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Designing work to generate healthy and productive work

Hear from Professor Sharon K. Parker, Organisational Behaviour, Curtin University, as she expands on the best practice approaches to good work design and how you can implement these standards into your workplace.

This presentation was part of the Healthy Work Design forum held on 22 March 2023.

Download a copy of this film (ZIP/MP4, 980MB)

Speaker 1 (00:04):
Good morning, and thank you so much for inviting me here today. I pay my respects to the traditional custodians of the land and acknowledge their historic and ongoing contribution. I come from the land of the Noongar Nation, the Whadjuk people in Perth, as Michelle mentioned. This morning, I'm going to talk a little bit about work design. I'm really going to talk about the many benefits, but also the many paths to good work design. Yes, it's all working. Wonderful.

Let me first begin by just saying we set up the Centre for Transformative work design about seven years ago now, and we do all things to do with work design. We do research. We have lots of big longitudinal intervention projects similar to the type that Elizabeth mentioned, but we also just try to work really hard to try to disseminate the research that we do, and you'll see a little bit of that today.

Please check us out. We really try to, I guess, do that combination of rigor, so evidence, but also relevance, practical application. That's the holy grail for us in our center. I'm going to start with a really boring academic definition of work design, which is my own, which is even worse, that it's so boring. But then I really want to unpack this topic.

What is work design? It's about the content of people's work and also how it's organized and structured. What do we mean by people's work? We mean the tasks they do, the activities they engage in, the relationships that they have, and their responsibilities. We can talk about work designers within a job or role, so an individual, or we can talk about it more at that team level as well.

In the world of work design and in the world of psychosocial hazards, you would've noticed already, the lists are long. Typically, we measure more than 30 of these elements that are really important psychologically for people at work. To try and make sense of that, we did this thing called a higher-order factor analysis.

What that does is cluster together similar things. That's really where the SMART work design model that I'm going to talk to you about today comes from. This is a slide that I'm very proud of. The first part of the model is Stimulating, and this reflects the fact that people like to do work that has some variety, that has users, their skills, that has some meaning, some purpose, some interest, some challenge. We don't, by and large, like to go to work just to get bored.

Elizabeth gave the example of truck drivers. It can be very unstimulating work sometimes. Stimulating is the first cluster of important aspects of work design. M is for Mastery. This really speaks to the point that when people go to work, they want to know what it is they're meant to be doing. They want that role clarity. They want to know what are their roles, what are their responsibilities? They want to get a bit of feedback on that.

Interestingly, yesterday, I was at an event in Sydney, and a young person was talking about how the transition for him from university to, I think, working as a consultant was really, really challenging because he went from a world where he got feedback on how he was doing to a world where he didn't even find out how he was doing. That was stressful for him. He didn't know whether he was doing a good job or not.

We talked there about doing a whole job. Sometimes, the more that you do a whole job in the workplace, the more that you understand where your work fits and what your contribution is that you are making. A is for Agency. This is fundamentally about control. You've heard about control already today. Sometimes people call it autonomy or decision-making, but this is fundamentally about humans having agency over their work lives.

We used to call it autonomy too, but I come from Western Australia, and I've had a couple of conversations with people in mining where it turns out I'm talking about autonomy. Human autonomy, they're talking about machine autonomy because autonomous machines is a very big thing there. We change the label to agency because that's what we mean, human agency in work.

R is for Relational, and this is a fact. Elizabeth mentioned truck drivers, for example, sometimes feeling socially isolated. The fact is, we have a fundamental need to connect with other people. We learned that during COVID more powerfully than ever. Relational is about thinking about those connections at work, how much contact we have with people, how much support we get from our boss, our supervisor, and so on.

Then T, I always refer to as the big one, right now there is an enormous amount of burnouts in the workplace, often because of the intolerable demands that people face. They might be cognitive, they might be emotional, they might be physical, but we want to create work where those demands are tolerable. That's the SMART model of work design. I brought some little summaries of that model. I've got a few more. Unfortunately, I didn't realize there'd be so many people, and I ran out. I did put some on the tables, but please let me know if you would like more information.

