How can the way a job is designed improve employee wellbeing and so safety and performance at work? Lead work psychologist Joana Faustino of Rail Safety and Standards Board shares her thoughts in this guest blog for us.

Job design - woman choosing happiness at work

Imagine a world where you truly enjoy work and stress is not a permanent feature, but you are exposed to challenging and motivating things. A world where your health doesn’t suffer because of work. A world where, actually, your work is good for you. 

Over the past years, the need to support the mental wellbeing of workers has moved from the background to the forefront of health discussions. We know prolonged stress is associated with poor health, lower productivity and decreased safety at work. The Health and Safety Executive has even defined the areas that need to be considered when designing jobs in order to avoid work-related stress, with job characteristics linked with and, in some instances, found to predict mental health and wellbeing outcomes. Low-quality jobs, for example jobs associated with prolonged stress, unfair pay and reduced support, have been associated with safety risks and increased risk for the development of other health problems, such as cardiovascular and musculoskeletal issues.

The financial impact of poor mental health has also become clearer, with Deloitte estimating the yearly cost of poor mental health to UK companies to be as high as £56 billion. More companies now recognise the need to support the mental wellbeing of their employees, with many implementing some form of mental health-related initiatives. 

But do we think about mental health when we are designing jobs? Do we develop roles and our expectations of what one person can do, by itself and within the larger organisational context, with people’s wellbeing in mind? With organisations wanting to be as effective as possible, it is clear we aim for good performance. But do we aim for good health?

Job design in rail

Job design is defined by CIPD as 'the process of establishing employees’ roles and responsibilities and the systems and procedures that they should use or follow'.

When looking at improving mental health in organisations, line managers play a key role. They can act as ‘mental health gatekeepers’, while also influencing working conditions and culture. Mental health training for line managers, associated with a high return on investment of up to £9 for every pound spent, can be a great way to ensure managers have the confidence and skills to support their reports. What if you had the skills but not the time? 

According to Rail Safety and Standards Board research, line managers in rail appear to struggle with high workloads and competing priorities, on top of an elevated number of direct reports. The scenario is likely to be very similar in other industries. This appears to be one of the biggest barriers for managers in supporting staff’s mental health and wellbeing, as opportunities to engage with employees may be limited, preventing managers from developing a good understanding of their direct reports’ baseline wellbeing. It is also known that high job demands, demands that are felt as excessive by employees, are a risk factor for stress. If line managers experience excessive demands on an ongoing basis, it is likely that their ability to adequately support staff will be compromised. These examples suggest there may be a disconnect between the different components of particular job roles and that mental health interventions need to move from a reactive stance to a more proactive one. 

How can we design high-quality jobs?

A review of some of the most prominent research into job design shows performance is often the main focus, with references to health usually secondary. It is only reasonable for organisational literature to focus on improving performance. But is it possible for people to sustainably perform if their health deteriorates? 

Performance is affected by different factors. Research suggests wellbeing may walk hand-in-hand with it, with increased performance observed in companies that support employee wellbeing. Furthermore, there is evidence that job design focused on organisational goals (such as performance) may adversely impact wellbeing outcomes, suggesting that in order to positively impact wellbeing, job design needs to have wellbeing at its core.

Research in this context suggests training workers to improve their jobs may have a positive impact on wellbeing. Simultaneous training and job design interventions have shown potential for improving wellbeing, particularly when interventions were focused on welfare and combined with other positive work practices, such as secure employment and pay. Research has also found that simply allowing workers to shape their job without previous training did not appear to improve wellbeing, although worker participation seems vital in ensuring different aspects of the job are captured and effective interventions selected. Leadership training on job design may, in turn, be a helpful tool to ensure leaders have the skills to support job design interventions.

It is important to note that most research that looks at wellbeing in the workplace tends to conceptualise it as employee satisfaction. Job satisfaction has been described as one of the biggest predictors of return to work in the context of sickness absence. In light of that, it may seem reasonable to use it as a measure of wellbeing. But while job satisfaction may be a component of wellbeing, it is by no means a complete measure of it. In addition, job satisfaction is comprised of many different dimensions, each of which may be more or less valued depending on the individual. For one person, job satisfaction may be intimately linked with personal development. For others, personal development may be low on the list of what makes them feel satisfied with their jobs. We are all different and we expect, aim and accept different things from our jobs. This is also true when looking at what makes a ‘high-quality’ job. Once again, the impact of certain job characteristics will be different for different people and may vary with the context.  

Job design for mental wellbeing: what next?

Going back to the initial questions raised in this article, it is possible to hypothesise that we do not develop jobs with mental health and wellbeing in mind, or aim for good health when designing jobs. But we do aim for performance. And in some industries, such as rail and other transport, for safety. Yet, none of those exist without health. 

When we think about safety, our main aim is to anticipate things that might go wrong and have controls in place to avoid or mitigate those risks that we have identified. But what are the controls we have in place for our workers’ mental health? We know that excessive demands placed on workers are a risk factor for stress. As stress becomes a consistent feature in our lives, our ability to bounce back from challenging events decreases and our risk of struggling with our mental health increases. And so does our ability to focus, to problem solve and to perform safely. As a result, there may be errors, cutting corners and ultimately incidents and accidents. If we don’t control workplace risk factors to employees’ mental health, then instead of improving safety, we are jeopardising it.

Although there is promising research on job design for mental wellbeing, more research is needed. While we wait for further evidence, what can companies do? Ideally review the jobs you currently have to assess to what extent the demands are realistic. This will involve consulting staff on what the work actually looks like. You may be able to make small changes to work processes, shift or redesign tasks. 

When organisational resources decrease and demands increase, we tend to see roles expanding significantly, piling on a variety of tasks that were not initially associated with them. It is vital for organisations to consider what certain roles are meant to entail and what they are moving to, paying particular attention to whether changes will result in a consistent increase in workload or extended working hours. Managing stress effectively, ensuring line managers and leaders understand and can (from a skills but also a time perspective) respond to stress risk factors, goes a long way in supporting the health and wellbeing of your staff.

With the high costs associated with sickness absence, presenteeism and staff turnover, investing in prevention is definitely better than cure. We design our jobs for maximised short-term performance. Imagine the possibilities if we design them for sustainable health.

Find out more

WATCH THE VIDEO: Designing for mental health – are we there yet? Jo Faustino joins Greg Morse, RSSB's Right Track and LHSBR editor and operational feedback lead, to discuss the topic


Why supporting mental wellbeing is measurably good for business

Why kindness and psychological safety may be the foundation of good teams

Building a speak-up culture (links to webinar)

Psychological safety: when companies work in partnership (links to webinar)

To speak up we need psychological safety