Empowerment not a panacea for overwork

Companies that have been empowering employees could also be making them sick.

For some time now a popular theory in management posits that employees will be healthier and less stressed if they are given more control over how they meet their job responsibilities.

But new research suggests some employees become more vulnerable to the flu, common colds and other infectious diseases because they don’t know how to cope with the added responsibility.

While increasing job control has been advocated as a simple remedy for harmful effects of increasing job demands, “our research supports the view that increasing control can be harmful for individuals who lack the capacity to use it,” write John Schaubroeck, James Jones and Jia Lin Xie, in a paper published in the Journal of Applied Psychology.

It doesn’t disprove the popular notion that increased control is generally a good thing, however it does suggest that for certain types of people in certain situations increased control can be a harmful thing, said Schaubroeck.

In particular, people who have low self-confidence, or feel uncomfortable in their role, will suffer from greater stress. Increased stress reduces a person’s ability to fight off infectious diseases like the common cold and the flu, which in turn can be passed on to other people in the office leading to still more lost time.

Considerations of the effects of stress in the workforce typically ignore things like the common cold and focus on cardiovascular problems or lost time due to anxiety, said Schaubroeck.

Some people have a tendency to blame themselves when things go wrong, rather than considering all of the other factors.

Those people will likely be healthier if they aren’t given more control. Similarly, people who feel uncomfortable in the work they are being asked to do, would rather not be left alone to complete their tasks.

“I liken it to the situation where somebody asks me to teach physics, of which I know very little about. If you force me to do that, and say ‘Don’t worry you can do it however you want,’ I’d say ‘No please tell me exactly what to do and what to say.’”

More control does generally lead to healthier people, said Schaubroeck, but in recent years it has been used as a tool in business process re-engineering to offset the harm of increasing demands.

But it doesn’t work that way, he said. The benefits are cancelled out if increases in control are matched with increased demand.

Companies looking to reduce lost-time hours may consider using training programs to help people with low self-confidence feel better about themselves or train employees to make more realistic explanations for events — taking credit where it is due and not taking all of the blame when things go wrong.

The Journal of Applied Psychology article appears at a time when a study of the Canadian workforce revealed stress levels continue to rise.

The Canadian survey, conducted by Ipsos-Reid for Aventis Pharma Inc., revealed 62 per cent of workers reported they suffer “a great deal of stress” on the job, up 15 percentage points from a year ago. Thirty-four per cent said workplace stress made them physically ill last year, up from 25 per cent the year before.

The survey of 1,500 members of employer-sponsored health benefit plans also asked about employee perceptions of health plans.

About two-thirds said their employer-sponsored health plan meets their needs with drug coverage being the most valued element. Given the choice of having only one health benefit, 60 per cent said they would choose their drug coverage.

The study also found that the willingness to pay higher premiums has increased, while the willingness to pay a higher portion of medical services has decreased.

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