Control: The Neglected Dimension

It's good to be the king, or queen, be your realm ever so small, according to the findings of the Gallup-Healthways Well-Being Index, a survey of over 100,000 working adults. The Newark Star-Ledger elaborates with a local case study:

If John Beck Sr.'s happiness depended on his success, he'd probably be miserable. Sales at his Branchburg hair salon are down for the fifth straight year, a trend that began when budget chains such as Supercuts, Fantastic Sams and Great Clips moved into town. To make matters worse, when the recession hit, even his most loyal clients started stretching out their hair appointments.

But Beck, who runs DJ's Hair Studio with his wife and daughter, is anything but miserable. After spending most of his life working for other people, he's just happy to be his own boss.

"We're in control. A lot of decisions that are made, are made by me," said Beck, 69, who opened the salon in the mid-90s after retiring from a 40-year career at Johnson & Johnson. "We have a lot of very happy clients."

The report also suggests that farming, forestry, and fishing are satisfying occupations despite their risks and low compensation.

Of course these statistics have their limits. You could say that the difficulties of running most small businesses (or farms) means that the people who have stayed with them, or entered them, are self-selected for intrinsic enjoyment of what they are doing. And what's the satisfaction level of employees of small businesses versus large corporations in the same line of work?

But the study still underscores an important finding of epidemiology. It's not stress itself but the sense of control that determines what work is beneficial or injurious to health. For helping reduce levels of obesity, smoking, excess drinking, and heart disease, perceived control is a dimension of life that deserves more attention.Writing in the Wall Street Journal of a wave of suicides at France Télécom, a business school professor in Paris, Isaac Getz, calls for new organizational styles:

Treat people as modern pilots, not as soldiers of the old wars. Give people real control over their work, stop giving them orders about how to do their jobs, and their stress will go down. With it, absenteeism will drop, and stress's hidden costs will shrink, while employee engagement goes up. All this, of course, is hard to accomplish in a traditional command-and-control company that often pays a lip service to autonomy but preserves the hierarchical chain of command--but it is possible.

France has a highly regarded medical care system. But there, as here, the most important determinants of health and disease occur during the time people spend outside physicians' offices and hospitals.

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Edward Tenner is a historian of technology and culture, and an affiliate of the Center for Arts and Cultural Policy at Princeton's Woodrow Wilson School. He was a founding advisor of Smithsonian's Lemelson Center.

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