How autonomy affects employee mental health

Written by Guest bloggers, Arun Singh and Mike Mister Tuesday 29 September 2020
Most professionals have a high need for achievement. This means they like to get things done, but often in their own way. How can we give our employees autonomy without overwhelming them?
female at Laptop working in office

Most of your employees will want to take charge of how they deliver their work; take personal responsibility for it; be challenged; to be autonomous; to set high standards for themselves - in short, to be the very best they can be.

They are motivated by challenging, tough, intellectually demanding problems and questions.

The reality is that it is more or less impossible to motivate another person, but you can create an environment and circumstances in which they feel empowered and want to give their absolute best. It’s all about the right balance of challenge and support.

“Mental ill health is usually caused by a combination of work- and nonwork-related factors: for example, the pressure of ongoing change at work and longer or more intense hours may be exacerbated by financial pressures at home, relationship problems and, given the ageing population, greater caring responsibilities,” Mental Health First Aid (MHFA) England write in their Line Managers Resource report. “If the workplace is not supportive, it can trigger or exacerbate mental ill health, with anxiety, depression and stress-related disorders being the most common issues. Poor work environments, typically characterised by high demands, low levels of individual autonomy and poor support, can undermine the health and wellbeing benefits that 'good' work brings.”

Here are some top tips to empower your team from afar, and create an environment they feel both supported and challenged.

Pay attention to the working ‘climate’ you are creating

Make sure work is challenging and of the right quality for your team. Clear yourself out of the way, but be there to help and support. Make sure they have the tools to do the job. Provide feedback regularly. Coach, challenge and involve your people in setting their own performance targets.

Know your people

Recognise that most of your team members will have a high need for achievement. Because the intrinsic challenge in doing the work is really important to them, the nature of the work they do is really important. If they get bored, they will find a new role or employer, someone who will allow them to exercise their intellect and problem-solving skills.

Review the work coming in, regularly

In an ideal world you would decide which work was worthy of your team and refuse or disengage from unprofitable, technically unchallenging work that did not fit with the practice profile you were trying to build. In the real world, where we have to deal with revenue or sales targets, this is not always possible. Make every effort to supply your people with interesting and challenging assignments that will help them learn and grow their skills and capabilities. If you do have to get a lot of routine work done, try and find ways of allowing them to be creative in either the scope of the work or in the manner of delivery. If neither are possible, then make sure you explain why the tasks need to be done and when interesting tasks or opportunities will likely be available. And do make sure your people know why seemingly poor-quality work is being accepted and needs to be done. It will help them make sense of the seeming inconsistency.

Create recognition rituals

Start team meetings with recognising someone from the team who has gone above and beyond for  a client or your organisation. You’re accountable for your followers’ recognition.

And remember…

Your job as the leader is to create an environment that is super-attractive to your smart, intelligent, able people. A place where they feel psychologically safe and able to deliver their very best for you. A place where they know they can safely stretch themselves because, even if they do fall short, they will be supported and their efforts recognised. Create a truly empowering work environment where challenge and support work hand in hand to amplify the effort and autonomy of the individuals.

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This is a lightly edited extract taken from Singh and Mister’s book, How to Lead Smart People: Leadership for Professionals, published by Profile Books.

For more excellent business and leadership books, check out the finalists for this year’s CMI Management Book of the Year award. For more articles exploring ways to care for your mental health, visit CMI’s wellbeing hub.

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