One of the vital, but less trumpeted foundations of good health is our sense of autonomy – that we have some control over our life and destiny.
Not only are many trapped in mechanical, prescribed job roles, but our consumption of products and services has been so entrenched and manipulated that we tend to abdicate the rule of our lives to others. We seek the authority of a doctor to fix us, and we buy a new product when its predecessor stops working rather than fix it ourselves Or make our own. We have lost the sense of our own autonomy.
As unequivocally elucidated by Levine1., education has been hijacked to indoctrinate and straight-jacket us rather than enable and expand our sense of autonomy and potential.
On a much larger scale, as Kohr2. eloquently explained way back in 1957, countries and industries have grown to become large and powerful at the cost of the quality of the health of the people – an individual may have some traction against a local council on a local matter but will have almost none against centralised government even though both are paid for and ‘elected’ by the people to serve the people.
There are, however, examples of respect for, and retention of, autonomy that serve as pointers to how much better life could be for more of us.
Workers on the production line in Semco, a manufacturing company in Brazil are empowered to make their own decisions. They redesign equipment, processes, choose their own work hours, and grow to love and cherish their work. They are owners of their jobs, not puppets. The company was slated for an early demise for breaking the rules like this, but remain prosperous and profitable with very low attrition rates and a long waiting list for prospective employees3..
Switzerland comprises a set of mostly independent cantons or regions, with little in the way of centralised power. This takes them closer to the healthy way humans lived for thousands of years – small, self-sufficient, autonomous communities.
The European Union is in a fractious state right now, with Greece on the verge of leaving, but it may benefit in the long term from separation. To leave behind a life dictated by bureaucrats in distant countries. This is similar to employees of a large corporation, beholding to owners – the shareholders – who are physically remote and have little or no knowledge of these people, interested only in the financial welfare of the company as a whole. Cooperatives like John Lewis here in the UK show that anonymity of ownership is not the only way.
So when you choose, if you can, where you work or live, bear in mind the matter of autonomy. I left mainstream employment for health reasons in 2001 to work from home, and only regret the loss of companionship. I relish the autonomy of self-employment. I remember years back as an IBM employee how they announced one day that we were all going to be ‘empowered’. They had evidently read about the benefits in morale, innovation and efficiencies. But as soon as we started dong things we decided were sensible, we are told, that no, we could not do those things. IBM wanted the benefit of empowerment but failed to change to enable it. They did not really want what they saw as the ‘anarchy’ of autonomy, and the idea faded away. It is no surprise in such a large, hierarchical organisation, where the central processor – the CEO and cohorts – were far removed from the employees at the work face. Delegating – enabling autonomy – requires a breakup of such hierarchies. This is precisely what happened in Semco. true, it is a much smaller organisation, but the principle is the same.