Work design

What do we mean by “Work Design”?

If you’ve had a really good job, or a terrible job – how did that work make you feel? What aspects of the work were particularly good (or bad)?

Work design can be defined as the “content of work tasks, activities, relationships and responsibilities, and how those tasks, activities and responsibilities are organised” (Parker, 2014). Good work design addresses physical, biomechanical, cognitive and psychosocial characteristics of work, together with the needs and capabilities of the people involved.

Work design can be described by a set of work characteristics that influence how people feel about their jobs – and how well they perform. These characteristics distinguish between what people describe as ‘good’ or ‘bad’ jobs. The design and organisation of work is a key aspect of human factors and human reliability.

For example, if you were tasked with creating a new nursing role in a hospital, the design of this work might consider:

  • Which tasks should this person perform?
  • What is the balance between patient care and paperwork?
  • Which tasks should be allocated to other medical professionals?
  • Which tasks should be allocated to non-medical staff?
  • Which decisions should the nurse be responsible for making?
  • Does this role work as part of a team?
  • Who else should be in this team?
  • What would be the shift pattern or roster for this nurse?
  • What are the key performance measures for the role?

Why does work design matter?

We spend, on average, 90000 hours of our lives at work and so it’s understandable that the nature of our work can have a significant impact on our wellbeing. Work can provide us with relationships, social contact, a sense of purpose, a social identity and a regular activity that provides structure to our lives.

Mental wellbeing in the workplace - humanfactors101.com
Poor work design increases the likelihood of human performance issues, such as ‘human error

Work design can have a profound impact on the health, safety and wellbeing of workers, as well as their motivation and productivity. It affects how we feel and behave at work. “Good work” is where the design or management of work optimises human performance, job satisfaction and productivity. Good work can have positive effects on a range of outcomes, but poorly-designed work can lead to:

  • Mental health issues
  • Work-related musculo-skeletal disorders
  • Cardiovascular disease
  • Accidents and injuries
  • Human errors and mistakes
  • Quality issues.

The UK Labour Force Survey (2009/10 to 2011/12) found that the predominant cause of work-related stress, depression or anxiety was workload, in particular tight deadlines, too much work, or too much pressure or responsibility. Other factors identified included a lack of managerial support, organisational changes, violence, and role uncertainty. These are all factors that we should consider when designing or redesigning work.

The total number of cases of work-related stress, depression or anxiety in 2019/20 was 828,000.
The total number of working days lost due to this condition in 2019/20 was 17.9 million days.
In 2019/20 – stress, depression or anxiety accounted for 51% of all work-related ill health cases and 55% of all working days lost due to work-related ill health.

UK Health and Safety Executive

Work design history

During the Industrial Revolution in the late 18th century, there was a radical shift from people working alone or in small groups, to the development of large factories.

Unfortunately for the workers, their work changed drastically. Previously they may have been responsible for manufacturing a complete product – from organising raw materials right through to selling their goods. They had freedom to make decisions, had a variety of tasks, developed multiple skills and had meaningful work where they could see the fruits of their labour.

In the factories, work was divided into small and simple tasks. How the tasks were to be performed was specified in great detail, with an assumption that there was a single best way to organise the work. Some employees were assigned to manual work (the workers) and some were assigned to mental work (the managers). In this approach, managers made all of the decisions and workers had very little say. An influential advocate of this work was Frederick Taylor, who coined the term Scientific Management, sometimes known as Taylorism. The advantages of Taylorism included much-reduced training times (as the tasks were so narrow) and individuals became highly skilled at completing these small tasks quickly.

Car manufacture - humanfactors101.com

A few years later, Henry Ford created the first assembly lines in order to mass-produce cars. As with Taylorism, individual workers on these production lines completed small tasks, and the assembly line delivered the task to them. These jobs were very repetitive, with low skill variety and low autonomy. The nature of these jobs in the early factories and production lines would have affected the mental and physical health of the workers.

Recognising that a simplification of work had negative effects on employees, a number of strategies for designing or (redesigning) work were developed, the more popular are outlined below:

Job rotation – moving people between different tasks increases skill variety, which makes the job more interesting. It also gives employees a better understanding of the wider workplace, which will help them to be more effective. Job rotation for highly-physical work can also be used to reduce the risk of work-related musculoskeletal disorders (MSDs), especially if different muscles are used in the various tasks that make up the job.

