Autonomy: tackling the core, not the symptoms, of the wellbeing challenge


Autonomy is increasingly being recognised as fundamental to workplace wellbeing, with Business in the Community (BITC) undertaking research into its impact as part of its ‘Your job can be good for you’ campaign.

Teaming up with YouGov, the research surveyed over 4,000 UK employees from a wide range of industries looking at what ways of working could improve wellbeing. To sum up the main findings of the survey the BITC came up with an acronym – THRIVE – to encapsulate the actions employers could take on the back of the insights.

The ‘R’ underlines the importance of autonomy and stands for ‘recognise and balance business and employee needs by providing flexibility in how, where and when people work’. According to the BITC’s wellbeing director Louise Aston, lockdown really challenged the business world’s ideas about the level of autonomy it’s possible to give employees.

Lockdown challenged the business world’s ideas about autonomy

“Employers I spoke to were really worried that people, left to their own devices would abuse working from home,” she says. “But in many cases productivity has actually increased. I think autonomy is, wherever possible, a good thing because people can actually focus on outputs rather than being seen. They can do things in a way that best suits them and gives them a lot more freedom to obtain that work life balance that 65% of employees say they are seeking, according to our research.”

The key, she says, is finding that “sweet spot” between what supports the wellbeing of the individual and also what is good for the business. The report goes as far as to recommend that employees should be able to request the right to work flexibly from the day they join a new company, rather than have to wait six months before earning this right.

As Aston also says, autonomy is a factor employers now must have on their radar because post-pandemic “employees are becoming a lot more demanding and discerning about what they actually want from a so-called ‘good’ job”. Also, it’s not something that you can just wrap up in a neat one-size-fits-all policy because the whole point about co-creating job designs with employees means the result is tailored and intersectional:

Autonomy is not one-size-fits-all

“In the past many employers looked at wellbeing through a kind of ‘shopping list’ of silos. But looking at ways of working through multiple intersectional lenses means actually considering the needs of people through many different facets.”

She gives the example of a carer, from a black Afro-Caribbean background who is on the living wage and has long-term health issues. “Designing ways of working for that employee to enable them to thrive is going to be far more effective than having blanket policies,” she says.

But it’s not just mental wellbeing that a sense of autonomy at work can boost. It’s physical health too. Stephen Bevan, head of HR research development at the Institute for Employment Studies, points to clinical research that shows that if people have high levels of control and autonomy in their jobs, they have a lower risk of cardiovascular disease.

Autonomy boosts mental and physical health

“There’s something deeply psychological about being in a job where you’re able to express yourself, be trusted to get on with your job and to have control over aspects of your job and so on,” says Bevan. “It’s a really important component of wellness. It’s not just a ‘nice to have’. And it’s not just about treating your employees with respect. This is not a ‘warm and fuzzy’ HR thing either; there’s mountains of data to support this.”

Bevan’s HR research on this topic finds that one of the principal factors that makes a difference to employee mental health and productivity is whether they’ve had managers that are prepared to give them “a bit more lee way, trust and autonomy”.

And, while there are some industries where it’s undoubtedly more challenging to offer autonomy than others, Bevans believes that, often, more can be done than employers think. For instance, it’s commonly assumed that autonomy cannot be given to employees working on production lines or a construction site.

More autonomy can be given than employers think

“But in this situation you can give autonomy by trusting your workers to use their discretion and knowledge in certain situations to take control,” says Bevan. “For instance, if an employee sees something that’s wrong, or could cause an accident or affect quality, you can give them the autonomy to say ‘hang on, we’ve got to stop now and make a correction’. Having discretion over what they do is a really important part of motivation.”

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Bevan concedes that there are some “more constrained” businesses where you need uniformity, predictability and to ensure that the customer experience is consistent throughout, giving the example of the hospitality industry. Again, though, he argues there is much scope for employees to have a say about the way the job is done or more active involvement in aspects like quality improvement.

“Having a very regimented approach only gets you so far,” he says. “If you’re going to differentiate yourself as an employer – say your source of competitive advantage is quality of service rather than just price – then you’ve got to think about whether you’re weaving those principles into the way that you are managing people, because you don’t get differentiation by controlling people into compliance.”

You don’t differentiate by controlling into compliance

In those industries where it’s hard to offer autonomy, or only feasible with part of the workforce, then employers need to be mindful of the risk of creating a two tier culture. This is something head of wellbeing at Anglian Water Vicki Sloan is conscious of in her role, where office workers are able to work more autonomously whereas the scheduled workforce, working at the coal face of providing utilities to customers, can’t.

Because Anglian Water strives for a culture of transparency and honesty, the company has been very upfront with employees about the fact that some roles cannot be autonomous because of the nature of the business. This has been communicated very clearly in Anglian Water’s communications about its commitments to the customer and to each other as colleagues.

Avoiding a two tier culture

“It’s important that all employees are aware of how different roles are within the company and the differences between home or office based work and scheduled work,” says Sloan. “It’s about creating a culture of care and respect, accepting we’re different and that we can’t offer the same level of autonomy across the board. That said, we’ve also articulated in our commitments that we want employees, in all roles, to explore new and better ways of doing things.”

Sometimes the wellbeing sector is criticised for treating the symptoms of workplace stress, with strategies that hinge around solutions like meditation apps or gym membership, rather than the causes. Placing focus on autonomy is tackling the problem at its core so, ultimately, will have a much bigger impact on workplace wellbeing. As Bevan says:

“If you’re trying to do things to improve employees’ wellbeing, like giving them spaces to meditate, but you’re sending them back into a toxic workplace, where they have no control of autonomy, then these offerings won’t make a difference. If you are an employer, whether you’ve got people working in an office or not, you have to think about what helps people thrive at work.”

This topic is one of the many that will be covered at The MAD World Summit, which is taking place in Central London on 11th October. MAD stands for Make A Difference. Now in its 5th year, the Summit is the go-to solutions-focused conference and exhibition for  employers who want to embed mental health and wellbeing as a strategic priority. Find out more about the different ways to register and sign up here.

If you’re an EMPLOYER, you can sign up for 3 x 15 minute 1-2-1 meetings with exhibitors at the Summit. This will also entitle you to a FREE DELEGATE PASS WORTH £595.00 and access to all sessions. Terms and conditions apply, view here.

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