Job design needs a health-check: Part 2


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

Key findings

Sickness absence improved substantially

Average levels of sickness absence dropped by 40% in Team 1 and 26% in Team 2 between the 12-month period before and after the pilot (Table 1). A significant part of the overall improvement was due to reductions in the number of days lost due to stress/ anxiety/depression/mental health (Table 2). 

Employee engagement

The dates of staff surveys did not precisely match the dates of the pilot. Nearest comparison periods showed overall engagement scores remained slightly below the directorate average for both teams. There was a substantial increase in wellbeing theme scores in Team 1 and the scores for items of support from managers was slightly higher than for benchmarks. 

Managing change effectively:

Six tips to increase employee engagement in times of change

Back to basics... Absence management

Employee relations during organisational change

In Team 2 there was an 8% rise in perceptions of how well change is managed, and a 10% increase in feeling involved in decisions

It is tricky in workplace settings to determine what activities caused changes. This is partly because organisations commonly have numerous initiatives active in parallel and the composition of teams change as staff leave and others join. 

We need to be cautious as there is no certainty how much of the improvement, if any, is due to the pilot intervention. In-depth interviews provided context to the HR metrics and confidence that the pilot had contributed to the headline figures.

Interviews with managers bore testament to the pain that can be involved in facing difficulties head-on. It was tough on managers, they felt criticised for not being flexible depite trying to be.

Perceptions aligned with the survey and audit findings, in particular a sense of passivity among staff – an attitude of ‘it’s being done to us; we have no say’.

There were some easy wins where it was clear legacies of previous team leaders created unnecessary tensions. For example, where rules were changed to allow greater interaction among workers.

There was recognition that staff had ‘not been treated as adults,’ deterring communication and flow of ideas. Opportunities for managers and staff to voice their concerns were seen as the most important outputs. These weren’t solely a place to vent, they also provided a space to generate ideas and agree priorities. 

Active encouragement to voice frustrations, pitch ideas and action solutions had fostered a more positive culture of creative problem-solving. 

Listening to staff had become embedded as ‘business as usual’. The study found the pilot’s initial success may be, in part, the way that all the various change initiatives were integrated at the outset by the team leaders.

From research to reality

This study matters as employers seek additional ways to improve wellbeing on top of employee assistance programmes, coaching support and gym memberships. Important though individual offers are, organisations shouldn’t overlook the human dimensions of change

We found that people-centred approaches to ways of working and job design can have wellbeing benefits. The pilot teams made wellbeing a collective responsibility and found their employees reacted well to transparency and dialogue.

If your HR team has introduced a suite of employee wellbeing programmes but still has unhappy staff and high sickness absence, is it time to look at more systemic ways of working and how change is managed in your organisation? 

● Provide wellbeing support for whole teams not just individuals

● Don’t shape job design decisions too early. When people have time to discuss and come up with their own suggestions, the possibilities are greater.

● Leadership must create a climate where employee wellbeing matters.

● Put a protective layer of change readiness around your teams to reduce the fear of the unknown factor and maintain positive psychological wellbeing. 


This piece appears in the November/December 2022 issue of HR magazine. Read Part 1 first. 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.