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A women worker are wearing PPE and working

Safe working and job autonomy

By Madison Hanscom, PhD

Research has shown time and time again that when you give employees more control over their work, they are more satisfied, perform at a higher level, and are safer.

When it comes to occupational safety, job autonomy is associated with…
• Higher safety compliance (1)
• Higher safety initiative (1)
• Higher safety knowledge (1)
• Actively caring for safety (2)
• Decrease in lost time to injury frequency (3)
• Effective responses to safety critical situations (4)
• Lower accident rates at an organizational level (5)

Clearly, autonomy is a beneficial job characteristic — but what does this actually look like in practice? Creating a more autonomous job might require a completely different approach across different roles and industries. Some jobs inherently can have a great deal of autonomy, whereas others must remain more rigid. Take a job with relatively less autonomy for example: a worker on an assembly line. There are limited ways this individual can do their job, or it will impact the entire production chain. Thus, rather than giving the individual autonomy in how they do their job, it might be possible to offer more autonomy regarding when their job is done (i.e., scheduling). Companies have successfully offered flexibility to employees with routine jobs by allowing them to decide when to pick up hours (e.g., 4 days of 10-hour shifts, some nights and weekends) as long as the necessary slots are covered. This way people feel increased control over the balance between work and life – so now they can make that doctor’s appointment without taking time off.

Consider the following examples of integrating more autonomy into work and how these might apply to your scenario of interest. Provide employees with increased control over/with…

• the pace of tasks (e.g., the worker can slow it down or speed it up; the individual can work at their own pace which might change throughout the shift)
• the timing of tasks (e.g., I like to schedule my most cognitively demanding tasks for earlier in the day and my more routine tasks for later in the day)
• the approach in how to finish tasks (e.g., take more of a results orientation than a process orientation where applicable)
• making decisions within one’s expertise without going through unnecessary red tape
• performance management by allowing them to evaluate themselves, peers, and leaders
• how downtime is spent by allowing them to work on safety improvement projects at their preference

Remember: A successful autonomous workplace is not completely hands-off. People like flexibility, but they also want to know the expectations and how to meet them. Help people succeed by setting goals and checking in on objectives over time.

If your company is on a work design journey to create more meaningful jobs for employees, autonomy is a great place to start. Consider where you can give people more control over their day. Also, remember that the positive change will not occur over night. When employees are working in jobs with little autonomy for a long time, transitioning to a more autonomous model will take some time (6). Give them time and resources to adapt before expecting to see results in safety, attitudes, and performance.

At Propulo Consulting, we care about the health and wellbeing of all workers. We partner with you to improve the world of work using the latest insights from research. Our team has the expertise to help your business build a safer and healthier culture. For more information, read about Safety & Safety Culture at Propulo.

Referenced articles:
• (1) Zacharatos, A., Barling, J., & Iverson, R. D. (2005). High-performance work systems and occupational safety. Journal of applied psychology, 90(1), 77.
• (2) Geller, E. S., Roberts, D. S., & Gilmore, M. R. (1996). Predicting propensity to actively care for occupational safety. Journal of Safety Research, 27, 1-8.
• (3) Shannon, H. S., Mayr, J., & Haines, T. (1997). Overviewof the relationship between organizational and workplace factors and injury rates. Safety Science, 26, 201-217.
• (4) Wright, C. (1993). The effect of work group organization on responses to a total emergency in the offshore industry. Proceedings of the workforce involvement in health and safety offshore: Power, language and information technology (pp. 59-62). Glasgow: Scottish Trades Union Congress
• (5) Betcherman, G., McMullen, K., Leckie, N., & Caron, C. (1994). The Canadian workplace in transition. Kingston, Ontario, Canada: IRC Press.
• (6) Parker, S. K., Axtell, C. M., & Turner, N. (2001). Designing a safer workplace: Importance of job autonomy, communication quality, and supportive supervisors. Journal of occupational health psychology, 6(3), 211.

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