Using job design as a tool for reducing employee stress, improving retention rates, and enhancing engagement within the workplace

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Despite the increased organisational focus on wellbeing, research highlights that ‘Job quality is in decline for many’ CIPD (2023) and ‘employee engagement at an all-time low’ Gallup (2023). Whilst initially lauded as an answer, recent research conducted by the University of Oxford (2023) also concluded that some solutions designed to address employee health are having little impact. 

Why is the wellbeing of our employees not improving despite the increased focus of efforts and budget and what is the piece of the puzzle that we are missing?

How have we got here?

Many of us are still working in post-pandemic, hurried work environments, continuing along the hybrid path, or finding ourselves in roles solely working remotely with no office to call ‘home.’

In this period of change one thing is true, the last four years have seen a huge shift in how our organisations operate. We are all dealing with new levels of complexity that we did not have pre-2020.

The adaption to the changing operating environment has caused much employee tension. Tension influenced by the increased use of technology, lack of face-to-face contact with others, impact of working with reduced definition between work and home, alongside record musculoskeletal problems, in part due to computer working.

Whilst the discussions of the pandemic may have quietened, the legacy, and its impact upon our employee health and wellbeing still ripples on. 

Back to basics

When is the last time you reviewed a job description or had an honest conversation about headcount for a department? A conversation not prompted by a restructure, downsize or due to the reacting to the urgent need to replace a leaver. The suggestion here, and possible missing piece of the wellbeing puzzle, is to use job design as a proactive business improvement tool for reducing employee stress, improving retention rates, and enhancing engagement within the workplace. 

To give our employees the best chance of achieving success – of feeling valued and motivated – we need to go back to basics. We need to review what success looks like for the roles we have within our organisations by using Job Design. This is key before we start to look (and pay) elsewhere for wellbeing solutions. 

Job design for Health and Wellbeing

Job design has moved on from the days of the industrial focus of Taylorism and is now, not just focused on the efficiencies of a role – it is an analysis of a broader range of factors that include job quality and fulfilment. It is more than focusing on what tasks are completed, but also includes the why and how too. 

If we go back to basics of designing job roles and analysing what, why and how the job needs to be done, we also start to factor in additional information that includes resources, levels of support, key relationships, and success measures. Essential elements that can create an opportunity to reduce the areas of tension an employee may feel, encourage a positive emotional and physical state for them and build productive working relationships within our organisation.

Where to start

Effective job design starts with enquiry, asking questions that enable the role to be justified and designed based upon business need. Here are three suggested questions to consider when conducting your job analysis:

  1. What does our organisation need from the role? 

The first question is the opportunity to map out the purpose of the role within the structure of the organisation and the responsibilities that it needs to fulfil. Roles and responsibilities may change over time with shifts due to product/service changes or business focus. Conversations and research here may involve others with the aim to provide clarity on the current needs of the role, from an honest perspective and not influenced by what the job description currently highlights. Considering the day-to-day duties and its essential links in fulfilling the business needs.

Sometimes it can be a challenge to think of a role objectively, especially if there are relationship dynamics internally, so it can be useful to reflect upon the situation if the role did not exist, what gaps would be left and how this would impact business operations. Considering the essential nature and urgency of the role can help to have a fresh perspective on responsibilities. 

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Answers to this question can provide a ‘line of sight’ on the purpose within the structure of the organisation, It is worth highlighting further how key establishing a clear and up to date job description is as it also contributes to a broader impact through the various stages of the employee lifecycle that includes recruitment, retention and succession planning. 

  1. What resources are needed to get the job done? 

Once there is clarity on the job purpose and key tasks the next step is to identify the tools that are needed to ensure value and success to the job holder. Resources here can be tangible and intangible with the essential and desirable qualities relating to knowledge and skills quite often shown on a person specification document. It is best practice to provide insight into the range of resources that need to be in place for an individual to have the best possible chance of success within their role. 