Job enlargement – the job includes a broader range of tasks, and may enable a worker to see the whole job through from start to finish – which provides a higher task identify and more job satisfaction. This strategy can make work feel more meaningful.

However, the above two strategies are quite limited, as they only address one or two characteristics of work. For example, they will have little impact on decision-making responsibility, or on autonomy. The following approaches offer an improvement:

Job enrichment provides additional flexibility by focussing on increasing the employee’s autonomy over the planning and execution of their own work. This allows employees to, for example, make decisions that would previously have been undertaken by a supervisor or manager. This may increase skill variety and job autonomy. The Job Characteristics Model identified five essential ingredients for meaningful, productive and healthy work: skill variety, task identity, task significance, autonomy and task feedback.

Multiskilling involves individuals being given responsibility for a different and wider range of tasks, which broadens competence. This strategy enables people to carry out tasks previously performed by another function. It may combine job enlargement and job enrichment. Fewer people are involved in the tasks, and so this reduces the opportunities for communication errors.

Self-managing teams – this approach takes the job enrichment strategy a step further by enabling the redesign of a group of jobs. This often involves reducing or eliminating the role of the first-line supervisor (although there may be a coordinator or team coach) and the team is responsible for making its own day-to-day decisions. The emphasis moves from people being told what to do, to self-managing what they do and how they do it, within carefully-defined objectives and boundaries. These autonomous work groups have shared goals, for example, working together to support a particular client or project.

In all of the above strategies, several measures must be taken to ensure their success, including – clarity of roles and team boundaries; clear limits to autonomy; careful definition of team tasks; the provision of appropriate technical and non-technical training and a planned review of the implementation.

Work design models and frameworks

One of the most influential theoretical models of work design is the Job Demand-Control Model (Karasek, 1979). High levels of strain (demands) such as work rate and time pressure can lead to work stress or burnout. Low levels of freedom to control and organise work also has negative impacts on physical and mental health. A key idea behind this model is that high levels of control (i.e. autonomy) can to a certain extent act as a buffer from high job demands. The high demands may be felt positively as ‘challenges’, rather than as ‘stress’.

This model has since been enhanced by recent research that shows not all demands are bad for people, and that there are other aspects of work besides control that can help people deal with high demands (such as social support). This is reflected in the Job Demands-Resources Model (Bakker & Demerouti, 2007) which includes a wider range of demands and resources, applicable to many industries. (Resources are essentially the job positives that help people to achieve their goals).

The UK Health and Safety Executive (HSE) produced a set of Management Standards for dealing with work-related stress. They are designed to be useful to all organisations, whatever the size or type. These Management Standards cover six key areas of work design that, if not properly managed, are associated with poor health and wellbeing, lower productivity and increased sickness absence.

The six areas of work design are below. These factors do not always act on their own but often they combine, overlap or interact:

  1. Demands: including issues such as workload, work patterns and the work environment.
  2. Control: how much say the person has in the way they do their work.
  3. Support: including the encouragement, sponsorship and resources provided by the organisation, line management and colleagues.
  4. Relationships: including promoting positive working to avoid conflict and dealing with unacceptable behaviour.
  5. Role: whether people understand their role within the organisation and whether the organisation ensures that they do not have conflicting roles.
  6. Change: how organisational change (large or small) is managed and communicated.

Work design characteristics

There are a number of variables that can be modified in order to improve human performance at work, as well as our physical and mental wellbeing. These factors are known as work design or job characteristics. When you thought about your best job (or worst job!) at the start of this article, you would most likely have considered some of these characteristics. Take a moment to think about which of the following aspects of that work were important to you.

