Job Design: The Missing Link for Employee Well-Being

Where we left off in the 4-part Beyond Health Habits series, workforce sustainability expert Bob Merberg tackled job stress and its impact on employee health.

Next up, we address job design and its role in employee well-being. This topic also happens to be our HR community’s highest rated topic and a subject Merberg is passionate about.

What is Job Design?

Job design (also called work design) has to do with tasks, activities, relationships, and responsibilities of a job and how they’re organized. Employees are likely to have experienced this when:

  • A new job is created
  • An organization shifts responsibilities around
  • The company makes process improvements

Job design occurs in various contexts. Merberg’s experience includes redesigning jobs for large and small organizations including frontline positions for thousands of employees, existing positions for a handful of employees, and creating new individual contributor roles.

Job Redesign in the Real World

Most job designs and redesigns occur without paying attention to the principles of good job design. Changes are made without taking leading research and best practices into account. Because, at its core, the purpose of job design is to ensure employee well-being.

Jobs that are well-designed are based on principles that result in a more efficient and effective workforce. Improving job design reduces employee job stress, its negative health implications, and absenteeism.

A Review of Employee Well-Being

Before we delve into the specifics of job design, let’s review the three major factors behind employee well-being:

• Job demands
• Autonomy
• Support

All three factors are essential to a good job design, which in turn shows that employees have a better chance of adopting healthy behaviors. Your employees are likelier to lead a healthy lifestyle when they’re engaged in healthy work.

Those in jobs with unreasonable demands, little autonomy, and limited support tend to have relatively bad health outcomes, such as a higher chance of having heart disease, gastrointestinal problems, depression, and anxiety.

A good job design would provide reasonable demands and sufficient autonomy. The latter includes having a say in how a job is done, particularly in terms of the work’s schedule and pace. Control or autonomy also gives employees the latitude to make decisions.

The Principles of Good Job Design

Let’s start with three core principles of good job design. Each job design must be:

  • Holistic, meaning it addresses the physical, mental, and social aspects of work, along with the needs and capabilities of employees;
  • Considers business needs and the work environment; and,
  • Enhances well-being and success.

Following these principles improves employee engagement and job satisfaction. It also promotes learning and development and innovation. Now, let's look at applying best practices.

Putting the Principles in Action

Here are the steps HR professionals can take:

1. Engage decision makers and leaders.

These individuals need to be part of the job design process in order to embrace the results. Before anything else, educate them about the importance of good job design.

2. Involve the people who do the work.

If it is helpful, consider engaging other stakeholders. This action is a crucial element of a participatory approach.

3. Identify risks.

This includes a lack of support from co-workers, supervisors, or the organization. For the employee, lack of autonomy and unreasonable demands are also risks. These are all hazards to employee well-being. (Also see: Replace Stress Management with Best Management).

Think of these risks as factors of psychosocial injury—a term used in Australia when working on the principles of job design. Psychosocial injury eventually manifests in our physical health. But since risks can be identified, the injuries can be prevented.

The key is to reduce the risk as much as possible, similar to the way a safety expert is trained to prevent physical injuries (vs trying to change people’s behaviors).

4. Learn from experts, evidence, and experience.

Know your limits, study, and get help when you need it.

How to Design a Job

There is no turnkey solution or "right way" to approach job design. Employee participation is certainly key, and the design you create should be responsive to what’s going on in the job and within your company.

You can apply some of these basic steps that apply in most situations, particularly when redesigning an existing job:

  1. Do an assessment of current work practices. Ask yourself, “Is job redesign needed? Is it feasible?”
  2. Do a task analysis. This doesn’t have to get technical. Use a combination of dialogue, observation, and existing documentation such as job descriptions to better understand the job tasks.
  3. Design the job. This would involve asking several questions that lead to the best design for the new or revised job.
    • How should tasks be allocated within a team with autonomy in mind?
    • Which decisions can be made by the job holder?
    • How much flexibility is there in the job are mundane?
    • Are mundane tasks broken up with more challenging responsibilities while avoiding overloading or underloading the job?
    • Where can the job holder go for help?
    • How are they integrated into teams?
    • Is there opportunity for social interaction?
  4. Implement job redesign gradually. For an existing job, don't execute the changes all at once. Reevaluate the changes on a regular basis and make any necessary adjustments. Consider rolling out the following changes:
    • Modify the quantity of tasks, which conventionally entails increasing the amounts of significant responsibilities. Merberg finds that reducing the low-value responsibilities is a more effective change.
    • Modify quality or enrich the job with greater responsibility, more accountability, independence, and new opportunities.
    • Rotate or remove employees from one task to another or move them toward knowledge-based or professional settings. This means rotating responsibilities among different team members.

A Well-Executed Example of Job Design

Merberg used an example from a study of hospital nurses and aides. The job design intervention was based on a German concept of health circles, a process in which employees hold facilitated meetings to identify work-related risks to their health and discuss what can be done to reduce them. This approach emphasizes the three essential factors to employee well-being: demand, autonomy, and support.

Caregivers identified and improved some very specific things on how work gets done. This included implementing new systems to address overload demands when short-handed; fairer processes for training; better communication systems to reduce ambiguity and improved effectiveness; improved scheduling; more autonomy in decision-making; and, addressing uncivil or unfair treatment.

The hospital’s approach paved the way for overlap between job design and best management practices. Three years after the changes were made, caregivers reported:

  • Improved levels of demand, autonomy, and social support
  • Improved work quality
  • Improved health measures indicated in the study, such as fewer sleep disorders, less burnout, and better overall mental health based on symptoms of depression and anxiety.

Closing the Job Design Wellness Gap

Merberg sums up the link between job design and well-being in three points:

  1. Good job design, along with best management practices, is an engine of employee well-being and productivity.
  2. Shoot for a healthy balance of job demands, autonomy, and support.
  3. Add a good dose of employee participation.

Putting the principles in action can yield positive, powerful results for employees and employers. Because better job design improves employee well-being and workforce productivity. If you have a job design success story to share or a question, we invite you to contact us.


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