This blog was written by Maddie Denbow, Client Service Assistant at Edgecumbe. The piece is based on her occupational and organisational psychology masters dissertation (University of Liverpool) examining the impact of autonomy on wellbeing.

The COVID-19 pandemic led to a drastic shift in how people work and how they expect their employers to treat them. Remote working has existed for many years, however its adoption increased dramatically due to the UK lockdown. Before 2020, only 6% of the UK working population regularly worked remotely, but this rose to over 48% during the lockdowns (the Office for National Statistics, 2020). As working patterns continue to evolve, we now see increased flexibility and hybrid working as commonplace for many companies. As part of these changes, a focus on wellbeing must be on the agenda so that the workforce is well supported following the pandemic (Gilson et al., 2022).

The importance of wellbeing

During the pandemic, research highlighted the positive and negative aspects of the new remote job design, uncovering issues such as negative spill over from work to home life in contrast to positive aspects such as increased job-related wellbeing (Felstead & Henseke, 2017). Research suggests that improved wellbeing may be due to the increase in autonomy facilitated by working from home (Malhotra, 2021), and this autonomy has been found to buffer issues such as procrastination and ineffective communication (Wang et al., 2021). On the back of this literature, scholars speculate that findings may be unique to the pandemic context, so further research is needed to understand contextual differences.

The combination of the pandemic and an increase in wellbeing research has led to an uptake in interest in wellbeing from companies and policy makers. It is now clear to organisations that wellbeing impacts many job-related factors, including job satisfaction, engagement, performance, and retention (Harter et al., 2003). Researchers have pointed out the importance of measuring wellbeing to accurately monitor employees and build wellbeing policies, and the CIPD publishes an annual report on health and wellbeing (CIPD, 2021) and has found that wellbeing is continuing to rise up the corporate agenda.

Passion as a cornerstone of employee development – harmonious and obsessive passion

Passion can be described as the strong pull to an activity that an individual likes, identifies with, finds important, and invests significant time in.

With harmonious passion, individuals feel no pressure or compulsion to engage in the activity and find themselves able to balance it alongside other obligations and interests in their lives (Vallerand et al., 2003). This leads to people reporting positive emotions while working and fewer negative emotions such as guilt and anxiety.

In contrast, obsessive passion for work causes individuals to feel pressured into an activity, which occupies a considerable amount of their personality and conflicts with other aspects of their life. This is the case even for activities that are ill-advised and causes internal conflict over the activity, preventing full immersion, and encouraging activities based on outperforming others (which, in turn, leads to a negative state of wellbeing).

Developing passion in the workplace

Researchers are clear that harmonious passion relates to positive wellbeing outcomes and obsessive passion predicts burnout, so monitoring individuals who are seeking to derive passion from work is key to limit obsessive passion. Harmonious passion for work has positive impacts on wellbeing, such as increased job satisfaction and work engagement, therefore should be encouraged. However, as passion derives from the individual, managers must create a platform in which passion can emerge, allowing for practices such as job crafting where individuals can actively shape their work (Rosso et al., 2010).

Tapping into employees’ interests beyond the working environment can facilitate the emergence of core interests and passion. Furthermore, allowing workers to identify their own strengths and discussing how these can be implemented within the work environment, would likely also improve overall wellbeing. This could be achieved through training to help workers tap into their career goals and life interests, and even altering assignments to align more closely with employee interests (Waldroop, 1999). Maximising employee involvement in these decision-making processes is key, so team meetings and brainstorming sessions are effective to help decide how a person’s work could be altered to benefit individuals and overall organisational productivity.

The relationship between autonomy and wellbeing

Findings from my research demonstrated that autonomy was positively related to beneficial wellbeing outcomes (job satisfaction, organisational commitment, work engagement, social wellbeing, and general health) and negatively related to burnout. Harmonious psychological passion for work partially or fully mediated all the relationships between autonomy and wellbeing outcomes. Obsessive passion for work did not mediate the relationship but did, however, positively relate to burnout.

These findings demonstrate the positive impact of autonomy in the workplace. Research has highlighted that work design is key to increasing autonomy, however a balance must be found; very high autonomy can switch from being a job resource to a job demand. Despite this, the positives of job satisfaction and work engagement are clear; both are known to lead to decreased staff turnover, career success, and reduced absenteeism.

For organisations, the relationship between autonomy/harmonious passion and wellbeing outcomes is key; jobs can be designed so they are positively perceived by employees and improve overall organisational outcomes. Not least because employee wellbeing has been identified as a key part of corporate social responsibility (WHO, 2022) so organisations have a duty to ensure that employees are in a positive state mentally, physically, and socially.

Edgecumbe can support organisations with organisation-wide surveys considering autonomy and wellbeing (among other factors), including the interpretation of the results and assessment of how these factors impact employee engagement. Get in touch to find out more about how surveys can help your business.