Work Design CharacteristicDescription and examples
Mental or cognitive job demandsWork that requires very high levels of concentration or sustained attention over an extended duration, such as analysing detailed information or making complex decisions. Work which is not cognitively demanding can include tasks that are monotonous, repetitive or don’t require much attention or concentration.
Time pressure or role overloadExcessive time pressures or a demanding workload. Also excessive expectations on new workers or for new tasks. Unreasonable deadlines, or a lack or resources.
Emotional demandsTasks or activities that require workers to show false displays of emotion such as happiness and enthusiasm, even in situations that are frustrating, stressful or provoke anger. Emotionally demanding work can also be those in which workers are exposed to emotionally distressing, sensitive or conflict situations; or having to deliver bad news.
Physical demandsRequires workers to use their body to generate, restrain or absorb forces and movements or expend high levels of energy. This includes repetitive movements or uncomfortable body positions. The risks arising from physical job demands increases when physical activity must be completed in a tight timeframe or in difficult environmental conditions.
Challenging work hoursShift work or irregular working hours that can be difficult to predict. This type of work is associated with a greater risk of fatigue.
Job controlInvolves a worker’s ability to influence what happens in their work environment, as well as make decisions about how their work is done and the objectives they work towards. Job control can include control over work tasks, the work environment, where work is done, how it is done, and freedom from supervision. Support is required to undertake these responsibilities.
Support from othersRefers to the practical assistance and emotional support that managers or co-workers provide on a day-to-day basis, such as providing information and advice, supporting task completion, coaching and mentoring, and helping to solve problems.
Workplace relationshipsRelationships with managers, peers and subordinates can positively or negatively affect the way a worker feels. Take proactive steps towards preventing or minimising conflict as early as possible.
Role clarity,
or role conflict
Role clarity is the degree of certainty with regard to role requirements and responsibilities. Constantly changing requirements, objectives and responsibilities can also result in low role clarity. Low role clarity can lead to confusion about what work activities a worker should be undertaking and what they are required to deliver. Role conflict occurs when a worker is required to perform a role that goes against their personal values or when their job demands are incompatible.
Recognition and rewardRecognition and reward refers to the acknowledgement provided to workers resulting in increased feelings of confidence, pride, and being valued for work contributions. Recognition and reward from supervisors, managers and co-workers can involve encouragement, gratitude, compliments, and other gestures of appreciation, and doesn’t need to involve financial reward.
Organisational justiceRefers to workers’ perceptions of fairness at work and includes procedural and relational fairness. Procedural fairness relates to how procedures are implemented and relational fairness relates to the degree of dignity and respect given to workers.
Organisational change managementPoor management of change processes such as downsizing or relocations can lead to workers feeling anxious and uncertain about aspects of their work or employment status.
Remote or isolated workThis is work that is isolated from the assistance of other people because of the location, time or nature of the work being done. Assistance from other people includes rescue, medical assistance and emergency services.
Violent or traumatic eventsA workplace incident involving exposure to abuse, the threat of, or actual harm that causes fear and distress and can lead to stress and/or a physical injury. This is common amongst groups such as first responders, disaster and emergency services, customer service and defence personnel.
Adapted from “Preventing and managing risks to work-related psychological health”, The State of Queensland 2019.

“How we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives.”

For many of us, a large portion of our days is spent at work.
Are you happy at the place where you are spending so much of your life?
Which of the work design characteristics are optimal in your role?

Annie Dillard, The Writing Life, 1989

Psychosocial hazards

The work design characteristics in the table above are sometimes referred to as psychosocial hazards. In other words, these work design characteristics have the potential to adversely impact an individual’s physical and mental wellbeing. This may occur when a worker perceives that the demands of their work exceed their ability or resources to cope. If this is prolonged and/or severe, it can cause both psychological and physical injury.

Workers are likely to be exposed to a combination of psychosocial hazards and factors – some may always be present, while others only occasionally. Exposure to psychosocial hazards and factors can impact mental and physical health through stress, psychological strain, job burnout, anxiety, depression, muscular aches and pains, irritability, poor concentration and disturbed sleep.

Work design is embedded in the health and safety regulatory frameworks of many countries. This may be within the general duties to protect the health and safety of workers – and others who may be affected by the work. Note that in most legislation, health refers to physical and mental (psychological) health. In some countries or States, there may be specific duties to manage risks to psychological health and safety.

The Health and Safety at Work etc Act 1974 is the primary piece of legislation covering occupational health and safety in Great Britain. This places general duties on employers to do what is ‘reasonably practicable’ to ensure health and safety (which includes mental health).

