Resources for Professionals
Work design refers to the nature and organisation of individuals' and teams' tasks, responsibilities, activities, and decisions.
When thinking about whether a person has a mentally healthy work design, this means considering questions like:
Who makes decisions in the work place?
How many responsibilities do people have in their jobs, and are they reasonable?
Are the activities that people are assigned varied or repetitive?
Sometimes, the answers to these questions indicate that the work has "psychosocial risks", or 'stressors', that need to be addressed to ensure work is mentally healthy.
For example, if all of the work decisions are made by a manager rather than the worker - even down to when the worker can have a restroom break- this means the worker might experience a very low level of job control. A great deal of research shows that if people have low job control, then they are likely to experience stress.
Preventing and addressing psychosocial risks is part of legally complying with Work Health and Safety laws about "preventing harm" in the work place. This means that work design is a very important way to prevent harm at work.
Sometimes the answers to these questions affect how productive or innovative a person can do, and so they need to be addressed to ensure that work is high performing.
For example, if a person's work lacks variety or doesn't use their skills, it can be very demotivating, which means they put in less effort. Or if a worker has to defer every decision to their boss, it can slow things down and make responses to customers very ineffective.
This means that work design is a very important way to promote performance in the work place.
The topic of work design is important because - when an organisation is wanting to achieve healthy and productive work - it puts the emphasis on the work itself, rather than the worker. Of course both are important! But sometimes, for people to be healthy and high performing at work, it is important to change the work itself.
This video shows a real life example of how the work can be changed to ensure a healthier work design, where a person is not overloaded.
As well as psychosocial aspects of work design, work design also encompasses cognitive, physical, biomechanical characteristics of work (see Figure opposite).
Work design questions one might raise for each category are as follows:
How cognitively challenging is the work? Does the job involve long hours of concentration with little opportunities for breaks?
Does the job offer the worker a chance to engage in decisions that affect them? Do staff use a variety of skills? Is the level of time pressure reasonable?
What physical hazards are staff exposed to? Are the physical demands manageable by all workers, including mature staff?
Is the individual repetitively using the same muscle groups over and over? How much sitting is there in the job?
In the Centre for Transformative Work Design, we mostly focus on psychosocial aspects of work, although all the elements are often inter-related.