Health, Work, and Healthy Work: Human Factors Engineering

Basic needs
Katherine Sanders
 is a human factors engineer. She specializes in sociotechnical systems, essentially what makes work meaningful and healthy for people. She explains, “It’s a small, specialized field that most folks, even other engineers, have never heard of.” We met Katherine as part of our Working Lives Project. She runs workshops and consults in workplaces to help organizations and individuals learn how work either supports health or leads people toward illness.  Ergonomics is part of her background, the study of people’s efficiency in their working environment. But instead of designing physical work places or products, she focuses on the psychological and social aspects of work, and the impacts work has on personal health.  She is passionate about what she does: “I care about how the work gets done and its quality, and I care just as much about the health and well-being of the people doing the work.”

In this essay, Katherine gives us a glimpse into her world, what motivates her, and her Top 5 list for creating work systems that promote health and meaning, as well as productivity and efficiency. 

Health, Work, and Healthy Work: Human Factors Engineering

by Katherine Sanders

I love my work.  Love.  And I love to learn about other folks’ work experiences because my work is my calling. It is to help people create working lives they love.  Working lives that are rewarding and life-affirming.  Working lives that make their lives healthier.

My bachelors degree from UW-Madison is in industrial and systems engineering (ISE).  This is the traditional math, statistics and analytical problem solving that we use to set up manufacturing systems – how we produce stuff.  How machines work.  How processes are resourced and staffed. 

The meaningfulness in my own work comes when I can help people improve their own working lives. My masters and doctorate focused on occupational stress. I looked at what happens when work systems don’t meet people’s needs. This includes physical, physiological, emotional, intellectual, and social needs. Engineers with my background usually become university faculty or stress researchers in government agencies like the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH).  But for me, explaining and modeling unhealthy work systems isn’t enough. I want to support people in putting the research to work.

We know from our lived experience what makes work stressful and draining. We all have stories of dysfunctional and depressing office dynamics, myself included.  Some of us have worked in offices where adults cry from shame and frustration.  You might have read the August 15 NYT article about the “bruising” work culture of Amazon.  The Times received a huge response because many of us can relate.  

For many folks, it’s a revelation to learn that there is research in occupational health.  In fact, there is more than 100 years of research evidence on work’s impact on health, creativity and productivity. I believe that if people knew that this information were available to them, they’d put it to good use.  They’d make their own working lives more humane and promote health for their colleagues.

Our daily experiences at work make up our lives, week by week, year by year.  And these experiences directly impact our physical and mental health. I believe that NYT article is particularly important because it treated the employee’s experience carefully, with the importance it deserves.  It was on the front page of the newspaper, not buried in the back, and it drew attention to what we all know: Our working lives are not separate from the rest of our lives. 

So…what do people need from work?

My first answer is: A whole host of things, and these needs vary over the course of a person’s life.  A widely accepted framework called Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs explains that people’s needs and desires shift as needs are met. Our needs are not static, just as our lives are always changing.

star-recreate-tm-colorWhat’s so magical about work is that it can help us meet any and/or all of our basic needs!  A well-designed job can help you meet your needs for security, safety, belonging, esteem and self-actualization.  A poorly designed job can impede your ability to meet any or all of these needs.  And worse, over time it can do you mental and physical harm. 

We know from experience, and from the research evidence, that chronic stress isn’t good for us.  We can feel its impact. So let’s try to boil down decades of research about healthy work into a short list.  What promotes health at work?  Here are my top five:

  • Workload – an amount of work that someone can accomplish well within a reasonable amount of time. Workload comes in a few forms – intellectual, creative, emotional and physical.  Setting a sustainable workload (not overwhelming people nor boring them) is one of the big challenges for organizations and entrepreneurs!
  • Autonomy – people need to feel in control of their lives. If you can give them control over what work they do, how they do it, when or where they do it, most people will respond positively. Design flexibility into your work system whenever possible.
  • Social Support – feeling that others will help you if you ask them, and that you are cared about as a person as well as a colleague. The most important relationship you have at work is with your direct supervisor.  If this relationship is not supportive, it causes a lot of stress.  A negative relationship with a supervisor is the strongest predictor of intention to quit.
  • Meaning – people must find meaning in their work. We are meaning-making animals.  Helping employees see the big picture and experience how their work affects others in a significant way is essential for health.
  • Feedback – getting information directly from clients (not interpreted through supervisors) about how your work affected them and what you can do to enhance or expand your services.

If we all knew more about what creates health and sustainable productivity, I believe we’d see fewer stories of despair, like those shared by former Amazon employees.  Ideally, more people would thrive at work and in their lives, producing more and better products and services, feeling appreciated and rewarded in their efforts.

I’d love to hear what you have to say about your work. It is sometimes easier to name the problems, but what about the things that are supporting your needs? What do you love? What makes work enlivening for you?  

You can find me at My leadership series for healthy work is called BeEffective, and I’m talking about work on Facebook at I am also excited to be part of the Working Lives Project and the forthcoming ShopTalk speakers program. I’d love to come talk with you and your group. Stay tuned here to learn more when ShopTalk launches later this fall!



Coming Soon: Shop Talk, a Working Lives Project

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Let’s talk about work! Coming this fall, a Working Lives Project speakers series. Do you call it Art? Or is it the Humanities? What is the difference? Does it matter?Getting to know the Wisconsin poet Lorine Niedecker in her world.


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