What I'm going to do from here, I want to unpack this model a little bit more, share the benefits of the model, and then talk very briefly. We won't have time to go into too much depth, but how do we improve that work design? I just want to say that we talk in our center about creating good work, we are addressing psychosocial hazards. What you can see there are the elements of the SMART work design model, with the common psychosocial hazards underneath. But that's always been our approach.

We work a lot with industry, which is to create good work. In doing so, we address those hazards. It's already, I think, been alluded to this morning. There is a huge amount of research on this topic that work design influences physical and mental health, motivation and performance, and also learning and growth in the workplace. I did a review recently where we identified more than 5,000 research articles on this topic.

I'm going to start with Stimulating. What I want to do for each letter is talk about how it influences psychological health, how it influences physical health, and also how it might impact business performance. I'm just going to take tiny slices of research. I can't cover the depth of research that there is. But let's start with Stimulating. This is all about doing work where people have got that variety, that challenge using their skills, engaging in problem solving, and having that meaning at work.

You can see, one of the things that we did in our center was to employ a sketch artist to sketch people in their work while we interviewed them about work design because we're trying to come up with ways of conveying what work design is. And you can see there's an Uber Eats deliverer there saying, "One of the problems with this job is it's so boring because we just spend so much time waiting for work."

If you've got unstimulating work, there are risks for mental health. People get disengaged. I always like to share their bore-out story, which is about a French person who sued his organization not for burnout but for bore-out because he'd had multiple years of a really, really unmeaningful job and it affected his mental health.

By the way, he won and he got some money out of that. It's interesting when we look at the research. If you don't have variety, meaning, and interest in your job, it actually does predict burnout too. Because it's just hard to keep going to work when you're really, really unstimulated, but it also affects physical health.

I think earlier we talked about musculoskeletal injuries. If you have a lack of variety in your work, that means you're going to be using the same muscles over and over again, which is going to influence things like musculoskeletal injuries, fatigue, and so on.

Just as an example, a meta-analysis of 50 studies showed that monotonous work had longitudinal effects on back, shoulder, neck, and extremity symptoms. You can see, the research there makes sense. If you're doing the same thing over and over again, it's going to impact your body as well as your mind.

It also affects performance. I guess if there's a message I'd like you to take away today is that good work is also good business sense and wasted talent because people get bored and leave, absenteeism, impaired performance. There's evidence that if people have really unstimulating work, they take much longer to go back to work after an injury. There's all sorts of evidence about the impact of unstimulating work on business performance.

But this just shows a study. This is a study, believe it or not, of a Brazilian footwear company. You might say, "Why am I talking about Brazilian footwear?" Because they did a really rigorous analysis of what happens if we introduce job rotation in our organization and showed all sorts of benefits of this job rotation, but huge business benefits. That's the total intervention cost.

I can't now read the numbers with my bad eyes, but I think it was about 50,000 US per year. But what you can see there is what they saved every year in things like medical costs, presenteeism, absenteeism, costs, all those sorts of things. You can see, it did cost some money to implement job rotation because you got to train people. But huge cost savings from this intervention. Good work is good business.

Let's turn now to M. M, I mentioned before, is the importance of going to work and actually knowing what it is that, we need to do when we're at work and getting feedback on that and understanding where we fit in the bigger picture of work. Once again, lots of evidence that things like role clarity are really, really important psychologically for people. You can see there a meta-analysis of 33 studies showing that a lack of role clarity predicts depression at work.

This is part of that fish tank that's really, really important to consider. Again, if we look at the literature on burnout, role clarity is a big driver of burnout, a lack of feedback also. But you can see, role clarity really stands out there because most people want to go to work and do their job well, and if they can't do that because they don't know what they're meant to be doing, it is ultimately stressful but also benefits for physical health.

This is just an example study of incident responders. The people that respond to incidents, you can see an example there on high-speed roads. This study showed that if you have role ambiguity, which is a lack of role clarity, you don't know what the hell you're meant to be doing that actually predicted the more near misses and secondary accidents in this study. That makes sense. If you don't know what you're doing, you're much more likely to make mistakes and have accidents.

