Giving People Autonomy at Work Improves Their Well-Being

August 30, 2017 Richard Justenhoven
image autonomy at work

Autonomy at work leads to job satisfaction

Studies show that a sense of job and life satisfaction held by employees, has a positive impact on an organisation in terms of retention and productivity and, as such, businesses are keen to explore how best to nurture a feeling of well-being by its people.

Research by Daniel Wheatley examined the changes in reported feelings of well-being, relative to the levels of autonomy employees felt they had at work.

His research showed that those employees with higher levels of control and autonomy at work, report a high level of overall wellbeing and a higher level of job satisfaction.

The research

Wheatley accessed two separate years of data for 20,000 employees from the ‘Understanding Society’ survey and looked at changes in reported well-being relative to levels of autonomy. The Understanding Society survey is a leading UK longitudinal study looking at 21st century life and how it is changing – aiming to capture important information about people’s social and economic circumstances, attitudes, behaviours and health.

Wheatley summarises his research findings indicating:

  • Having control over the work tasks that need to be completed and the schedule worked, increases both job and leisure satisfaction in employees.
  • Having autonomy over the manner in which one works, increases both leisure and life satisfaction of women (and not men). This looks at the way in which work is carried out – that is, the hours and location of work, perhaps allowing women to balance other commitments.

However, whilst autonomy may encourage a sense of well-being, autonomy at work may be an accompanying factor of the level or position in the organisation. Wheatley found out that the higher up an organisation a person progresses, the greater the level of autonomy.

The research shows that those working in management positions report the highest levels of autonomy or control over their work tasks and schedule with 90% report ‘some’ or ‘a lot’ of autonomy in the workplace.  Professionals report less control, particularly over the pace of work and over their working hours – and for other employees, 40% to 50% of those surveyed reported much lower levels of autonomy. Around half of lower-skilled employees experience no autonomy over working hours at all.

So what does this mean for employers?

As Wheatley acknowledges, not all forms of autonomy can be offered to all employees because of the practical limitations of specific roles but a closer review of how a greater degree of control and autonomy at over work can be given to employees could benefit both organisation and the employee – and how this could be best supported, and monitored.


Wheatley, D. (2017). Autonomy in Paid Work and Employee Subjective Well-Being. Work and Occupations, 44(3), 296-328

Worker wellbeing and workplace performance, Department for Business, Innovation & Skills, 29 October 2014.

About the Author

Richard Justenhoven

Richard Justenhoven is the product development director within Aon's Assessment Solutions. A leading organizational psychologist, Richard is an acknowledged expert in the design, implementation and evaluation of online assessments and a sought after speaker about such topics.

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