The Work Health and Safety (WHS) Act in Australia has similar duties. ‘Health’ is defined in the WHS Act as both physical and psychological health. Persons Conducting a Business or Undertaking (PCBU) have a primary duty under the WHS Act to manage risks associated with exposure to hazards arising from work that could result in physical or psychological harm.

. . . the primary duty to ensure, so far as is reasonably practicable, workers and other people are not exposed to psychological health and safety risks arising from the business or undertaking. This duty requires you to ‘manage’ risks to psychological health and safety arising from the business or undertaking by eliminating exposure to psychosocial hazards so far as is reasonably practicable. If it is not reasonably practicable to eliminate them, you must then minimise those risks so far as is reasonably practicable.

Work Health and Safety Act, Australia

Safe Work Australia have produced a factsheet on how to address psychological health risks under the Work Health and Safety (WHS) Act (see Further Resources ).

However, there are benefits of good work design for individuals and organisations beyond compliance with these legal requirements.

Identifying work design hazards

Often, work design may only be considered when there are indications that something isn’t right, such as high levels of burnout, a high turnover of talented people, or frequent near-misses or incidents.

Risk assessment - humanfactors101.com

Many countries have established a risk assessment framework in relation to physical hazards. Work design (or psychosocial) hazards can be managed in much the same way as physical hazards. Similar risk assessment procedures can be used in the identification and control of these hazards in the workplace.

Inadequate work design characteristics may be identified by:

  • Having conversations with workers, supervisors, and health and safety specialists
  • Inspecting the workplace to see how work is carried out (for example: noting any rushing, delays or work backlogs)
  • Noticing how people interact with each other during work activities
  • Reviewing relevant information and records (for example: incident reports, workers’ compensation claims, staff surveys, complaints, absenteeism and staff turnover data, exit interviews)
  • Using focus groups to gather information from workers, supervisors and managers.

The list of work design characteristics in the table above can be used as prompts for these discussions, or may form the basis of an employee survey.

Workplace Health and Safety Queensland (Australia) have produced a risk assessment tool is designed to help employers meet their legal obligations to manage risks associated with psychological injury (see Further Resources). This tool provides a useful structure for an assessment, based around the work design characteristics in the above table.

Designing good work

Despite the extensive research into work design and evidence about the impact of poor work design on physical and mental wellbeing – as well as the impact on human performance – many workplaces do not have optimal work design.

Good work design should focus on all aspects of work. This holistic approach should address the physical, biomechanical, cognitive and psychological characteristics of work. These characteristics are associated with different hazards. Note that some physical hazards in the workplace (such as high noise levels) can contribute to psychological harm.

Work redesign should be considered when directed by a risk assessment, or following an incident, near-miss or a complaint. When someone returns to work following an injury, it may be necessary to redesign the job to accommodate this. Work redesign may also follow an organisational restructure.

This model, presented by Safe Work Australia in the “Principles of Good Work Design“, is a helpful framework to ensure that all hazards from a task are considered during work design.

Key characteristics of work - humanfactors101.com
Key work design characteristics, from Safe Work Australia
(“Principles of Good Work Design” – see Further Resources)

Work design might sometimes require trade-offs or compromises; for example, work that is good from a psychosocial perspective may not be ideal in terms of the biomechanical risks. Technological change has changed the nature of some jobs, for example, by reducing the physical demands and at the same time increasing the cognitive demands. Therefore, the balance of the different characteristics in the above framework may change as the nature of the work changes.

Although the hierarchy of control model was developed to address physical hazards in the workplace, it is also relevant for psychosocial hazards. Work design changes can minimise the risks by substituting the hazard, isolating the hazard from the person or putting in place engineering controls. In many countries, the law requires that this be done so far as is reasonably practicable. Only when substitution, isolation and engineering controls have been applied to minimise the risks should administrative controls be used (such as job rotation, supervision or training – including resilience training).

In the table below, I have provided some example approaches to designing good work for each of the work design characteristics. This is not a complete list, refer to the document published by Workplace Health and Safety Queensland for a more complete list of controls and ways to mitigate the impacts of these characteristics (see Further Resources).

