Careering out of control?

HOW stressed does your work make you? Perhaps the answer has less to do with the environmental factors you face at work, and more to do with your ability to handle the stress these environmental factors can produce. In other words, the more control you believe you have over your work, the more likely you are to be less stressed and more satisfied.

There’s an extensive body of research on this whole area of control at work.

One study in The Netherlands found that employees reporting high job demands (both psychological and physical demands) and low job control had elevated risks of emotional exhaustion, psycho-somatic and physical health complaints and job dissatisfaction.

An Israeli study of hospital nurses’ work attitudes reported that the more control the nurses had over their work scheduling, the more positive their attitudes were in relation to their job satisfaction and organi-sational commitment.

And a study in Germany found that the more control factory workers had over their work, the less stress they reported, even in the face of job insecurity.

Are the messages from these studies news to us? Perhaps not. But look around you in the business world. Who are those in positions of control in the workplace? You’d expect that the higher up the corporate ladder you go, the more stress there would be. And in a sense, there is. The stresses a chief executive officer must face are unquestionably high.

But research suggests that these people – those in a position of power and influence – are less likely to suffer the adverse consequences of stress – job dissatisfaction and burnout – than those who have less control over their work.

Take the other end of the scale. By way of example, the call centre industry has a staff turnover rate of around 20 –40 per cent. One of the key reasons? Stress.

In most call centres there is little latitude for an employee to control his or her workload – the number of calls he or she takes each day. And because most call centres are about customer service, the challenge to keep each and every customer satisfied can be very taxing for the call centre representative.

It’s all very well to read that a sense of control means less stress and more satisfaction, but how do you achieve this?

You may feel that you have no control over your work and that your every move from nine to five (if anyone actually work those hours anymore) is dictated and scrutinised, and there’s no way out except to leave. Or you might feel that if you could just get nagging boss off your back then work would be great.

A key to greater job satisfaction and less work stress undoubtedly lies in the amount of control you believe you have over your work.

Notice the word “believe”. In relation to stress, there are two schools of thought.

One says that work stress arises due to poor working conditions, more pressure to deliver and less job security among other things. This school says the stress we feel is caused by these environmental factors.

Correct. Those who come from this school tell us that we should lobby the powers that be to go back to the old way of working. Too late. The old way is no more. The world has moved on and the old-schoolers are being left behind.

The second school of thought takes this theory to the next level. Rather than simply accepting that the abovementioned factors cause the stress, this school goes on to say that the stress we experience is a result of our belief about our ability to deal with the stress. In essence, it’s a lot harder to control the cause of the stress than it is to control the effect it has on us.

A classic case where this second type of thinking comes to the fore is in the face of major change.

In the US in the late 1980s, a financial institution faced being closed down by the government. With many jobs at stake, the management team knew their best bet for survival was to try to retain employees and turn the organisation into something worth selling.

They told their employees that they wanted this time to be the most exciting and positive experience of their careers. They then asked them “what are the things you can control? And how can you control them?”

While government intervention was out of their control, they could control their contact with customers. The end result? Most employees stayed, the organisation made a profit and a bank bought it.

One way to build your belief about your job control is to start by asking, “what can I control?” Can you control an industry downturn? Probably not. But can you control the relationships you have with your customers? Almost definitely.

Once you start wholly focusing on what you can control, you’ll notice the results your getting. It then starts to compound.

With positive results, your belief about what you can control at work will strengthen, and you will find that your circle of influence will grow. Along with your job satisfaction.

In summary: the more control you have over your work, the more likely you are to have job satisfaction; resilient people take control of their work environment, and don’t let it control them; and determine what you can about your work, and focus on that.

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