Feeling in Control and Wellness: Perception Matters!

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If you are experiencing the world like I am right now, you probably feel out of control. There’s so much going on and we can’t control anything except our own decisions and actions. Feeling out of control isn’t a good feeling. This applies to our work lives as well. Perceived control and wellness are highly linked and, today, we want to talk about how that plays out in the workplace.

What is perceived control?

When we talk about control, what do we mean? In the workplace, perceived control is the event-specific belief that you can impact or change an event’s outcome. In other words, it’s when you think you have control over what is happening.

Let’s look at an example. Jessica has to finish a slide deck by the end of the day. She believes it’s totally up to her to get it done. She thinks if she puts in enough effort, the slides will be finished in time. In this scenario, Jessica perceives she has control over the results of her work.

Unfortunately, we can’t control everything. But what can you control?

Let’s complicate the situation a bit. Jessica is waiting on some data to put into her slides. She still needs to get them done today but is waiting on Aaron to send over the information she needs. Jessica might still feel like she has control over the situation. Maybe she knows that she can push Aaron to get the details she needs. Jessica might be confident that her slide making skills are so good that she can whip up a good product very quickly. However, the opposite can be true too. Jessica may not feel like she has control at all. She may feel like it’s completely up to Aaron to do his part and he can make her late for her deadline. In the same exact situation, two different people may have different levels of perceived control.

It’s important to understand that it’s not the actual amount of a control that matters in our discussion today. Feeling in control is important and helps people cope with the situation they are in.

Why does it matter?

Obviously it’s nice to feel like you are in control of your work. I think we can all agree on that. We also know that autonomy is hugely important for wellness. Naturally, feeling like you are in control of various events at work should also be important for your well-being. Luckily, the research supports this.

Feeling like you have control of situations at work leads to lower emotional exhaustion. In other words, you feel less tired if you feel like you had control over what happened. In addition, feeling in control can actually lead to feeling more alert and energetic. So, not only are you less tired but you are feeling energized! Perceived control can even soften the stress of time pressure. If, like Jessica, you have a big, approaching deadline, you will feel less exhausted after it if you felt like you were in control of what happened.

Feeling less exhausted is great, but what about feeling energized?! Even better!

What can I do?

Now that we know perceptions of control can have a big impact on wellness, where do we go from here?

Leaders and Managers

It is critically important for leaders to help employees feel like they are in control of their situations. If you can give your employees more control in various situations, do it! Coach your team members how to take back control when things get out of hand. Help them see that they are competent and, thus, able to control a situation.

Interestingly, we know that employees that are committed to their work identities are even more likely to need to feel in control to reduce exhaustion. In other words, if Jessica is committed to being a slide-creating whiz, feeling like she can’t control meeting her deadline will make her feel much worse than if she didn’t care about being a slide-creating whiz. Understanding this, leaders need to identify which of their team members feel the most committed to their identity at work. Who cares the most about being a great nurse, teacher, or developer? Those people will benefit the most from believing they are in control. If you can’t coach everyone to effectively take control, coach the super committed employees first!


As an employee, we want to remind you that this is all about perceived control. It’s about how you much control you believe you have. Sometimes, all it takes is a shift in mindset. Remind yourself about all the things you do have control over. Maybe Jessica can’t control when Aaron will send her the data. But she can remind herself that she can control what the slides will look like. She can control the rest of the deck’s completion so adding in the final data is the one last step. She can control her reminders to Aaron and who she decides to cc in the email to bring visibility to the issue. There’s a lot that Jessica can still control. If she focuses on what she can control instead of what she can’t, she can shift her perceptions of control to help herself feel better.

While reminding yourself of what control you have may work, it won’t always. And that’s ok. Just use this knowledge to help yourself learn how to gain control in various work situations. Take the time and effort to think about all the times you felt out of control and how you could have regained some of it. Then practice what you learn the next time you feel out of control! Good luck!

Now we’d love to hear from you. When have you felt out of control? Did you feel exhausted later? We’d also love to hear any creative ways you can think of to apply the learnings from this research!

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