The art of job crafting: designing roles to support employee wellbeing

23 June 2023

It’s not hard to spot when someone’s struggling in their role: sloppy work, missing their KPIs, regularly showing up late to work. We can be quick to assume that they are unmotivated, a bad employee, or even lazy. But before you begin the performance management process, dig a bit deeper. Could poor job design be at the root of the problem?

By making thoughtful adjustments to how, when, where, and by whom the work is done, you can boost wellbeing and potentially stop a valuable employee from up and leaving.

Why job design often fails to support wellbeing

There are numerous reasons why job design can be misaligned. Here are the most common we see:

  1. Unrealistic skill sets. We’ve all seen those roles that are looking for the “super person”. The marketing/graphics/web/social/video/strategic person who can also do a bit of analytics on the side. These unicorn roles are overly ambitious and set people up for failure.
  2. Excessive volume of work. Excessive workloads, unrealistic deadlines, long working hours, and conflicting priorities can lead to stress and burnout. No matter how well-suited someone is to a role, if the volume of work exceeds capacity, your people are unlikely to thrive.
  3. Promotions and organic changes to roles. One of the most common scenarios we see is when someone leaves or is promoted, their role is split up among the team “temporarily” until a replacement is found. Sometimes this replacement is never found and these tasks are “absorbed” by their team. This not only causes job overload, but if the tasks aren’t within someone’s skill set, it can affect performance and wellbeing and contribute to burnout.

The fundamentals of good job design

Good job design is more than writing a solid position description. It is a combination of factors that, when executed correctly, can motivate people to deliver exceptional work while supporting their wellbeing.

The work design for health framework, a Harvard and MIT research-for-action initiative,

outlines the different work conditions that affect employee wellbeing, including:

  • How the work is performed
  • The physical working environment
  • The capabilities and needs of staff

Job characteristics

Skill variety, task identity, and task significance are integral in fostering meaningful work experiences for employees. Skill variety allows people to use a wide range of their abilities, making work more stimulating and avoiding the risk of burnout from monotonous tasks. Task identity and task significance enable employees to see a clear beginning and end to their work, and understand how their specific contributions add value to the bigger picture.

Building in opportunities for development and growth is vital, and is becoming more important, especially for Gen Z. This should be built into individual job design as well as broader organisational design, including succession planning.

Autonomy and control

This relates to an individual’s ability to control the physical, emotional, and cognitive demands of their work. For example, high demands such as time pressure and low control over prioritisation, delegation, or capacity management might impact stress levels.

Autonomy and control includes involving staff in the day-to-day decisions that impact their work, including providing employees with opportunities to identify and solve workplace problems.

McKinsey cites numerous studies that show job control—the amount of discretion employees have to determine what they do and how they do it—has a major impact on their physical health.

Autonomy empowers employees, giving them a sense of control and ownership over their work. AHRI’s report The State of Wellbeing in Australian Workplaces 2019-2022 found workers in job roles with more autonomy were more likely to report they were “consistently thriving”.

Resources and management. This includes providing staff with enough resources and the right tools to do the job. Work structure issues can contribute to fatigue and stress, including unrostered overtime, unpredictable rosters and unachievable workloads. Keeping your organisation adequately staffed, including suitable rosters and manageable employee workloads, is vital for employee wellbeing.

It is important that work demands are realistic in a way that balances the needs of the staff as well as the organisation. It also requires appropriate management support, including ongoing two-way feedback, communication and consultation.

Prioritising rest in the new era of flexible work

It’s positive to see more and more companies offering greater flexibility such as work from anywhere policies, four-day work weeks, and scheduling around school hours. But have we reached a point of over-flexibility, where people are unable to fully turn off from work mode?

Having proper rest and downtime is crucial to mental and physical wellbeing. People can’t do this if they feel like their workload is too heavy or if they have to make up for lost time due to flexibility.

From a job design perspective, it’s important to make sure someone’s role allows them to switch off completely:

  • How can you design redundancy into your team so people feel able to take a proper break?
  • Do you have multiple people that know how processes work, or is it landing on one individual?
  • Do your processes actually support flexibility? Many organisations want to offer flexibility but haven’t modified role requirements to enable this flexibility to happen in practice. For example, you might offer Fridays off, but then require managers to sign off work by the end of the week.

Whether you call flexibility a four-day work week or some other sort of arrangement, it’s essential that people genuinely have downtime – that they’re not cramming the same amount of work into less time.

Mastering the art of job design

It’s all well and good in theory to let people choose how, where, and what they work on. But in reality, this is a recipe for chaos and failure. After all, certain things need to get done in order for your team and organisation to succeed.

Designing jobs to support wellbeing doesn’t mean you neglect the needs of the company.

It isn’t about giving your people free rein on their jobs, letting them pick and choose what to work on and letting undesirable tasks fall by the wayside. It’s about creating a role that aligns with their skills, interests and purpose, while meeting the needs of the organisation.

Here are a few practical ideas on how to do that.

  • Be realistic: Are you likely to find someone who has all the skills you’re looking for? Or are you better off splitting the role or hiring a freelancer for one-off tasks? Is that person realistically able to do the amount of work set? Design jobs to be fair and to be reasonable with someone’s working hours, skills and capacity.
  • Combine similar skills: What are the core skills needed? Don’t expect someone to have advanced finance skills and also be able to design your marketing materials.
  • Work to people’s strengths: A strengths-based approach to job design not only boosts performance and engagement, but also promotes job satisfaction and reduces turnover by allowing employees to utilise their natural talents and abilities.
  • Focus on the how: Job design isn’t just about tasks and responsibilities – it’s also how work gets done. If you can’t be flexible with what gets done, be flexible with how it gets done. Where feasible, let people choose how they get things done.
  • Remove frustration: Does it take 27 steps to get a simple task done? Look into streamlining processes to remove some of the frustrations that might exist. Make sure you have alignment across policies, workflow, resourcing, and job design.
  • Regularly review workloads, rosters and resources and distribute workload and responsibilities equitably: This will help avoid overburdening people and ensure there aren’t people who feel as if they can never take time off.
  • Enable skills development and job variation: Skills pathways should be built into individual job design to enable people to build on capabilities and experience variation in tasks.

The importance of employee-driven job design

We recently worked with a company that designated 9-12 as “deep work” time – people weren’t allowed to disturb anyone during that time. It meant that some members of staff were left hanging for hours with unanswered questions and were unable to progress their work. This staff member ended up leaving the organisation due to frustration and inability to progress in his work.

It’s worth noting that this company was trying to do the right thing but they were perhaps a little rigid in their approach. Instead of having the whole three hours blocked off, they could have allowed individuals to structure their day in a way that works for them, selecting from a few options that helped them reduce disruptions and improve productivity.

This example shows the value of listening to people (through things like stay surveys or exit interviews) to check if things are working for each individual.

Bake wellbeing into job design for maximum results

No matter how good your wellbeing perks are, they won’t mean much if you don’t get job design right. If your people are busy stressing out about a job that they don’t have the skills to do, or are working excessive overtime, they won’t have time to take advantage of that free gym membership or company retreat you’re offering.

Good job design, like most things in the workplace, doesn’t work with a one-size-fits-all approach. Each role comes with its unique demands and challenges, and what works for one might not work for another. Taking the time to adapt job design according to each individual role’s requirements will not only promote wellbeing, it will also improve performance, engagement, and overall job satisfaction.

Job design is one of the most important factors to get right in keeping your people engaged, motivated and productive. Download our report: The 7 Pillars of Retention for more ideas on how to keep your people happily employed for the long run.

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