But what about business? Again, evidence that if you've got mastery in work, you're going to get those business benefits. Don't worry about the detail here, but what you can see, this is an example, what's on the axis of that graph is organizational effectiveness. Things like return on investment, those sorts of statistics.

What you can see where that arrow is pointing is where this intervention started, and it was a feedback intervention. It was an intervention that said, "We don't give people feedback on their job. Let's introduce that." You can see the huge performance spike that you get as a consequence of this intervention.

What about A? A is for Agency. The importance of human control, decision-making, autonomy, having some influence over where you work, when you work, how you work, the timing of your work, what you do first, what you do second, being involved in decisions that affect you. Flexible work is an example of agency, and probably one of the things we've most consistently shown in research over the years is, if you take away people's control, you are going to increase the risk of stress, disengagement, turnover, and all of those sorts of outcomes as well.

Again, we see from meta-analysis that a lack of control and autonomy predicts burnout. If you didn't know, burnout has got these three components. Exhaustion, cynicism, when people are burned out, they get cynical. Also, this sense of reduced accomplishment. This feeling of not getting anywhere, not making a difference anymore. You can see that if people don't have autonomy, not surprisingly, they don't feel that they can make a difference, and they get that sense of reduced accomplishment.

But what about for physical health as well? This is an interesting one. We do a lot with the mining industry, and they take a lot of persuading about the importance of job control because they worry that if you give people autonomy, you're actually going to increase accidents. Ironically, my colleagues and I did a big study in the UK looking at all sorts of human resource practices.

We also had accident data from these companies, so we asked the question, "What human resource practices really make a difference for injuries in organizations and empowerment?" Autonomy, agency was the number one positive predictor of people working more safely. This is a good one that we use for the mining company, because if people have control over their work, most people want to go home at the end of the day, they can exercise that control, they get more engaged, and so on.

What about for business? Again, lots of evidence that if you give people agency, then you're going to get those business benefits. Actually, many, many years ago, too many to confess the exact number, I did a PhD on this topic called That's Not My Job and actually showed that if people don't have autonomy, they're much more likely to say, "That's not my job."

You see that phenomenon happening here in this picture. Just as an example, we show that if people get this, "That's not my job" Mindset, then they actually perform as you would expect, not so well, not so proactively and creatively in their workplace. Again, good work is good business.

Coming up to R now, the importance of relational aspects of work. What you see there in that picture is a dancer actually talking about the, basically, abuse that she receives in her job. "You get put down a lot," She says, "for the way that you work." She actually talks about the harassment, I would say, that she experiences, and, of course, if you are experiencing those sorts of elements in your work, they have huge implications for mental health.

We are doing a big project right now with the mining sector on sexual harassment, which, of course, is a huge, huge ramifications for people's mental health. But even things like a lack of social support, just going to work and not feeling supported. Elizabeth, you talked about the protective factor of people feeling connected and supported in their work. This is a really important vehicle for mental health in the workplace. Physical illness is also, again, affected by support and these sorts of things.

It was a study of workers who had work-related permanent impairment but who returned to work, and it was asking the question, "What helps them to return to work?" Low supervisory support was one of the biggest factors that stopped people from returning to work quickly and also contributed to their likely re-injury. Low coworker support was also important. Again, a benefit from a physical perspective. Then, and finally, also benefits, of course, for organizations.

Just to give a very quick example, this is a study by a colleague, Adam Grant, who was working in call centers, actually. He tried to do the standard thing you would do. He was a work design expert, and he went into that context and he said, "Oh, no one's got any control or try and improve the control in their work." He couldn't get anywhere. He couldn't get any traction. He was like, "What else can I do?"

One of the things he observed was, the workers had no sense of how they were helping other people's lives. In this relational aspect of work, as I said before, we have a fundamental need to connect, belong, and feel we're part of something bigger. He thought, "What if I actually helped people to see the benefits of the work that they do?"

He did a very simple thing, which was to look at the work, and what these call center agents did was, they called up alumni and said, "Donate money." So you can imagine this job. Donate money, no. Donate money, no. A huge turnover, very stressful job. What he thought, he turned the question around and said, "But actually, the money that these people generate, what it does is it funds scholarships for underprivileged people to come to university."

