Creating evidence-based health and wellness programmes for your customers and employees

Why It's Good To Give Your Employees More Autonomy

Before the pandemic hit, many firms were adamant that their teams could not work from home. Many cited security reasons, but there was also a lingering fear that employees wouldn't work as hard or not enough if left to their own devices. 

Then Corona forced most of us to work from home- with surprising results: According to studies, those who work from home are 47% more productive and work one more day a week! Clearly, arranging your own schedule and being in charge of your day is not necessarily a bad thing. It might be time for companies to look at ways they can give their employees more autonomy. 

That has many benefits: Self-starters will need less input from you and be able to work independently, freeing up your time and significantly increasing the value of your business. They are also more relaxed since they feel you trust them. And since our brains can only be creative when we are comfortable and feel safe, supporting our employees' wellbeing this way is paramount. 

There is another advantage: Autonomous people are more resilient. According to a study of nearly 1400 health workers in Taiwan, autonomy is linked with greater job satisfaction and a lower likelihood of quitting their jobs. Closer to home, a 2017 study of my alma mater, the University of Birmingham found that more autonomy leads to greater wellbeing and higher job satisfaction. Of course, micromanaging others might feel better to some managers. Still, the lack of trust and the feeling of never being good enough will eventually drive many good employees to seek employment elsewhere. 

This feeling has probably only increased in the last year: many people liked the experience of working more independently during the lockdown and will find it difficult to settle back into a strict, controlled environment. 

Behavioural science can support a more autonomous way of working in many ways. First, it can increase performance by setting goals your employees can identify with. 

Second, it helps create an environment where everyone feels comfortable sharing their ideas, so innovation and creativity can thrive. 

Third, hiring becomes much easier when everybody understands the psychology behind it. We are much less rational than we like to think, and acknowledging that leads to hiring people suitable for the job and your organisation. 

All these points make it easier for your employees to be more autonomous.  Now is an excellent time to review old procedures and see if these changes in all our lives can bring some much-needed benefits and changes to your company. 

How can you support your employees to be more autonomous? 

You can begin by asking:

· Are we supporting our staff to make meaningful choices?

· Are those choices easy to make?

· Are we supporting novelty and fun with our wellbeing programme?

Make Choices Easier

Part of supporting autonomy is about making better choices easier to do. In behavioural science, that is called "friction". We want to increase friction for unhelpful behaviours and decrease it for those that lead you to your goal. Many companies are well aware of this option: Netflix reduces friction to binge-watching by preloading the next episode. On the opposite end, putting fruit or vegetables on the counter makes it more likely you will eat them. A behavioural specialist can help you to identify ways you can reduce friction for your team. 

Proximity is another important factor. We engage with what is near us and ignore what is far away. Research shows that those that keep sweets on their desk weighed at least two stone more than those that didn't. 

Too much choice can also make it harder to make the right decision. A famous example of this is the so-called "jam study". When faced with a variety of 24 jams, more people stopped by, but only 3% bought jam. However, at the booth with a more limited selection, 30% purchased one. 

The same principle applies when it comes to working. Too much choice overwhelms us and makes it difficult to choose. For managers, that means reducing the number of choices they give their teams. Choosing only three options or one prominent one can be more salient.

Language also plays a prominent role. Avoid the use of needs- thwarting language - phrases like, e.g.," e.g. 'must', 'should', 'need you to' diminish autonomy and with it intrinsic motivation. 

Always provide an 'emergency exit'. We should never force participants down a path – offering an alternative option to group exercises for introverts for example gives them more autonomy. 

Social norms are equally powerful- if you offer a workshop, stating that a particular behaviour is "recommended as it's what 97% of teams said helped them most" makes users feel part of a tribe. cd

Making employees aware of their Why behind the choice makes it more meaningful. A sentence like "The research shows x options is one of the best ways to support you in creating lasting changes" assures them they are spending time on the right program.

While considering all this might sound like much work, don't underestimate the impact it can have on your company. Happy, engaged employees will not only increase your profit but will recommend working for you to others. That, in turn, makes it easier for you to find top talent and saves HR a lot of money and stress. Your employees are your biggest asset- and the more autonomous they feel, the more productive they are and importantly their sense of wellbeing and happiness at work increases. 

If you would like to know how behavioural science can help your team, you can contact me for a free consultation:

Contact - Dr. Heather McKee - Behaviour Change Specialist (



Published on 2nd Sep 2021 at 12:00 by Heather McKee

"Heather has so generously contributed to so many areas of our work this year, her thoughtful feedback and insights have allowed us to evolve our work and product in profound and impactful ways. I speak on behalf of all of us when I say we can’t imagine having done it without her unique, informed perspective and diverse voice. She has made an incredible amount of impact on our work in a small amount of time and we are so grateful for her."

Sara Rice, lululemon HQ

"When you work with Dr Heather McKee you know you are in the presence of a true professional. You cannot ignore the passion she has for her field of behaviour change, especially around healthy living. She is committed to making sure that you -- client, patient or project partner -- understand the key facts, appreciate the context and embrace the decisions you made together."

Edna Kissman, CEO The Wonder of Me

"Heather’s academic and applied understanding of behavioural psychology has been invaluable in helping us mould our proposition to the corporate wellbeing market over the last 12 months. Heather was a perfect fit with our culture; enthusiastic, diligent and highly skilled in everything that she does. We look forward to working with Heather on future projects"

Richard Westman, CEO KAIDO

"Heather's practical knowledge and expertise around behaviour change have been an enormous value-add for the Welltodo audience. By incorporating her tools and insights into our course curriculum, we were able to add a whole new layer of credibility. Heather is professional, reliable and an absolute pleasure to work with!"

Lauren Armes, CEO Welltodo

"Heather is a ninja when it comes to behaviour change, and a delight to work with. She has been invaluable to BetterSpace in working out how to nudge people into more mentally health lifestyles."



By continuing to use this website, you consent to the use of cookies in accordance with our Cookie Policy. DISMISS NOTICE

Copyright ©2024 Dr. Heather McKee

Dr. Heather McKee is registered in Ireland Reg. No. 687397 with the registered address at 314 Mother Teresa House, Loreto Abby, Rathfarnham, D14 NR20, Co. Dublin, Ireland

This work is in no way meant to replace any medical advice. Dr. McKee is Non-HCPC-registered. Photography by Dylan Madden.

Designed by Aeronstudio™