Tangible – The physical tools required to fulfil a role here should be established. A big help here is to ask the current job holder what is needed. An example here and a big area of employee tension can be IT. Post pandemic we are more reliant on technology. A lack of skill and unreliable IT can cause much stress so to consider how we can ensure our employees have the necessary and supportive equipment and knowledge to achieve their responsibilities. Do not forget the importance of desks and computer chairs. Ill health due to poor posture can be a preventable and avoidable cost to the organisation (it also has an impact beyond the organisation as a cost to the NHS) 

Intangible – Areas to consider here that impact upon an employee’s wellbeing include the reduction in ambiguity of their responsibilities and sphere of decision making, clarity of the job purpose across the organisation and how it aligns to the overall structure. What vehicles are created for employees to share experiences, offer improvements and continuously improve openly and respectfully. These opportunities add to their own sense of value and purpose. It is important here to also clarity of measures of success for the role and how this contributes to a line-of-sight purpose that contributes to feelings of wellbeing. 

Ensuring our employees have the tools to do their job gives them the best chance of success and reduces areas of tension and conflict. A job description outlining how the organisation will support them to do their job and guidance on key relationships and success measures adds more value than one with a list of outdated tasks. 

  1. Are the expectations of the role sustainable?

Workplaces are busy, with reduced headcounts, increasingly global competitive markets and customer expectations that are ever changing this can cause daily challenges for our organisations. Establishing whether the level of job tasks currently required and can they be sustained over a long amount of time is important. There are constant reports of burnout, and organisations have a duty of care to mitigate the impact we may have on our employees as well as keeping that watchful eye on the financial bottom line. 

Consider the realistic levels of what good looks like in performance, including some capacity for stretch and development and how you would measure this is important to. Reflecting upon the long-term expectations of the job, beyond the current set up, and if these are not realistic considering the impact they may contribute to ill health. Job creep happens, expectations that were short term or part of employee good will can have impact upon performance and wellbeing if not addressed.

In a recent conversation it became known that a long-standing employee has been expected to take on additional responsibilities due to a member of the team going on maternity and tasks needing to be covered. At the end of the maternity cover the employee did not return and the long-standing employee absorbed those roles and responsibilities without any discussion or compensation. After a period working to the new expectations, it caused stress to the employee, and they started to feel that they were set up to fail in the role. They resigned, with the loss of 15 years’ worth of tacit knowledge at a job they used to enjoy. The cost to the organisation of recruitment and onboarding could have been avoided by proactively reviewing the job role and acknowledging the impact upon the employee rather than the need to seek their replacement. 

Next steps

Without the luxury of time and budget to start from scratch a practical approach is to prioritise roles based upon need. Organisational data that relates to absence, turnover and performance is key in enabling you to identify trends and areas of focus. For example, are there regular or high absence for any departments or roles, what are the most common causes of absence or are there any roles that are failing to achieve their targets? Answers here can help you to prioritise your efforts. 

It is worth noting we may not like the answer we get from conducting job analysis! Who is brave enough to ask for increased recruitment budget during our economic challenges if you discover the need for increased headcount? It is worth highlighting that short term costs can help to minimise the greater longer-term impact to the organisation of poor productivity and long-term absence. It is also worth considering the alternatives to headcount changes, there may be opportunities for tasks to be divided another way across the organisation or there may be expectations to measure the impact of the improved job clarity in more effective recruitment and retention practices. 

Reviewing the foundations of job design is an important exercise, and often forgotten step to identify solutions to our employee wellbeing. Sometimes we are too quick to outsource our wellbeing needs when we may have piece of the piece of the wellbeing puzzle within our control. Asking ‘Have we designed the job right?’ enables organisations the best chance of creating a positive and lasting impact upon on their employee’s health and wellbeing.

About the author:

With a corporate background gained in a range of sectors and recent work experience implementing a wellbeing accreditation programme delivered through the West Midlands Combined Authority and designed in conjunction with Health Education England, Davina Jenkins has a particular area of interest in identifying the opportunities to improve the employee lifecycle through wellbeing and empowering individuals to bring their whole self to work. Alongside her role at Falmouth University as a tutor for Wellbeing and Professional Development she also champions UK and international business leaders and HR practitioners to develop professionally through the CIPD HR qualifications for Reed Learning.

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