He got some of those underprivileged people who had benefited from the money that the call center people had raised to come and talk to the call center agents, and they wrote letters, et cetera. The gratitude element. What you can see there is that he calls that contact with beneficiaries. Having some connection with the people who benefit from the work. 142% more phone time after these interventions, people spent longer, they tried harder, and 171% more money raised.

That type of approach, we call it Relational work design, that's been done in hospitals with hand washing. It's been done with lifesavers, whose job it is to save people. Always, this one resonates with me because I used to be a lifesaver at a pool, and it's the world's most boring job because you literally just wait for someone to drown. That's all you do. That study involved bringing families of people who'd been saved. These are just some ways that we can think, how can we make work more relational for people understanding the value of this connection.

Now I come to what I call the big one, as I said before, which is the importance of having demands that are tolerable. We frame it that way deliberately because it's not about saying that all demands are bad. Work is demands, actually. You go to work, you put in effort. That's a demand, but the demands need to be tolerable for you or your team. We are talking here, cognitive demands, like how much you have to think, emotional demands, things like, if we go back to call centers, dealing with angry customers, that creates real emotional demands for people or time pressure, is a huge one. We know that's a huge driver of the rising psychological claims, workers' compensation claims.

When we look at things like burnout, demands are the biggest drivers, usually. Role conflict. Role conflict means having those incompatible expectations. The classic is safety and quality, or safety and productivity. How can I be safe and productive? That creates role conflict sometimes. Or it can be two bosses who want different things, whatever. Role conflict and roll overload, just too much to do in the time available, predict that, burnout. Again, lots of evidence about that.

Also evidence for physical health. A study just came out recently of 90,000 workers from 1500 organizations that showed if people have lots and lots of exposure to continuous change, and I would probably suggest not very well managed change, they're more likely to access medications associated with insomnia, anxiety, and depression. When people, again, are feeling out of control of their life, that can have those physical impacts.

Also, of course, for business. If people are experiencing tolerable demands, they're going to be more likely to leave. That's got a cost. Be more absent. Be more present, which is turning up at work when you're not well, and we know that has a cost. Workers' compensation claims. All of those sorts of things, of course, come from excess demands.

Just a very quick example, this is BMW. Someone mentioned earlier, we have an aging population. This is BMW, who had aging workers who were really struggling with the physical demands in the production line, and they did a very simple intervention. What did they do? They consulted with their workforce. They asked their workforce, "How could we make the work better for you to do?" They actually created a special line, got volunteer older workers to come and work on this line, and then solicited feedback.

They implemented over 70 small changes to some simple things like magnifying glasses on the instructions, those hairdresser chairs that people could sit on while they were working, et cetera. Very small things, all from the worker's perspective. What they found was that line that was staffed mostly by older workers was just as productive as the lines performed by the younger workers. Showing that if you can change the work design to accommodate those physical changes that happen as we age, you can actually get those great benefits to the organization.

What I hope that I've persuaded you of this morning is that if we think about SMART work design, there are benefits for mental health and wellbeing, there are benefits for physical health, musculoskeletal injuries, et cetera. All of these can directly contribute to business benefits, but we can also see those direct business benefits emerging as well.

Just in the last 30 seconds, I've talked more about why we should be looking at work design as a solution. I want to say that, of course, there's a lot we can talk about around how we do that work design. I don't have time in 20 minutes to do that, but this is a very quick model to share with you.

One is, we change the roles directly. Job rotation, self-managing teams, or something, those sorts of initiatives, and I've shared some with you this morning.

Another is, we change what leaders do. Everyday leader actions have a big impact on work design. We can develop our leaders to be better at creating daily good work design for people.

The third thing we can do is align our systems. What I mean by that is, work design is often influenced by the bigger systems in the organization. For example, roster structures can have a huge impact on work design, and that's going to require, if you were to change those rosters, some change in those bigger systems.

In the fourth circle, there is job crafting. This recognizes that individuals can shape their work too, not all times, but sometimes.

I share this model with you, not for you to go, "Oh, it's so complex." I share this model with you to say there are many paths to good work design, and what you have to work out in your organization is which path is going to make sense. On that note, thank you very much.