Jobs and the Future of Work

Building a healthy workplace: 5 steps to worker well-being 

This article first appeared on MIT Sloan School of Management.
employee well-being, shown here through these employees smiling in their workplace, must be prioritized. MIT and Harvard experts have developed a new toolkit to help create a healthy work environment

'Healthy employees have fewer health care expenses, are more productive, and have lower rates of absenteeism and turnover.' Image: UNSPLASH/Brooke Cagle

Meredith Somers
Writer, MIT Sloan School of Management
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Education, Gender and Work

  • Experts from MIT and Harvard have developed a new toolkit to promote employee well-being.
  • It treats poor well-being as symptom of an unhealthy work environment.
  • The toolkit offers actionable steps and resources for managers.

Improving worker health and well-being has traditionally been viewed as the responsibility of the employee, particularly when it comes to adapting to workplace stressors.

But a new employer toolkit from MIT Sloan and Harvard University researchers looks beyond the incentivized group yoga sessions and promotional gym discounts, and instead reframes poor worker well-being as a treatable symptom of an unhealthy work environment.

Have you read?

Designed by MIT Sloan professor Erin Kelly and Meg Lovejoy of the Harvard Center for Population and Development Studies, the toolkit includes actionable steps and resources to help managers give employees more control over their work, cut back on excessive work demands, and improve social relationships in the workplace.

Using the toolkit, managers can learn how to support worker well-being and build a healthy workplace culture, the co-authors write. Healthy employees have fewer health care expenses, are more productive, and have lower rates of absenteeism and turnover.

The five parts of the toolkit are:

  • Overview — Work Design for Health: A Promising Approach to Worker Well-Being. The toolkit is based on “how workplace practices and relationships are designed and organized,” the co-authors write. This approach includes features like identifying the root causes of poor worker health, and employee-management partnerships.
  • Work Design Principle 1 — Give employees more control over their work. It’s stressful having no say in where, when, or how one’s daily tasks are done, according to the co-authors. Stress caused by low job control (and relatedly high work demands) is linked to higher levels of absence and employee tardiness, not to mention a greater risk of heart attack.
  • Work Design Principle 2 — Tame excessive work demands. Job demands come in many forms: deadlines, complex decision-making, prolonged physical labor. Without a supportive environment, those demands can lead to employee burnout, the co-authors write, as well as injury or even serious illness.
  • Work Design Principle 3 — Improve social relationships in the workplace. Workplace social relationships can provide benefits like emotional support and protection against workplace stressors, the co-authors write. These connections contribute to happy, healthy, productive employees.
  • Plan and Implement a Work-Design-for-Health Approach. This toolkit isn’t a one-size-fits-all solution, however, there are some steps anyone can use to get started: Make the case for change within your organization; encourage employee participation; create an action plan; and invite feedback on the workplace change process.

Explore the toolkit’s case studies and more detailed resources through the Work and Well-Being Initiative, a joint effort between Harvard and MIT. Additional co-authors are Lisa Berkman and Laura Kubzansky, both of the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health.

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Related topics:
Jobs and the Future of WorkWellbeing and Mental Health
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