Applauz Blog

How Lack of Control Drives Employee Burnout (And How to Avoid It)

Published: March 22, 2022

Last Updated: November 25, 2022

  7 min read

By: Michelle Cadieux

Research shows that a lack of control drives employee burnout. Let's take a look at how companies can mitigate this issue by granting more freedom at work.


Psychological studies have shown that a lack of control over a stressful situation creates long-term health problems. (i.e. depressive symptoms and stomach ulcers) Despite this scientific knowledge, many work environments still operate on traditional systems, offering employees little control over their environment, ultimately driving high rates of burnout. This article discusses key dimensions of control -- financial control, task control, decision control, time control, and surveillance, and what employers can do to give employees more freedom in these areas.

In 1971, psychologist Dr. Jay Weiss devised a fascinating experiment.

He took a few lab rats and exposed them to electric shocks (AKA “stress”). He wanted to study how the animals coped.

Since this was an experiment, he set up three different conditions: 

  • 1st group: these lucky rats could escape the shock by pulling a lever (i.e. they had control). 
  • 2nd group: the poor rats were subjected to shocks regardless (i.e. no control). 
  • Control group: these rats received no shocks. 

What were the results?

The rats with no control over shocks responded very differently to stress.

They developed symptoms of severe depression (i.e. weight loss, decreased appetite, poor performance and decreased sleep). And interestingly, they developed over double the stomach ulcers of the rats that had control over the shocks. 

Despite being subjected to the same amount of stress, the effect of the stress was significantly more traumatic for the rats that didn’t have any control over their environment.

A fundamental human need

Although we are different from rats in many ways, humans also have a fundamental need for control and freedom.

When humans experience a lack of control over their environment, their minds, and by extension, their bodies are negatively impacted. As such, they may begin to display similar symptoms of depression as the rats in the above experiment. 

This is not simply an assumption.

“Lack of control” has been shown in workplace research to be a key driver of burnout. While burnout and depression are two different conditions, many of the symptoms present in the same way. For example, sleep disturbances, agitation, decreased concentration and performance, etc. 

While it is normal to experience some levels of stress at work, the incidence of workplace burnout increases when employees are given little control over their work environment. 

But this still leaves us with an important question: what can employers do? 

In this article, we’ll look at the different dimensions of control. And how lack of control in these areas can drive employee dissatisfaction and burnout. And conversely, how you can drive greater employee happiness by granting employees more control, freedom, and autonomy over these areas.

How Lack of Control Drives Employee Burnout (And How to Avoid It)

Lack of financial control

One would assume for an external incentive to be motivating, it should be proportional to the effort someone puts in. In other words, people should be rewarded based on their unique contributions.

However, most businesses don't design the compensation strategy in this way. Instead, they use market data as a reference to determine pay scales.

In other words, baseline pay is not determined by factors within the employees' control, such as their performance or the value their role adds to a company. 

Rather pay is largely determined by external factors, namely, the scarcity of the skills you're hiring for, the historical status of the job in question, and the state of the labour market at large.

Bottom line: employees exert only a small amount of control over their baseline earnings.

To be clear, working hard and high performance may move the needle a little bit. After all, yearly raises are generally tied to performance; however, there will always be a cap on salary. 

It's easy to see why this lack of financial control leads to low motivation, exhaustion, burnout, and, ultimately, turnover.

How to address it: In the book Work Rules, Lazlo Bock, the former head of people operations at Google, discusses employee compensation in the chapter titled "pay unfairly." He asserts that most companies think they are compensating employees fairly by following the traditional system of equalizing salaries based on market data. In reality, this type of pay strategy is unfair and drives employee turnover. He asserts that for a pay system to be truly fair, "employee pay should always be proportionate to contributions." This can also mean implementing variable compensation strategies that take individual efforts into account, such as performance bonuses, commissions, and profit-sharing. Most importantly, these pay strategies give employees a sense of ownership and control, as their efforts and value are directly tied to the rewards they receive.

Lack of task control

Traditionally, companies gave workers a set of duties and goals to fulfill. In short, people are hired to fill a predetermined job description. But it's becoming more common for organizations to find talented people and slowly create jobs around those individuals.

Steve Jobs said it best in his famous quote, "it doesn't make sense to hire smart people and then tell them what to do; we hire smart people so they can tell us what to do." Going to work and being told exactly what to do is sometimes a reality of work. But it doesn't always have to be the case. 

Giving employees time to work on passion projects (related to their jobs) or giving them a say in their goals can be a powerful way to give employees control and autonomy and ultimately drive greater motivation.

How to address it: Of course, there are certain jobs where specific tasks must get done. For example, customer service agents must take phone calls. However, you can still give employees freedom within the framework of their jobs. Instead of giving customer service reps a rigid script to follow, offer them flexible "guidelines" instead; let them experiment with how they talk to clients. Alternatively, you can create opportunities for employees to work on projects they are passionate about. 3Ms 15% time is a famous example of this idea in action. 

Lack of decision control

In many organizations, employees are given little to no say in the direction of their projects and team. A traditional command and control style of management dominates. Employees are simply treated as the people that carry out the higher orders and vision; they are not asked for their feedback or opinions. 

