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Doing Time: The Work Design of Fremantle Prisoners

This weekend, one of the Centre Post Docs and a holidaying Dutch Scholar, Professor Maria Tims, took time out to explore the underground tunnels at Fremantle Prison.

We learned how the tunnels were excavated from Limestone by prisoners in the 1800s, to provide water to Fremantle. Prisoners were forced to 'work' underground for long hours every day excavating tunnels. They had no shoes or safety equipment, and had to wade through water which was sometimes up to their neck. It was back breaking work, made all the worse by the conditions they were forced to endure, which included being shackled to chains and risking disease. It was quite shocking to experience the product of the prisoners' labour, all too recent in past history.

While the 'work' these prisoners endured was akin to slave labour and not a job chosen by the prisoners themselves, it does highlight how work can be designed to purposely create the worst possible outcomes for the individual, including physical and psychological trauma, skin and water borne diseases, extreme fatigue, and possibly even death.

Turning this on its head, it also highlights how we can design the best quality jobs with the best possible outcomes for individuals, such as physical and psychological wellbeing. The work environment involves the physical space in which we work (e.g. lighting, noise levels, design of our office spaces) as well as aspects such as the amount of control we have over how and when we carry out work tasks, our ability to contribute to decision-making, and the amount of support we receive from colleagues, supervisors, and managers.

Albeit an extreme example, this tour highlighted the implications of poor work design particularly well, and how important the design of work is for creating motivated, engaged workers. Through researching work design we can learn how best to apply work design principles to different contexts.

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