Work Design CharacteristicExample work (re)design controls
Mental or cognitive job demandsAllow more time for difficult or complex tasks (especially for inexperienced workers, or for new tasks). Design the work so that complex tasks are shared by team members. Implement systems to support difficult decisions.
Time pressure or role overloadProvide workers with control over the pace of their work. Monitor workloads during periods of peak demand, and plan for adequate staffing levels. Engage in regular discussion with staff about work expectations, workloads, demands and instructions.
Emotional demandsRoster work activities to ensure workers are not required to approach difficult situations alone. Rotate tasks to reduce exposure and provide breaks from demanding situations. Give workers greater control over decisions that will defuse emotionally demanding situations.
Physical demandsImprove the physical working environment (e.g., reduce manual handling and other physical demands; reduce exposure to noise; increase lighting levels; install barriers to protect workers from assault or disease). Design rosters and shifts to allow adequate rest and sleep.
Challenging work hoursConsult with workers when designing or changing work rosters. Proactively manage fatigue risks. Minimise critical tasks between 0200 and 0600. Ensure rosters allow for 7-8 hours sleep in each 24-hour period. Limit overtime and do not allow workers to regularly exceed a 12-hour shift.
Job controlInvolve workers in decision making around work practices. Implement processes to give workers control over work flow, customer queues, task intake etc. Provide opportunities for workers to have input into the way they do their work, determining work objectives and timeframes.
Support from othersMake it clear who workers are accountable to (either overall or for particular tasks) and where they can go for help. Ensure supervisors are trained in skills for people management and ensure that they have the time and resources to perform supervisory duties.
Workplace relationshipsIdentify design issues that may negatively affect team communication. Develop, implement and enforce a code of conduct. Ensure all managers have the skills to identify and manage conflict. Address workplace conflicts promptly. Clarify team rules, and reward teams.
Role clarity,
or role conflict
Clearly define individual and team roles, responsibilities, reporting structures, KPIs etc. Ensure workers have a current position description, including role purpose, reporting relationships and key duties. Avoid making workers accountable to more than one immediate supervisor.
Recognition and rewardRecognise workers for their ideas and behaviours, as well as for hard work. Provide supervisors and workers with a range of strategies to recognise others. Ensure that feedback is timely, specific, practical, and attributed back to the what, how and why of performance.
Organisational justiceFoster a culture of transparency, openness, respect, fairness and equity. Design and implement procedures consistently across all workers and work groups. Engage workers in the development of policies, procedures and decision-making. Set clear expectations and address issues promptly.
Organisational change managementEnsure systematic approaches for conceiving, planning, developing, implementing and evaluating organisational changes. Implement robust consultation and engagement practices. Change job descriptions to match new duties and tasks. Review team and individual work plans after change.
Remote or isolated workDesign workplace layouts to include physical barriers, monitored CCTV and enhance visibility. Ensure that communication systems in place are suitable for the location. Ensure supervision and monitoring of workers is appropriate (e.g., tracking, lone worker alarms, sign in/sign-out).
Violent or traumatic eventsDesign the physical work environment (e.g., consider security, visibility, separation). Reduce customer frustration through design. Design work to be completed in pairs or teams. Flag files or secure access to them, to avoid exposure to distressing content.
Adapted from “Preventing and managing risks to work-related psychological health”, The State of Queensland 2019.

The work characteristics on which to focus in work (re)design will depend upon the nature of the work. For example, people working in call centres may benefit from increased job control, whereas healthcare workers may require increased emotional support. By reviewing the wider context, it will become apparent which work characteristics are going to be key. And when redesigning work, you should always check that you have not inadvertently introduced new hazards.

Remember that people are different in their needs, for example, not everyone will want (or need) the same work design. Personality, ability, age, gender, and family responsibilities, etc. will shape the work design that is most appropriate for an individual.

Design the job you want: ‘Job crafting’

Job crafting is the creative process of making changes to your own job in order to make it more engaging and meaningful. It is a psychological, social and physical act. There are three main forms that job crafting can take:

  1. Task crafting refers to physical changes to the tasks themselves, such as the number of tasks that make up a job, or the sequence in which they are performed.
  2. Cognitive crafting is about making changes to the way that you think about or interpret these tasks. For example, someone may see their job as a set of discrete parts or as an integrated whole. Someone working for a telecommunications company could reframe their role from simply being about making sales, to connecting people with the rest of the world.
  3. Relational crafting refers to exercising discretion over the people that you interact with in your work.

