Overview — Work Design for Health: A Promising Approach to Worker Well-Being

Work Design for Health logo in color

Why Invest in Worker Health and Well-Being?

Work is a leading source of stress for Americans, and research has shown that the nature and design of work, and the extent to which it acts as a chronic stressor, can have wide-ranging effects on employee health and health care costs. 

The good news for employers is that there can be long-term benefits to organizations of investing in workers’ overall well-being. According to research:

  • Healthy employees are more productive and engaged, have lower absenteeism and turnover rates, and incur fewer health care expenses.  
  • Organizations that invest in employee well-being by strategically improving workplace conditions can reduce turnover and increase employee productivity.1,2 

Introducing Our Employer Toolkit

This toolkit is designed to help employers support worker well-being and to build a workplace culture of health in which workplace conditions foster the good health of all workers in a fair and equitable manner. In particular, this toolkit:

Process flow chartProvides an evidence-based framework or approach–called Work Design for Health–to guide employers on enhancing employee well-being at work through a thoughtful and systematic process of workplace change. Click on the drop-down menu below to learn more about the Work Design for Health approach. 

 

Helping handsHighlights a wide range of promising management practices, tested through research, that illustrate the principles of a Work Design for Health approach. Throughout the toolkit, case studies offer examples of ways that employers have effectively implemented these strategies in their organizations.

 

Half Brain Half light bulbOffers how-to advice. We provide tools and resources to help plan, implement, manage, and sustain effective workplace changes for worker well-being using a Work Design for Health approach.

What is a Work Design for Health Approach?

Woman working in warehouse setting wearing an orange safety helmet

What is a Work Design for Health Approach?

Many employers, increasingly concerned about rising health care costs, have implemented corporate wellness programs that use workplaces as venues for promoting individual health behaviors (such as healthy eating and increased exercise). However, recent research demonstrates that these programs are not very effective and have only limited positive influence on employee health outcomes, medical costs, and productivity.

In contrast to wellness programs, the approach we offer in this toolkit emphasizes the importance of targeting and changing work conditions—that is, how workplace practices and relationships are designed and organized. Ample research has demonstrated that these are often the real root causes of employee ill health and stress.

DISTINCTIVE FEATURES OF A WORK DESIGN FOR HEALTH APPROACH

 
  • Changes That Benefit Both Employees and Employers. In this toolkit, we focus on how work can be changed in ways that benefit not only the health and functioning of workers but also the organizations that employ them. In other words, the emphasis is on both enhancing worker well-being and enabling employees to work more productively.

  • A Focus on Root Causes of Worker Ill Health. We shift away from a conventional approach centered on helping workers better adapt to workplace stress by helping them cope with its symptoms (for instance, through mindfulness, exercise, or smoking cessation programs). Instead, our approach is systemic and focuses on identifying and changing underlying workplace conditions that are root causes of workplace stress and ill-being.

  • Three Principles Grounded in Research. A strong base of research suggests that three work dynamics—job control, job demands, and social relationships at work— are root drivers of many forms of worker health. In particular, research has found that high work demands (that is, pressure to work long, fast or hard), low control over work conditions (in other words, little freedom and decision-making power at work), and/or a lack of supportive relationships at work are all associated with higher employee stress and poor health.3 The next three modules of this toolkit explain these important principles and offer a range of tested and effective practices for redesigning your workplace to improve worker health and well-being.

  • A Focus on Positive Health. In addition to helping you reduce stress or ill health in the workplace, this toolkit will help you identify workplace conditions that enhance positive physical and mental health (e.g., employee engagement, personal growth, opportunities for learning, and having a sense of purpose and meaning). We highlight promising practices found to reduce ill-health and/or enhance positive health.

  • Employee-Management Partnership. Successful organizational change requires the buy-in, commitment, and input of top leadership, middle management, and frontline workers in a collaborative process of change. In particular, our approach emphasizes the importance of including nonsupervisory employees as key stakeholders and participants in the process of problem identification and organizational change. 

Dimensions of Work Design This Toolkit Does Not Address

A Work Design for Health approach offers a broad-ranging set of tools employers can use to improve worker well-being. More specifically, our approach focuses on the psychological and social conditions of work; it does not address other key features of the work environment that also significantly affect worker well-being, such as physical hazards, wages and benefits, and hiring policies. We also focus on workplace change at the organization- or department-wide level rather than on the level of the individual worker (e.g., helping an employee to customize their job to suit their individual preferences) because this level has the greatest promise for wide-ranging impact.3 

Finally, our approach is likely to be most relevant to employers who have a standard employment relationship with their workers, and less applicable to organizations that employ a largely contingent workforce. Independent contractors or “gig” workers are an important and growing part of the labor force, but less is known about what kinds of strategies will be most effective for reaching workers who do not have a fixed workplace and direct employer oversight of their work.

References

References

  1. Kelly EL, Moen P. Overload: How Good Jobs Went Bad and What We Can Do About It. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press; 2020.
  2. Ton Z. The Good Jobs Strategy: How the Smartest Companies Invest in Employees to Lower Costs and Boost Profits. Boston: New Harvest/Houghton Mifflin Harcourt; 2014.
  3. Karasek R, Theorell T. Healthy Work: Stress, Productivity, and the Reconstruction of Working Life. New York: Basic Books; 1990.