being outcomes for primary care clinicians.

CASE STUDY: Can Participation in Workplace Change Improve Clinician Burnout?

Strength of Evidence: Strong 
Background: Clinician burnout is a serious problem for doctors, nurses and residents nationwide, with some studies showing a burnout prevalence of over 50% in this group. also shows that primary care clinicians are dissatisfied with their jobs, not recommending the field to students, and at risk of leaving medicine themselves. 
The Work Design Initiative: This study aimed to reduce clinician burnout and turnover intentions by inviting physicians, physician assistants, and nurse practitioners to participate in a structured process of identifying and addressing problems in their work environment. At the start of the study, clinicians filled out a survey assessing their work conditions and various provider outcomes (for example, stress, burnout). Next, they were given summaries of the baseline survey results so that they could participate in a guided discussion to prioritize workplace problems and improvements they wished to implement. Clinical teams chose from a menu of proven interventions and they customized each type to their specific clinical context and needs; each team was then actively involved in the implementation of these workplace improvements.
What Changed? Compared to nonparticipants, clinicians who engaged in the systematic workplace improvement process showed significantly greater improvements on burnout and job satisfaction measures, with a trend towards reduced intention to leave their jobs. This study suggests that active staff participation in a guided process of workplace problem diagnosis and improvement can lead to meaningful increases in clinician well-being and potential benefits for employee retention. 

 

Helpful Resources

Abstract illustration of people connected like petals of a flower in multiple colors

Helpful Resources

Task Autonomy and Variety

  • The New South Wales workplace health and safety government regulatory body, SafeWork, provides a tip sheet on levels of control and work-related stress, with advice on how to increase employees’ control over their work.

  • Thrive at Work’s SMART work design model, by the Future of Work Institute at Curtin University in Australia, provides research-backed strategies for improving job design. Refer to the sections on stimulating work, mastery, and agency to find out how organizations can increase task variety, provide role clarity, and increase employees’ ability to control aspects of their jobs.

Schedule Flexibility and Predictability

  • The Family Supportive Supervisor Behaviors (FSSB) Training Manual is based on the computer training provided to managers and supervisors as part of the STAR (Support. Transform. Achieve. Results.) initiative from the Work, Family & Health Network, which was outlined in the “Less Stressed and Less Likely to Quit” case study above. The training manual focuses on how supervisors can help employees gain more control over their schedules while maintaining or improving productivity.

  • How to Create and Manage an Effective Flexwork Policy is an article from the Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM) which outlines various implementation tips and issues for employers to consider when instituting a flexwork policy. 

Survey Questions

If you are interested in survey questions to help assess your employees’ perceptions of control at work, explore these two resources:

  • What Works Wellbeing Question Bank: This bank of validated questions from What Works Wellbeing can be used by employers to measure workplace climate and employee well-being. Scroll to page 14 to see questions about autonomy and skills use and to page 19 to see questions about work flexibility, work hours, and work-life balance.

  • CIPD Good Work Index 2020: This set of survey questions on workplace climate and employee well-being was developed by the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development (CIPD). Questions pertaining to work-life balance can be found on pages 10 and 11, to autonomy and skills use on pages 12 and 13, and to employee voice on page 15. 

Increasing Opportunities for Employee Participation

A participatory management approach involves engaging employees from across the organization’s hierarchy in a collective process of identifying problems and finding solutions. It is generally a useful strategy for making improvements that are highly tailored to meet employee-specific processes, needs, and concerns. The following resources provide more information on a participatory approach:

  • Employee Engagement:  This module is part of a toolkit on creating good jobs designed for small business owners by Pacific Community Ventures. The section discusses both the business case for employee engagement and five strategies to foster it, including promoting employee participation in decision-making (see strategy three). 

  • Why a Participatory Approach? A short description of the advantages of a participatory approach to workplace health and safety improvements, provided by The Center for the Promotion of Health in the New England Workplace.

References

References

  1. Karasek R, Theorell T. Healthy Work: Stress, Productivity, and the Reconstruction of Working Life. New York: Basic Books; 1990.
  2. Kelly EL, Moen P. Overload: How Good Jobs Went Bad and What We Can Do About It. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press; 2020.
  3. Parker SK, Williams HM, Turner N. Modeling the antecedents of proactive behavior at work. Journal of Applied Psychology. 2006;91(3):636-652. doi:10.1037/0021-9010.91.3.636
  4. Pfeffer J. Dying for a Paycheck: How Modern Management Harms Employee Health and Company Performance and What We Can Do About It. New York: HarperCollins Publishers; 2018.
  5. Morgeson FP, Delaney-Klinger K, Hemingway MA. The Importance of Job Autonomy, Cognitive Ability, and Job-Related Skill for Predicting Role Breadth and Job Performance. Journal of Applied Psychology. 2005;90(2):399-406. doi:10.1037/0021-9010.90.2.399
  6. Allen TD, Herst DEL, Bruck CS, Sutton M. Consequences associated with work-to-family conflict: A review and agenda for future research. Journal of Occupational Health Psychology. 2000;5(2):278-308. doi:10.1037/1076-8998.5.2.278
  7. Kossek EE, Thompson RJ, Lawson KM, et al. Caring for the Elderly at Work and Home: Can a Randomized Organizational Intervention Improve Psychological Health? J Occup Health Psychol. December 2017. doi:10.1037/ocp0000104
  8. Schneider D, Harknett K. Consequences of Routine Work-Schedule Instability for Worker Health and Well-Being. Am Sociol Rev. 2019;84(1):82-114. doi:10.1177/0003122418823184
  9. Fox KE, Johnson ST, Berkman LF, et al. Organisational- and group-level workplace interventions and their effect on multiple domains of worker well-being: A systematic review. Work & Stress. 2021;0(0):1-30. doi:10.1080/02678373.2021.1969476