It’s easy to see why an environment of this nature would be unmotivating. In fact, organizational research supports this idea. For example, in 1950, psychologist Alfred Marrow conducted a fascinating experiment at the Harwood clothing factory. He wanted to test the best way to get factory workers to embrace change, so he designed a clever experiment.

Factory workers were asked to adopt a new process, but workers were divided into a few different groups and given varying degrees of control over the new process.

The results were astonishing.

Those who were forced to make changes (without being asked for feedback or recommendations) suffered. There were more complaints, and their productivity dropped by 20% and never recovered. While those asked to give their feedback and participate in change experienced different results, productivity initially dropped as they adapted to the new process. Still, it recovered and exceeded previous rates by 15%. 

How to address it: The findings are clear: giving your employees a chance to be heard fuels a sense of competence and expertise. These feelings are critical for creating a sense of psychological fulfillment at work and ultimately driving higher employee performance and productivity. This doesn’t mean employees become the bosses and take over all the decision-making. Not at all! Employing this tactic can simply mean asking employees to give their opinions and taking them seriously into consideration. As you can see from the experiment above, just the act of asking employees what they think can have a powerful impact on their sense of control and, ultimately, their motivation.

Lack of time control

Being told exactly when you have to work is, by definition, a high degree of control. Of course, shift workers must still operate under these conditions. But for the millions of knowledge workers out there, the idea of fixed schedules is becoming outdated. Ultimately, it’s clear that having a lack of control over your time is a key driver of employee disengagement.

As author Mark Dent says in his recent article To reinvent work, we have to destroy the clock longer hours does not mean better performance. Several studies of companies that implemented this method, such as Best Buy in the mid-2000s, have demonstrated that focusing on employee performance over time has a profound effect on human psychology and, as a result, employee engagement and morale.

Giving employees freedom over their working hours is a novel idea. Many companies are hesitant to break free from traditional models. Still, offering flexible schedules can be a powerful way to give employees back control and drive employee engagement and retention.

How to address it: Granting employees total liberty in this area would mean abolishing fixed schedules. Employees choose when to get their work down and are only accountable for the results. Also called ROWE (results-only work environment.) Of course, not every business can expect to adopt more radical work methods like this one. Nonetheless, businesses can take “baby steps” into offering more flexibility around working schedules and adjust and iterate according to what works best for their teams.  


In the age of remote work, it has become increasingly common for companies to monitor their employees' activities. While monitoring is not controlling employees per se, it does signal to employees that there is a lack of trust. That your business is not fully comfortable with giving them autonomy. 

A growing body of research demonstrates how harmful employee monitoring can be to an individual's psychology. 

  • One study showed that "excessive monitoring has negative psycho-social consequences including increased resistance, decreased job satisfaction, increased stress, decreased organizational commitment and increased turnover propensity."
  • Another study showed that "poorly implemented control systems that are inconsistent, overly rigid, or incentivize untrustworthy behaviour can undermine trust in the organization." Ultimately leading to employee disengagement.

To be clear, monitoring doesn't only imply monitoring the computer activity of remote employees. Surveillance can take other forms, such as tracking employees' productivity with technology. 

For example, in the book Lab Rats, author Dan Lyons explains how tracking employees with technology creates a feeling of dehumanization, ultimately driving employee unhappiness. Think of when companies like Amazon use software to track and optimize warehouse employees. Or when employees working in call centers rarely interact with human managers. A machine lets them know when they hit their quotas or fall short. 

Lyons cites psychological research that found these dehumanized workers "feel shame and guilt, while also demonstrating diminished cognition." And also intense emotional symptoms like "pervasive feelings of sadness and anger." 

It sounds a bit like the actual rats from the experiment we talked about at the top of this article. The lack of control over their environment caused them to experience high levels of stress and symptoms of depression.

Employee surveillance has negative effects on employee psychology, sentiment and engagement. But what should companies do instead? 

How to address it: In the article The Paradox of Employee Surveillance, authors explain if you are going to monitor employees, "make the system transparent." This means letting employees know exactly what you will be monitoring and why. In fact, due to the rising trend in remote work arrangements, some countries such as Canada are looking to pass laws protecting workers' privacy. If these laws pass, employers will be required to disclose their employees if and when they are monitoring their activity. 

Final Thoughts

Dr. Wiess' famous experiment took place in 1971. For decades, psychologists have known that a lack of control over our environment can negatively affect our health.

Not to mention, we all know this intuitively from our own life experiences.

Yet, for most of modern time, workplaces followed a paradigm that removed control from employees — ultimately dictating to them exactly when to work, what to do, and how to do it.

In the wake of an employee burnout epidemic, it's become clear that these traditional, rigid systems undermine not only employee motivation but overall happiness in general.

Luckily, there are ways employers can offer more control and flexibility to employees. As a result, these modern practices allow them to reduce workplace stress and regain a sense of control over their environment and, ultimately, reduce the incidence of work-related illness and burnout.

Category Tags

A Happier Workplace


Subscribe and join our community of curious HR Professionals and Managers.