Jobs have changed dramatically in the last four decades. Mergers, reorganization, downsizing, and offshore hiring have led to job insecurity in many organizations. Technology and competitive markets are driving increased work demands, with 24/7 work environments increasingly the norm. Organizations often expect that non-work responsibilities will be arranged around work, and that employees demonstrate commitment to their work by their willingness to put in long hours, regardless of any outside, personal responsibilities.
Workers, particularly those in low- and middle-wage occupations, are often unable to access any supportive workplace policies that moderate the challenges of contemporary work, and they have absorbed increasingly insecure and fluctuating work hours or high workloads. These work conditions, coupled with the changing demography of the work force (with larger numbers of women, older workers, and people who are part of dual-wage-earner couples, and single parents in the workforce”) produce a particularly challenging situation in the US. Such trends have created a ‘perfect storm’ for these workers, often taking a steep toll on their health and well-being. U.S. life expectancy ranks near the bottom of OECD countries, and we have a higher prevalence of cardiovascular and metabolic disorders than nearly any Western European country. In addition, these health risks are not evenly distributed; people of color (particularly Black and Hispanic workers) and those with less formal education face especially high risks.
We hypothesize that this American health disadvantage is shaped in part by the challenging social environments faced by working women, older Americans, and people of color. In particular, work environments for these individuals are characterized by limited social protection policies, the declining power of unions, and highly variable corporate practices. Recognizing that work is a major social determinant of health, key strategies for reducing health disadvantages may revolve around reorganizing and redesigning the workplace, and by developing effective public and private sector policies to respond to the needs of employers, employees, and their families.
The Work and Well-Being Initiative (WWBI) is a multi-disciplinary research and policy initiative to develop and implement evidence-based workplace changes that will foster worker well-being. This initiative starts from the understanding that work is a major social determinant of health. The goal of the WWBI is to provide a deeper understanding of work conditions that support worker well-being, and to identify the workplace policies and practices that enable workers to be healthy in the workplace and throughout their lives. The initiative focuses on workers across a broad range of industries and occupations, but is especially concerned with the well-being of low- and moderate-wage workers.
We also work with corporate and community partners to learn more about effective work design and we actively disseminate our findings to the public and to policymakers. Our efforts will ultimately contribute to enhancing the ability of workers to remain engaged and healthy in the workplace, with their families, and in their communities.
The WWBI began in 2018 with a Robert Wood Johnson Foundation Pioneering Ideas grant to assess evidence that redesigning work policies and practices could improve employee well-being. Read more about our project work.