Job design needs a health-check: Part 1


What can HR specialists do if, after introducing a suite of employee wellbeing programmes, they still have unhappy staff and high sickness absence? This consideration sat at the centre of a study commissioned by the Resettlement, Asylum Support and Integration Directorate (RASI) of the UK’s Home Office. Research evidence links poorly designed work with higher sickness absence and lower perceived job engagement. Introducing better job design therefore should help improve wellbeing.

Our real-time study observed a pilot intervention over 18 months, taking actions to change systemic ways of working followed by changes to each person’s job. Two service delivery teams (180 in total) participated, and after one-year, average levels of sickness absence had dropped by 40% in Team 1 and 26% in Team 2. In-depth interviews found that listening and giving people a voice were key success factors.

If there is an EAP, wellbeing courses and gym discounts in place but employees are still feeling low – it might be time to look at job design instead, finds Alison Carter and Sally Wilson

What’s new

Job design is important because it influences efficiency; the sense it makes to job holders; job satisfaction; how jobs relate within a team; and how beneficial (or harmful) a job is to health. Nearly all workers want and expect some tangible control over their work life and it’s tricky for time-poor managers to balance this with getting work done. 

Better jobs means better business:

We have a duty to redesign jobs

Report sets out how work quality should be measured

How workers can manage both health and productivity

Examples of how to create a collective culture of wellbeing are rare – this is one. Integrating the levers of effective teamworking and better job design is also a novel approach to employee wellbeing.

The pilot initiative adopted an innovative system-wide approach (no HR or manager silo working), which was designed to: 

● Recognise everyone has a role to play in change

● Bring people together as a team to solve problems

● Enable honest conversations around what does and does not work 

● Democratise decision-making, underpinned by the message that people’s wellbeing matters

There were three main stages to implementation. Firstly, senior leaders sought data and put energy behind the message that wellbeing matters. An evidence-based health and wellbeing audit and survey was carried out, providing clear indicators on what worked well and what needed to improve.

Separate action plans were developed by both teams that included: a visual plan with upcoming milestones and key dates; a ‘you said, we did’ board to demonstrate manager activity based on staff feedback; weekly 15-minute sessions on topics including mindfulness, gratitude and stress relief; existing staff workshops used as idea-generating forums, integrating with the wellbeing pilot; a development scheme to build first line manager capability; and mapping local requirements against corporate training programmes already on offer, for example in building resilience and emotional intelligence.

Secondly, an event for line managers explained the principles, evidence base and potential benefits behind job design options.

Senior leaders led discussions and action planning, line managers spent the following four months reviewing what job redesign options might better support their direct reports, and actioning any changes indicated. Line managers were empowered to explore traditional options (e.g. job enrichment, enlargement and rotation) as well as job crafting (bottom-up job redesign).

Finally, half-day wellbeing and change interactive workshops invited staff and managers from both teams. Discussion included how individuals can help themselves and each other, emphasising that there should not be sole reliance on the line management chain to build an individual’s resilience; rather, everyone should think about how they can influence change and their personal response to it. 

After the workshops and in recognition that staff had voiced concerns around change overload/change fatigue, a people’s group for staff was formed and another for leaders to take forward their own ideas and articulate improvement suggestions; for example, the way busy leave periods, such as Christmas, are managed and by opening development opportunities. These groups continue beyond the pilot to talk, share and identify what would make a difference in supporting each other through current and future change. 

The research spanned 2018 and 2022 and the pilot took place over 18 months during 2018-2019. 


This piece appears in the November/December 2022 issue of HR magazine. Check back tomorrow for Part 2. Subscribe now to get all the latest issues delivered to your desk.


Böckerman, P, Bryson, A, Kauhanen, A & Kangasniemi, M (2020). Does Job Design Make Workers Happy? Scottish Journal of Political Economy, Vol. 67, No. 1, 31-52

Carter, A (2019). Infographic: Change-capable teams, Institute for Employment Studies,

Daniels K, Gedikli C, Watson D, Semkina A & Vaughn, O (2017). Job design, employment practices and well-being: A systematic review of intervention studies. Ergonomics, Vol. 60, No. 9, 1177–1196

About the authors

Alison Carter has a doctorate and is principal research fellow at the Institute for Employment Studies where she leads research and consultancy on change, leadership and coaching. Recent work includes comparing results of team based/collective versus traditional individual focused programmes.

Sally Wilson has a doctorate and is a senior research fellow at the Institute for Employment Studies where she specialises in workplace health and wellbeing including mental health and occupational stress. She has led studies of wellbeing interventions in the health, transport and higher education sectors.