25 Sep. 2012 | Comments (0)

Would you like to do everything in your power to stop your employees suffering a heart attack from overwork? If so, medical researchers have some important news, especially in these tough times when employees are under pressure to do more with less.

A major study of nearly 200,000 people in seven European countries demonstrates that “job strain” – a combination of high job demands and low control - is linked to a 23% greater risk of heart disease and death.

The important word here is “control.” The study, the largest of its kind, tracked people with no previous history of heart disease over a 7.5-year period. The results of this study reinforce earlier research demonstrating that harmful stress is related to having little discretion over one’s work.

As Andrew Steptoe, professor of epidemiology and public health at University College London, and co-author of the above study, told BBC Radio 4’s Today Programme: “The old view that stress at work has simply to do with having too much to do has really been refined by this notion of how much discretion and control you have over how the work is done, how you can plan your work, or the extent to which you just have to do what you are told.” People who have demanding jobs but plenty of choice about how they do their work seem to be better protected against harmful stress.

While many employers do make efforts to discourage people from smoking and taking little exercise (the biggest contributors to heart disease), it’s arguably a lot easier to give them more freedom over how, where, and when they do their work. In addition, offering employees more control over their own work provides a positive message about trust, empowerment, and responsibility. People tend to like being trusted. It makes us more motivated and focused on developing solutions rather than waiting for the boss to tell us what to do.

This solution can also help employees cope better with highly demanding jobs. In our book, Future Work, Peter Thomson and I cite a survey conducted with IBM employees around the world which found that those with flexibility over where and how they worked could put in 19 more hours per week than their office-bound colleagues before they experienced the same level of conflict between work and their personal lives. To learn more about this book, login into the HCE website, and watch the on demand recording of this book discussion webcast.

The key sticking point that prevents managers from providing workers with more control over their work is that it would lead to managers having less control. At the most junior levels, many workers are still obliged, in the 21st century, to stay in their cubicles unless they have their supervisor’s permission to leave or to go to lunch. But micromanagement is not confined to routine office or factory jobs. Even in apparently sophisticated multinationals with heavy investments in communications technology that make teleworking and virtual meetings viable, the desire of managers at HQ to control the agenda can lead to serious work stress and talent loss.

The story of Katrin, one of our case studies in Future Work, is sadly typical. Katrin was a highly experienced senior executive based in Europe working for a U.S. multinational, who had to spend two to three weeks of every month on the road, barely seeing her husband and children. This was tough, but even when she was home there was no let up. HQ ordered teleconferences at times that suited the U.S. business day, but clashed with evening mealtimes in Europe. The relentless flood of emails continued throughout the night, so that her inbox was full of “urgent” requests first thing each morning. Demoralized, exhausted, and feeling like she was unable to control her schedule, she was eventually diagnosed with burnout and decided to quit her job.

If employers are to avoid these highly costly and damaging losses, they need to invest in better “people-managers.” While some managers are naturals at it, the rest could start by unlearning their default “control” position, so that they feel more comfortable transferring some of that control to the people on the front line.

View our complete listing of Mission&Purpose@Work and Strategic HR  blogs.

  • About the Author: Alison Maitland

    Alison Maitland

    Alison Maitland is a Senior Fellow, Human Capital at The Conference Board. In this role, Alison supports the Human Capital Practice which includes The Conference Board Human Capital Exchange™, r…

    Full Bio | More from Alison Maitland


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