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Want more control over work? It cuts both ways Add to ...

In today’s work world, we’re all cheered if we have control of our schedule, a measure of autonomy, and challenging work. Those are three prized aspects of a job.

But you may want to rethink that premise, or at least accept that they are not unalloyed joys. University of Toronto sociologist Scott Schieman and McMaster University’s Paul Glavin have been studying the phenomenon of work contact outside of regular work hours. Other studies have shown, as we would expect, that the frequency of work contact outside normal hours is related to work-family conflict, leading to psychological stress.

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To their surprise, Professors Schieman and Glavin found that the more you have control of your schedule, the more autonomy you have at work, and the more challenging your work then the more likely it is you will be subjected to contact about work outside regular work hours, presumably with a negative effect on your family life.

“There is a puzzle here: Schedule control, autonomy, and challenging work are all seen as positive but are related to higher levels of a potential stressor,” Prof. Schieman says.

The study, funded by the Canadian Institute of Health Research, allowed them to interview close to 6,000 people about various aspects of work, a group they hope to continue to follow over time if funding is secured. In this segment, the researchers looked at the frequency that workers send and receive work-related communications outside of regular working hours. Such work contact is important because it’s a sign of how the pace and scale of work can turn your job into what has been dubbed “a needy institution.”

Your schedule control is a form of flexibility, and therefore normally considered beneficial. It was determined by asking, “Who usually decides when you start and finish work each day?” and “How much control do you have in scheduling your work hours?” In both cases, individuals indicating they have a significant amount of control might be expected to face less contact outside of work than individuals with less control. After all, they have a measure of control.

But that turned out to be wrong. “The flexibility comes with some blowback,” notes Prof. Schieman, such as receiving like e-mail at 9 p.m. “It’s worth starting a discussion on this.” He stresses that the research controlled for type of jobs, so it’s not that people with such schedule control happen to be in fields where contact outside work hours is endemic. But perhaps people who have schedule control are more likely to blur the boundaries between work and family. “Work goes on 24/7 for these people,” he suggests.

Job autonomy is freedom from a micromanaging boss. Respondents answered positively on three questions in the survey to indicate such autonomy: “I have the freedom to decide what I do on my job,” “It is basically my own responsibility to decide how my job gets done,” and “I have a lot of say about what happens on my job.” Prof. Schieman says that job autonomy protects you against excessive pressures at work from your boss. But again, it apparently comes with some unexpected pressures in off hours.

A challenging job was essentially defined as one that required people to keep learning. Respondents answered positively to four questions: “My job requires that I keep learning new things,” “My job requires that I be creative,” “My job lets me use my skills and abilities,” and “I get to do a lot of different things on my job.” But again, those challenging jobs seemed to extend beyond normal work hours.

It may be, of course, that people with challenging jobs – or schedule control and job autonomy – don’t mind the extended hours, and perhaps even relish it. A further study will probe deeper, looking at how the greater contact is related to stress and sleep disorders. “Are people with more work contact less likely to have sleep disorders and stress if they have schedule control, job autonomy, and challenging work?” wonders Prof. Schieman.

The study’s other findings are more expected. Men have more contact outside work hours than women. The higher up someone is on the income ladder, the more likely they are to have contact outside normal work hours. “It almost goes up step by step. As you climb the income ladder, you take additional hits in work contact,” he notes.

One area the researchers were uncertain was whether older or younger people would have more contact outside normal work hours. The study found that younger workers had more contact outside normal work hours. The researchers speculate that’s because they are more engaged in modern electronic communication tools, and so more likely to use them at any time of the day.

As with all studies, more is to be learned. But contact outside work for many of us is an increasing and important element of life; the study may help you to understand your own situation by comparing it to the findings.

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