by Katherine Sanders, PhD
The New Year is a season of promises. Many of us pledge to make improvements in our lives. And, of course, many of our promises are about health. (I’m procrastinating even as I write this – I should be on my way to the gym!)
Your health promises might be like mine, focused on something you know directly impacts your well-being, such as what you eat and how often you move.
But there is another area of life that also has a direct impact on health – work. Most of us spend the majority of our waking lives working. That work experience shapes our mental and physical health. It either supports or erodes our self-esteem and sense of belonging. If you’ve worked in an unhealthy work system, you’ve lived this. It can be a visceral experience.
What most people don’t realize is that we can design work to promote health. There are decades of research on work’s impact on health. We know how. So when the WHC invited me to refresh this article from last year, I jumped at the chance. I’m eager to reach as many people as I can with this message: Work can be healthy for you. And you deserve healthy work.
It’s been a pleasure to be part of the Shop Talk speaker series. I’ve enjoyed talking with people from diverse professions and career stages. What unites us is our interest in creating healthier working lives for ourselves and our colleagues.
What would 2017 be like for you if one of your resolutions was to increase the health of your working life?
Health, Work, and Healthy Work: Human Factors Engineering
I love my work. Love. And I love to learn about other folks’ work experiences because my work is helping people create healthier working lives for themselves. 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. This is the traditional math, statistics and analytical problem solving that we use to set up manufacturing systems – how we produce things. My degree taught me how to design work systems for machines, and how processes are resourced and staffed.
It wasn’t until graduate school that I learned how to design work systems for people. My masters and doctorate focused on occupational stress. I looked at what happens when work systems don’t meet people’s needs (physical, physiological, emotional, intellectual, and social needs). Engineers with my background usually become university faculty or government researchers in agencies like the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH). But for me, studying and modeling unhealthy work systems isn’t the most meaningful part. I want to support people in putting the research to work, so they live healthier and more fulfilling lives.
We know from 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 so many of us can relate.
It might be a revelation to learn that there is more than 100 years of research evidence on work’s impact on health, creativity and productivity. Researchers understand what promotes health. But there is a gap between researchers, the professions, and the world of work. I believe that if all of us knew that this information, we’d put it to good use. We’d make our own working lives more humane and promote health for our colleagues.
Our daily experiences at work make up our lives, week by week, year by year. And these experiences strongly impact our physical and mental health. 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 shift over time, as our lives are always changing.
What I find so compelling about work is that it can help us meet any and/or all of our 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 and responsiveness into your work system whenever possible. “Fairness” isn’t the same as standardization.
- 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 beings. 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. This type of feedback feeds meaning, responsibility and creativity.
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. What do you love about it? What makes work enlivening for you? What do you want more of in this new year?
You can find me at firstname.lastname@example.org. My leadership series for healthy work systems is called BeEffective, and I’m talking about work on Facebook at https://www.facebook.com/beeffectiveeseries. I am delighted to be part of the Working Lives Project and the ShopTalk speakers program. If you’d like to start a conversation about healthy work, I’d love to come talk with you and your group.
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