Making Work a Cornerstone of Your Health: How a Fulfilling Job Helps You—and Your Boss—Succeed

Team exhibiting healthy work

Work Systems Engineer Katherine Sanders, PhD helps companies ensure their systems are sustainably effective. Unlike most industrial engineers, however, Sanders doesn’t analyze the best way to produce things. Instead, as human factors engineer, she looks at the impact making those things has on the mental and physical health of the people involved.

With more than 100 years of research on the effects of work on employees, Sanders says there is plenty of evidence to draw upon when it comes to employee satisfaction and engagement—and how it relates to our health.

How did you get interested in “healthy” work?

When I was in graduate school studying occupational stress the research spoke to me at a deep level. I thought back on all the jobs I’d had and the effect of those jobs on my health.  And I thought about my family members, and how their work experiences had impacted their health as well as our family dynamic.  So this topic—what aspects of work put people at risk for illness and what aspects promote health—has personal meaning to me.

It made me wonder if employers were aware of the impact their decisions were having on people every day. If they understood that choices they make really shape the lives of their colleagues. What I discovered is that most leaders are learning as they go. Most of them aren’t exposed to this research before they take on responsibility for others.

How does healthy work benefit an employee?

Our job helps us meet our needs as human beings. It doesn’t just pay our bills and feed our families, although those are needs we all have. Work can also give our lives meaning and purpose. It provides structure to our lives, and a social environment where we can connect with people.  When our work is designed well, we grow intellectually, emotionally, even spiritually. At its best, our work can be an extension of ourselves that we offer to the world.

Maslow's Hiearchy of Needs and healthy work

Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, created in 1943, still rings true today. Human beings have a whole host of needs. When we move beyond survival, we focus on meeting our higher-order needs for love, belonging, esteem and self-actualization.
Work is one of the few areas of life that has the potential to meet all of our needs! It shows how powerful work can be in our lives—and how heartbreaking it can be for people when they cannot get their needs met in their workplace or career.

How does a healthier work system benefit employers?

Healthy work increases the probability that employees will be engaged and that they will sustainably produce high-quality products or services. It makes space for creativity and innovation. It also lowers the risk of absenteeism, presenteeism, injuries, illnesses, accidents, near-misses and turnover.

We get into trouble when we design work for machines and then ask people to do it. That just doesn’t work. People aren’t machines. We are so much more complex. When work isn’t designed with human beings in mind, it makes us feel alienated, invisible, expendable, used-up. And that causes physical and psychological distress.

That’s why going through your work system’s design and asking at each point, “How does this aspect of our work promote health?” would be a good lens from which to operate.

There is a quote attributed to Sigmund Freud: “Love and work are the cornerstones of our humanness.” I totally agree with that sentiment. Just as much as we want to love and be loved, we also want to feel we are contributing to this world—and are appreciated for it.

How do you help employers improve their work systems?

I work predominantly with employers because their decisions impact many other people every day. But the easiest way to learn about the health of a system is to ask the folks doing the work. The leadership may or may not be connected to the daily experience of their workforce.

The most common workplace stressor is chronic overload due to chronic understaffing. Many workplaces have undergone multiple cuts over the last 20 years. Now just a few people do work that many used to do.  That might work for a period of time, but long-term it is a pathway to exhaustion and illness.

Sometimes redesigning the work system can help address these issues—for example, designing work for teams instead of individuals or easing the workload by reducing the amount of documentation and unnecessary tasks. (Again, the folks doing the work are in the best position to identify the parts of the process that add little value.) But efficiency studies can only take us so far.  It’s possible to be too LEAN.

It’s an unpopular conversation to have, but sometimes the answer has to be to hire more people or for companies to reduce the number of products or services they offer while keeping staffing stable.

Doesn’t higher pay make people happier?

When leaders learn about the research on healthy work, they see that “carrot-and-stick” approaches to employee performance don’t contribute to health and happiness—though inadequate pay can make people stressed. Initiatives like incentive pay systems, electronic performance monitoring and even some incentivized “wellness” programs do not promote engagement.

Instead, employers can direct their energy and resources to designing work that has a lower risk for poor mental and physical health outcomes. They can look into whether people’s workloads are appropriate and sustainable, for example, and ensure that they have time on the job to rest and recover.

What can employees do to improve their own work lives?

The stress of not being able to pay our bills will distract us from most everything else that life and work have to offer. So working for a fair wage –an adequate wage—is an important issue for a lot of us.

Yet, while making money is foundational, we have conflated it with our own sense of identity and self-esteem.  Once we have enough money for peace of mind, we can put more energy into connecting with others, contributing our creativity and growing professionally and spiritually.

For example, if my job is just okay, pays the bills and is “enough” for now, I might put more energy into meeting my needs for social support and growing my leadership skills by proposing and leading a company softball team. Those things will provide me with a greater sense of connection and self-esteem. Or if growth at my job isn’t a priority right now, I might take on more responsibility at my church or community garden.

If my job is great and I’m really engaged, I also want to get some clarity about why it’s great and what would make it greater.  If I am clear about what’s working already, and what would lead to even greater health, I can talk to my boss in a balanced and positive way.  (If your boss is doing a good job, I’m sure he or she would love to hear that from you.  Bosses are people too!)

On the other hand, if your job is draining your energy and you don’t know why, it’s time to evaluate what is happening and what needs to change.

A reference point might be to consider Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs (see above) and ask, “Which of my needs are being met and what am I still hungry for?”  If you can articulate your needs more clearly to your supervisor and yourself, you have a better chance of attaining them.

Katherine Sanders, PhD is a work systems engineer who helps professionals create healthier working lives for themselves and those they lead. The founder and CEO of Sanders Consulting, Katherine also designs and teaches educational programs based on research evidence about what makes work healthy and productive. She has a BS, MS and PhD in industrial engineering from the University of Wisconsin‑Madison.

Do You Have Healthy Work?

Wondering if your job is health-promoting?  Here are some things to consider:

Appropriate workload
Most days, can you complete your assignments within the time you are given?

Do you get to make meaningful decisions about what work you do, or how or when you do it?

Social support
Do you feel comfortable asking your supervisor and/or coworkers for help when you need it?

Progress toward meaningful goals
On most days do you feel like you are making a meaningful contribution and getting closer to the goals you have set for yourself?

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