June 20, 2014

Work, Autonomy and Health

Headshot 3.13 cropcompressBy Karen Sternheimer

It’s tempting to argue that summer break is the best time to be a college professor. We can work on other projects, have time to read and indulge in hobbies, and it’s easy to schedule a vacation when you have several months off.

Of course there are many challenges to this career too. Just as with any profession, there are pressures associated with deadlines, one’s workload, and as in any situation, you might encounter difficult people. And for all too many adjunct professors, summer break doesn’t exist. If it does, it means months without pay, as they typically get paid by the class, and they are often poorly paid as well. They seldom have time to work on research, to write and publish, or even to read if they are teaching multiple classes to get by.

For those with full-time employment, one thing that sets being a professor apart is the degree of autonomy that often comes with the position. This means having flexibility to make at least some choices about your work.

While some professors may be assigned to teach classes they’d rather not, in most cases they can create their own syllabi, select the readings and create their own assignments and tweaking them as time goes by to keep them interesting and relevant. (Keep in mind some may not have these options. There have been significant examples where a professor’s academic freedom to teach as they choose has been challenged.)

Sometimes we can choose the days and times of courses we teach, a real benefit for people whose families’ schedules are less flexible. I choose to get into the office very early because I do my best work in the morning (and I like to try and beat the evening rush hour when possible). Others who may be more productive in the evenings might choose to start working later.

On a day-to-day basis, most professors’ work isn’t micromanaged. We don’t have to ask a supervisor if we can use the restroom or go to lunch. While students may ask when we will hand back papers or exams, we often set our own deadlines.

A study recently published in the American Sociological Review found that when employees have more control over their schedules they experienced less family conflict. Choosing when and where to complete work tasks, as well as training supervisors about the importance of such flexibility, meant that workers could do more from home without significantly increasing the time spent on work.

Using experimental design, the researchers conducted their study within a Fortune 500 company, focusing on highly educated tech workers who did tasks like developing software and testing new applications. Participants had worked for the company an average of ten years, and it was common for them to put in long hours.

Within the study, some managers were randomly assigned to receive special training about the importance of reducing work-family conflict and taught them how to provide support for employees. Their employees were given more flexibility in setting their hours and deciding where to work. The control group received no intervention, and was thus used for comparison after the end of the experiment.

The authors concluded that:

The reduction of work-family conflict has implications for health, family well-being, and gender inequality. Work-family conflict has been linked to mental and physical health … [problems] associated with work-family conflict include hypertension … sleep [disorders], and use of alcohol and cigarettes ….Work-family conflict is associated with strain in marriages … and parent-child relationships.

It’s not simply more enjoyable to have more autonomy on the job, but this study concludes that it has important public health implications. Workers are healthier, their marriages are stronger and their children get more parental support when people have less work-related stress. A Harvard Business Review article discussed this study and concluded that workplace flexibility could benefit the entire organization, not just the individual employees.

Workplace flexibility isn’t necessarily going to work in every occupational setting; for some jobs it is simply impossible to work from home or set your own hours. Hospitals need people on site, shifts need to be covered in retail shops, elementary and high school teachers need to be there during the school day, and people who do repair work usually can’t do that from home.

But this study reminds us of the benefits of work autonomy for those fortunate to enjoy such occupations. Feeling like you are in control of your life pays dividends well beyond the job itself.

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