Lack of Autonomy: A Surprising Silent Killer in the Workplace

By Tracy LaLonde

May 29, 2024

Boss watches worker with a magnifying glass

Tracy LaLonde helps managing partners and law firm leaders generate better engagement through effective people management. With over 30 years of experience in training, consulting, and professional development, LaLonde and her company Joychiever are on a mission to change how law firms engage with their teams. She may be reached at [email protected].

Lack of Autonomy: A Surprising Silent Killer in the Workplace

Beneath the veneer of professional achievements and workplace accolades, a hidden peril rivals the stress of high-stakes projects and tight deadlines: the absence of autonomy in shaping the workday. Surprisingly, it’s a lack of autonomy in the workplace that poses a significant threat to your health and, startlingly, one’s survival. Autonomy, or the opportunity to influence one’s work and work life, be it through choosing assignments, making decisions, setting deadlines, or deciding when and where to work, isn’t just a nice-to-have option. It’s essential for longevity.

To put it simply, it has been shown that a lack of autonomy in one’s job can lead to death. 

Yes, death. 

The evidence is compelling and spans decades, showing an undeniable link between autonomy at work and mortality rates. For instance, the Whitehall Studies of the 1970s in the UK revealed that civil servants at the bottom of the pecking order, with the least control over their work, were three times more likely to die than their high-ranking counterparts.

Fast forward to 2007, a study across 72 diverse organizations in the northeastern U.S. found that workers with more job control exhibited significantly lower levels of anxiety and depression. The study, involving 700 people, highlighted the protective effects of autonomy against common workplace stressors.

In 2016, a startling revelation came from Indiana University, where a study with 2,363 Wisconsin residents over seven years found that individuals in low-control jobs had a 15% higher risk of death compared to those in high-control jobs, who enjoyed a 34% lower risk of death.

Perhaps most compelling, a 2019 study from Australia involving 18,000 participants linked low job control to a 39% increase in the risk of all forms of death. As job control increased, the risk significantly fell, underscoring the critical need for autonomy in sustaining not just productivity but life itself.

The message from these findings is clear and a bit alarming: low-control jobs can kill, particularly when one is tethered to a desk, devoid of any control or say in work life. While this may read as a doomsday warning, it’s actually a wake-up call to leaders and law firms everywhere.

It’s time to loosen the reins and cultivate a culture of trust. The traditional approach of top-down decision-making, mandatory in-office attendance, and “do as I say” delegation styles is not only demotivating; it’s dangerous. Encouraging autonomy isn’t about letting chaos reign and losing all control, but rather enabling team members to make valuable contributions to their daily work and work life, thereby increasing engagement and longevity.

3 Techniques to Empower Autonomy

Foster Decision-Making: As a manager of people, one of your roles is to empower your team members, enabling them to make decisions that align with their roles. Start by mapping out which decisions fall squarely within their purview—this should constitute about 90% of their day-to-day choices. Then, clarify which areas require your input and which situations necessitate escalating the decision. By identifying these zones proactively, you’re not only setting your team members free to work independently but you’re also instilling confidence in their capability to lead their assignments effectively.

Collaborate on Deadlines: Involve your team members in the deadline-setting process. Solicit their input on the feasibility of proposed timelines, securing the resources they might require to achieve these goals. If a deadline seems unreasonable, be open to discussing adjustments or counterproposals. In instances where deadlines can’t budge, work collaboratively to devise a plan that meets these fixed targets, rather than defaulting to a “just get it done” attitude. This approach not only respects their insight and capabilities but also reinforces a team-centric approach to problem-solving.

Make it Okay to Say ‘No’: Encourage an environment where it’s professionally acceptable for team members to say ‘no’ to assignments when they’re genuinely at capacity. Yes, the ‘no’ needs to be delivered professionally and used judiciously, but the goal is to ensure quality over quantity. Overloading team members leads to increased stress levels, subpar work, and missed deadlines. By valuing honest communication and setting realistic expectations, you’re cultivating a workplace where team members feel valued and heard.

The clock is ticking, and the evidence is crystal clear: the lack of autonomy in the workplace is not just stifling creativity and dampening morale; it’s literally a matter of life and death. As a leader, you’re standing at a pivotal crossroads. You can either continue down the path of rigid control, risking not just the well-being of your teams but their lives, or you can choose a healthier, more sustainable route that champions autonomy. It’s time to rethink how people in your firm work, loosen the grip of micromanagement and foster an environment where autonomy isn’t just encouraged—it’s embedded in the very fabric of your law firm’s culture. 

Lives quite literally depend on it.

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