Job crafting is therefore the physical and cognitive changes individuals make in the task or relational boundaries of their work. It can be undertaken by teams, as well as by individual employees. Rather than seeking a new role elsewhere, job crafting empowers people to make their current job more interesting and fulfilling.

Thinking about the work design characteristics in the tables above – what would you like more of? What would you like to reduce? By using this structure to identify what needs to change, you may be able to suggest practical changes to your work.

There are many options to help you design your own job. You could volunteer for a special project, become an in-house mentor, recognise the achievements of others, introduce yourself to new colleagues, seek learning and development opportunities, or work from a different location occasionally.

“the work tasks and interactions that compose the days, the jobs, and, ultimately, the lives of employees are the raw materials employees use to construct their jobs”

Crafting a Job: Revisioning Employees as Active Crafters of Their Work, Wrzesniewski and Dutton, 2001

Key principles

  1. How work is designed and managed will have a significant impact on human performance.
  2. Work design should be a proactive process, rather then only being addressed after someone suffers from harm or distress.
  3. Work design is a key part of the risk assessment process that employers are required to follow, in order to eliminate or minimise risks to worker health and safety.
  4. Any assessment of work, or changes to the design of work, should involve consultation (not just communication) with those who do the work (the task experts).
  5. Consider the broader systems and practices that support the new work design – for example, selection and recruitment strategies, training needs analysis, remuneration strategies.
  6. Leadership commitment will be key to the success of any initiatives to improve the design and organisation of work.

Further resources

This video by the Centre for Transformative Work Design provides an introduction to work design, why it’s important, and the effects of poor work design.

Case study: Good work through effective design (19 mins). This video shows how the ten principles of good work design can be applied in practice, using real-life industry case studies to improve the health and safety of workers and overall business performance.

Principles of good work design. A work health and safety handbook. Published by Safe Work Australia. This handbook contains ten principles of good work design that can be applied to help support better work health and safety outcomes and business productivity. The principles are deliberately high level and should be broadly applicable across a wide range of businesses and workplaces.

Preventing and managing risks to work-related psychological health. Published by Workplace Health and Safety Queensland, The State of Queensland, Australia, 2019. This is an excellent practical resource that provides suggestions for changes to work design for a wide range of psychosocial (or work design) risks. It also includes a four-step approach to managing these hazards and an outline of the critical success factors when implementing controls. Fully applicable to all countries and industries.

Psychosocial risk assessment tool. Published by Workplace Health and Safety Queensland. This risk assessment tool is designed to help employers meet their legal obligations to manage risks associated with psychological injury. It is designed to be used with the above resource, which contains a set of suggested risk controls for work design risk factors identified in the risk assessment.

Tackling work-related stress using the Management Standards approach: A step-by-step workbook. Published by the UK Health and Safety Executive (HSE), 2019. This workbook will help your organisation meet its legal duty to assess the risks to its employees from work-related stress and gives advice and practical guidance on how to manage work-related stress. It promotes the Management Standards approach to tackling work-related stress – a systematic approach to implementing an organisational procedure for managing work-related stress.

Preventing Psychological Injury Under Work Health and Safety Laws: This Factsheet provides information to Persons Conducting a Business or Undertaking (PCBU) and workers on how to address psychological health risks under the Work Health and Safety (WHS) Act to ensure the health, safety and welfare of all persons at work. Published by Safe Work Australia, May 2014.

Safety implications of self managed teams, Offshore Technology Report OTO 1999/025. Published by the UK Health and Safety Executive (HSE), 1999. This document reviews the literature on self-managed work teams – particularly to consider the implications for health and safety. It provides four case studies of organisations that have implemented self-managed teams to understand the drivers for change, and identify the lessons learned.

Development of a multiskilling life cycle model, Contract Research Report 328/2001. Published by the UK Health and Safety Executive (HSE), 2001. The document provides a review of the different types of multiskilling, and gives examples of how the health and safety aspects of multiskilling are managed in a number of organisations. It also identifies a series of critical success factors for the implementation of a multiskilling intervention.