The design of work – how the structure of the organisation we work for, the work we do and how we do it influence our mental health
Posted on: 2nd December 2021
This article is part of the Filling your Cup series to improve the health of people working in the community mental health sector.
Brought to you by WayAhead Workplaces and Mental Health Coordinating Council and written by Steph Thompson, WayAhead Workplaces Lead.
All workplaces have psychosocial risk factors. Plenty of these will be related to the occupational risks themselves and some will be related to the work environment and culture.
The way work is structured and designed has a huge impact on the wellbeing of everyone working in an organisation.
In the community services sector, this is especially important because frequently the work being done poses an occupational psychosocial risk due to exposure to people experiencing different forms of trauma, and the nature of the funding of an organisation is less reliable.
Additionally, in community services with fewer resources including human resources, people are often required to undertake tasks that either are or are perceived to be, outside of the scope of the job role.
What exactly is work design?
Work design refers to both the actual content of work as well as the way work is organised. It refers to the tasks, activities and relationships within the workplace.
Are the people in your organisation set up for success? Are they clear on what is expected of them? Is it understood who the key decision makers are, and where “the buck stops”?
Are managers given the space to be people leaders rather than them being the owners of simple tasks?
Work design is also known as job characteristics – the features of work that impact people’s feelings about their jobs.
Do people have autonomy? Do they feel part of a team? Are they recognised appropriately? Do people feel they are contributing to a greater purpose?
How does work design impact wellbeing and productivity?
Good work can keep people well for several reasons. For those working in the mental health sector, it is often the case that people are drawn to their work due to the purpose of the organisation.
This can be great for mental wellbeing, however, if the organisation and the approach to tasks, organisation and leadership are not conducive to some basic principles then work can end up being detrimental to mental health.
Organisations with fewer resources are not necessarily more at risk of poor work design. However the unique risk to organisations that are smaller or have less access to funding for HR support is that the skills required to reflect on and ensure work is designed in such a way that people are kept well are not there.
There is evidence to show that wellbeing is optimised by meaningful work, with autonomy and appropriate support, where people are clear on what is expected of them and are given the scope to take on end-to-end tasks.
The Centre for Transformative Work Design has a framework known as SMART Work. Smart stands for Stimulating, Mastery, Agency, Relational and Tolerable demands and encompass all the things that need to be considered when designing work that helps to keep people well and boost wellbeing.
Find out more about the details behind this framework at the website. They also outline the business case for organisations investing is good work design:
- Increased motivation, job satisfaction, and organisational commitment
- Increased creativity, proactivity and innovation
- Enhanced wellbeing and psychological health
- Higher levels of personal resources such as self-efficacy, optimism and self esteem
- Reduced risk of sickness and stress-related illness
- Reduced numbers of critical safety incidents
- Enhanced learning and development and better cognitive functioning in later life
What can employees and leaders do?
It might seem like an overwhelming concept, or it might be that the leadership in the organisation is not across how important work design can be.
Fortunately, line managers and employees can take things into their own hands to look at their work and find ways to make improvements. This process is commonly referred to as Job Crafting.
Job crafting is defined as “actions that employees take to shape, mould, and redefine their jobs” (Wrzesniewski & Dutton, 2001, p. 180). Job crafting is what workers do to redefine and reimagine their job to make it more personally meaningful to them. There are three types of job crafting techniques:
- TASK CRAFTING
By looking at the specific tasks required in a job and finding ways to do fewer of the tasks that don’t add value to the employee. Are there ways to outsource these tasks? Can someone else who enjoys or is good at these tasks take it on? Can the approach to these tasks change so that less time is spent on them?
- RELATIONAL CRAFTING
This one links back to the previous article which focused on the important role leaders play in supporting mental health and wellbeing. Is there a work relationship which is hindering an employee’s ability to get work done effectively? Can the employee ask for more support? Less support? Is there a conflict with a peer and can the contact between these peers be changed? Is there a way to enhance teamwork by increasing collaboration across teams?
- COGNITIVE CRAFTING
This one requires a bit more creativity and refers to job crafting through changing your own perceptions of the tasks being done. All jobs involve some tasks that are not necessarily meaningful to the employee. For some people this can be a huge barrier to doing those tasks and can impact on the sense of purpose and wellbeing taken from the job. However, when these tasks can be reframed to something more meaningful, it can shift how we feel about them and how we perceive undertaking them. The example that comes to mind is the cleaner who worked at NASA and when asked what he did for work replied, “I help to put people on the moon”.
For more information on job crafting and work design, visit Centre for Transformative Work Design
This article is one of a series of four in the WayAhead Workplaces and Mental Health Coordinating Council ‘Filling your Cup’ resource. Tune in on 9 December to read article four of the series.