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Give your teams freedom at work or it could cost you more than you think

Kate Allen, Executive Chair and Marketing Director, Allen Associates

The need for autonomy in the workplace has long been recognised as a key factor in increasing employee engagement and improving talent retention.

It’s not hard to see why: as employees, we want more than to simply turn up to work and robotically perform our duties for eight hours; we want an environment that engages us emotionally and intellectually, one that challenges us to take on new skills.

Most of us would agree that a sense of freedom and trust from our superiors are critical to job satisfaction. However, a restricted team with limited resources and little to no control over their own workflow is not only the perfect storm for low productivity, but also a risk to the health of the employees.

New research into the physiological consequences of work-related stress from psychologists Bosma, Stansfeld and Marmot revealed a worrying trend amongst UK workers. Studying the stress levels of more than 10,000 British civil servants, they found that men who had little control over their jobs were 50% more likely to develop heart disease. For women, the risk was reportedly 100% higher.

These findings support the importance of workplace autonomy, a subject previously explored by psychologist Robert Karasek, who found that workers whose roles rated high in job demands yet low in employee control, suffered significantly more exhaustion after work, trouble waking in the morning, depression, anxiety and insomnia than other workers. Simply put, when workers feel they are out of control, it isn’t only the health of the business that suffers.

However, the costs of occupational stress due to a restrictive environment certainly add up. Today, anxiety and stress account for one in three absences in the UK every year, a figure which could be drastically reduced by improving the working environment. Studies estimate that the cost of replacing an employee could be anywhere between six to 24 months of salary.

If this problem is recurrent throughout your team, the costs continue to rise. In the early 2000s, absenteeism affected 10,000 of the Royal Mail’s 170,000 staff and cost the business half a billion pounds annually.

If managers are to help reduce occupational stress and help employees avoid the often severe health-related consequences that can follow, they must give people real control. If you’re thinking that means a pay rise and a new title for an unmotivated individual, you’re way off. While this might increase engagement for a few months, it’s potentially a short-sighted talent retention strategy.

Instead of creating the illusion of autonomy, listen to your employees and understand what they need to perform a task to the best of their ability. Is it flexible working hours? Do they prefer to manage their own schedule than to be micro-managed?

Giving your employees the freedom to produce their best quality work rather than forcing them to comply with unnecessary processes will serve to prove to them that you trust in their skills and value their contribution. Not only will this help to increase engagement and inspire productivity, it will drive down the stress levels of your employees. Rather than feeling like a cog in the machine from 9:00am to 5:30pm, they feel empowered to do their best.