Demanding Jobs with Little Agency


The World Health Organization reports that the United States is among the most anxious nations on the planet. Our current political climate certainly contributes to this distinction, but much of our stress stems from feeling a lack of agency on the job.

Agency is the capacity to act independently and make our own free choices. This sense of agency is tightly connected to a sense of ownership. If we feel a lack of agency on the job, it can show up as not being fully engaged, holding back on challenging assumptions, and withholding the important creativity and problem-solving abilities we were hired to demonstrate.

Increased anxiety and stress are huge problems for businesses and the government. According to the American Institute of Stress, U.S. industries lose nearly $300 billion a year—or $7,500 per worker—in employee absenteeism, diminished productivity, employee turnover and direct medical, legal and insurance fees related to workplace stress.

“While it may seem obvious that hard-charging white-collar workers are under stress, studies show that blue-collar workers—line cooks, factory workers, practical nurses—are even more vulnerable,” according to Ellen Ruppel Shell, author of The Job: Work and its Future in a Time of Radical Change. “This is because of what Ofer Sharone describes as the toxic confluence of high demand for their efforts and low control over their working lives.”

This high demand for ever-increasing productivity in a 24/7 always-on workplace combined with little control and freedom over the tasks makes for an unhealthy environment.

“Demanding jobs do not necessarily make us sick, but demanding jobs that give us no agency over what we do or the way we do it are quite likely to,” says Shell. “For growing numbers of Americans—no matter how successful—these pressures have transformed work from a source of satisfaction and pride to an anxiety-ridden bout of shadowboxing.”

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So how much of this lack of agency should be blamed on the employer and how much on the employee? This is not easy to answer, but clearly there is responsibility in both.

Leaders and managers in organizations need to consider how much freedom and control they actually provide individual employees. For example, is the task well-defined with a clear understanding of what the deliverable should look like and when it should be completed? Yes. But are the steps regarding how it should be completed and delivered also predetermined yet perhaps not clearly communicated? This can undermine agency.

And how much overall tolerance is there for risk taking and trying things in a different way? If you find yourself hearing (or saying) “That’s not how we do things here,” you may find little tolerance in your organization, and this lack of tolerance also undermines agency.

Employees also have a role and they need to consider when and how to step into agency—even when they may not feel they have the right to do so. Obviously, when you’re new to the job, it’s important to first understand the established rules, norms, values and organizational culture before you can fully express agency. Many of these may actually be the culprit.

Demonstrating agency means taking responsibility and ownership when it’s clear no one else has and yet needs to happen. It means pushing back on standard operating procedures when you see the faults, have a better solution and know how to communicate and implement it. And it means requesting more control or freedom over the work when you can provide clear and compelling benefits. These not only demonstrate agency, but also leadership potential.

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It often takes courage to demonstrate agency. When unsuccessful, challenging assumptions or making mistakes can sometimes damage your reputation. Tread carefully but proceed boldly.

By carefully choosing when and how to use agency, you may find you can have more success than failure. You will have more freedom and control on your job. You will reduce your overall anxiety and stress. And you will likely feel more fully engaged. All of this is good for you and your organization.





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