Is your job killing you? Stress, lack of autonomy, ability can lead to depression, death

May 24, 2020

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Is your job killing you? Stress, lack of autonomy, ability can lead to depression, death

A new study finds that our mental health and mortality have a strong correlation with the amount of autonomy we have at our job, our workload and job demands, and our cognitive ability to deal with those demands.

What the researchers say: “When job demands are greater than the control afforded by the job or an individual’s ability to deal with those demands, there is a deterioration of their mental health and, accordingly, an increased likelihood of death,” said the paper’s lead author.

“We examined how job control (the amount of autonomy employees have at work) and  cognitive ability (people’s ability to learn and solve problems) influence how work stressors such as time pressure or workload affect mental and physical health and, ultimately, death,” he said. “We found that work stressors are more likely to cause depression and death as a result of jobs in which workers have little control or for people with lower cognitive ability.”

On the other hand, the researchers found that job demands resulted in better physical health and lower likelihood of death when paired with more control of work responsibilities.

“We believe that this is because job control and cognitive ability act as resources that help people cope with work stressors,” they said. “Job control allows people to set their own schedules and prioritize work in a way that helps them achieve their work goals, while people that are smarter are better able to adapt to the demands of a stressful job and figure out ways to deal with stress.”

The study appears in the Journal of Applied Psychology.

The researchers used data from 3,148 Wisconsin residents who participated in the nationally representative, longitudinal Midlife in the United States survey. Of those in their sample, 211 participants died during the 20-year study.

“Managers should provide employees working in demanding jobs more control, and in jobs where it is unfeasible to do so, a commensurate reduction in demands. For example, allowing employees to set their own goals or decide how to do their work, or reducing employees’ work hours, could improve health,” said the lead author. “Organizations should select people high on cognitive ability for demanding jobs. By doing this, they will benefit from the increased job performance associated with more intelligent employees, while having a healthier workforce.

“COVID-19 might be causing more mental health issues, so it’s particularly important that work not exacerbate those problems,” the authors said. “This includes managing and perhaps reducing employee demands, being aware of employees’ cognitive capability to handle demands and providing employees with autonomy are even more important than before the pandemic began.”

So, what? Autonomy is one of the four main drivers of human behavior—especially that based on motivation. The others are certainty, trust and status (our famous CATS issues). With the dehumanization of work—even the kind of work that professionals do—autonomy has been slipping away.

The researchers are no doubt right when they say that work must be matched with cognitive ability, although there is considerable controversy as to what that means in practice. There is a phrase that goes “everyone’s a genius at something,” and as our definition of intelligence has broadened since the publication of Daniel Goleman’s books “Emotional Intelligence” and “Social Intelligence”, so has our view of cognitive “ability.”

Surely what it means must depend on what an individual was designed to do best. This will depend on their neurogenetics, experience (particularly childhood experience) and present context. This latter is important because people are more or less “smart” depending on the context—particularly the human context—in which they find themselves.

There is another problem with the study in that too much autonomy is bad for all of us. We’re social creatures designed to work in collaboration with others and with a need to depend on and be supported by others. Often that need supersedes our needs around autonomy.

Again “autonomy” is a generalization and most of us have different ideas as to what it means in practice and where the line can be drawn between your autonomy and that of your colleague, teammate or life partner.

We all need autonomy, we need to feel in control of our lives, whether that’s in work or otherwise. But not feel in total control (unless you’re a narcissist of a psychopath, of course).

Dr Bob Murray

Bob Murray, MBA, PhD (Clinical Psychology), is an internationally recognised expert in strategy, leadership, influencing, human motivation and behavioural change.

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