There is a Difference Between Job Control and Autonomy

Those who are allowed either job control and/or autonomy within their role are more likely to experience lower levels of stress, anxiety and perceived burnout.

The simple explanation of the difference between these two concepts is that:

  • Schedule Control is the ability to schedule working hours within the course of a day.
  • Job Autonomy is schedule control plus the freedom to decide what and how to get the job done.

Schedule control is often associated with flexible working practices. In 2014 the UK Government passed the Flexible Working Regulations. These regulations allowed for all employees to apply for flexible working, rather than only caregivers and working parents. However, the decision to approve an employee’s flexible work request is the remit of each individual company. These regulations do seem, therefore, to be more of a token gesture, than a viable solution for those who would benefit from flexible working practices.

When it comes to remote and hybrid working, schedule control comes into its own. In research I conducted during Lockdown 1.0 amongst working parents, those who were able to schedule their working day to allow for homeschooling and other home commitments, seemed to be less stressed than those who couldn’t. This was especially important for those who had children under 6 years old (especially as they engage in higher levels of active childcare).

Job autonomy, prior to March 2020, was mostly the remit and privilege of those in particular professional occupations, who had extensive work experience or were in more senior managerial roles. Essentially, job autonomy is the ability and freedom a worker has to make independent, job-related decisions and to choose how and when the tasks get completed.

In theory, this would be an enviable position for many – allowing for a greater ability to manage a more robust work-life balance. However, research has found that instead of technology-aided autonomy allowing workers greater levels of freedom to manage their work role, workers tended to rather spend increased amounts of time on their phones. They effectively diminished their autonomy by justifying extra hours of unpaid work through rationalising the perceived expectation that others had of them.

Research conducted just prior to March 2020, already showcased how workplace norms and the pace of work demands mean that workers felt constantly tethered to their technology. With seniority (and social status synonymous that comes with autonomy), came an additional perception of being indispensable to others. This includes an expectation of needing to keep an eye on project-related communications, ensuring projects are kept moving forward and subordinates are given continuous guidance and answers. This inability to disconnect actually reduced workers’ autonomy and increases their overall job stress.   

Referred to as “The Autonomy Paradox”, the very flexibility and freedom granted to workers – allowing them the ability to work and engage in professional technology-related communication anytime and anywhere, can be the very thing that binds workers to the company, their colleagues and clients every waking hour.

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