Occupational Stress and Employee Control

Employee control over work can reduce stress and enhance motivation and growth. Several key findings have prompted employers to search for ways to give workers a greater sense of control, to improve health, productivity and morale.


Industrial psychologists discovered that how much latitude employees have at work - their control over job-related decisions - affects their health, their morale and their ability to handle their workload. Richard Hackman and Greg Oldham reported, in 1976, that control (in terms of job-provided autonomy) enhanced motivation and growth - in blue collar, white collar and professional positions. Then, in 1979, Robert Karasek found that workers whose jobs rated high in job demands yet low in employee control (as measured by latitude over decisions) reported significantly more exhaustion after work, trouble awakening in the morning, depression, nervousness, anxiety, and insomnia or disturbed sleep than other workers. When workers facing high demands had more control, their stress was lower. This major insight into how occupational stressors affect health and well-being has led to ongoing improvements in the workplace. For example, many organizations have implemented programs designed to enhance employee control.


Karasek's findings revealed to employers that they could improve job-related mental health without sacrificing productivity. That is, organizations could reduce job strain by increasing employee control or decision latitude, without reducing actual workload. Employers could fine-tune their administrative structure in order to reduce employee stress and protect workers' mental health - without cutting productivity. What's more, the Hackman and Oldham research showed how control influences feelings about work more broadly. And in fact, a 2002 survey of 604 employees by the Society for Human Resource Management and USA Today revealed that some 94 percent of those polled consider autonomy and independence "very important" or "important" to job satisfaction.

Practical Application

Many organizations have increased employee control to make jobs better for employees, often redesigning their processes or flipping around the chain of command. For example, Ford Motor Company has shifted virtually all of its manufacturing operations to a team-based approach in which employees have far greater control over their work. Rather than simply follow directions from supervisors, employees can, for example, talk directly to suppliers about parts quality, research better ways to run equipment, and take independent action to eliminate product defects. he pilot program, which began at Ford's Romeo, Mich. engine plant in the early 1990s, raised productivity and quality along with job satisfaction so successfully that Ford expanded the approach, giving virtually all employees targets and allowing them to find ways to reach them.

Telework has also given many workers greater control over decisions, embracing a wide range of alternative workplace arrangements such as telecommuting and virtual, mobile or satellite offices. Enabled by widespread Internet access and allowing companies to reduce overhead, telework also allows employees to control where, and to some extent when, they do their work. The International Telework Association and Council (ITAC) reports that by 2002, the number of telecommuters in the United States stood at 46.9 million (divided more or less equally between employed and self-employed). Organizations such as American Express, AT&T, IBM and Merrill Lynch have a significant number of employees who take advantage of this form of employee control. To determine its success, AT&T surveyed managers in 1999. Sixty-eight percent of the managers said that their productivity increased while telecommuting. Moreover, 76 percent were happier with their jobs and 79 percent were happier with their careers in general, while 79 percent reported higher satisfaction with their personal and family lives.

Cited Research

Hackman, J. R. and G. R. Oldham (1976). Motivation through the design of work. Organizational Behavior & Human Decision Processes, Vol. 16(2), pp. 250-279.

Karasek, R. A. (1979). Job demands, job decision latitude, and mental strain: Implications for job redesign. Administrative Science Quarterly, Vol. 24, pp. 285-308.

American Psychological Association, November 3, 2003