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Designing ‘Good Work’

Mental Health Productivity Psych Health and Safety

Designing ‘Good Work’


Poorly designed work puts employees at risk of psychological harm. Does your organization know how to design ‘good work’?

7 min read

Recent changes to WHS Regulations around the country have shone a spotlight on employers’ legal obligations to prevent harm to workers’ mental health. In the last article in our psychological health and safety series, we discussed how poorly designed jobs expose workers to psychosocial hazards and risks. We traced the historical development of ‘Taylorist’ jobs, those with low task variety and low autonomy, and reviewed research demonstrating the negative impact of these work designs on employees and the businesses they work for.

Few topics in industrial/organizational (I/O) psychology have attracted as much attention as job design, work design and work redesign (Oldham & Fried, 2016). There are currently more than 17,000 academic papers on these topics (Parker et al., 2017). In this article we will explore this research to answer the following questions:

  • What is ‘good work’?
  • How is good work designed?

We will also offer a simple visual tool.

What is ‘Good work’?

Safe Work Australia defines ‘good work’ as:

  • healthy and safe work where the hazards and risks are eliminated or minimized so far as is reasonably practicable, and
  • work that optimizes human performance, job satisfaction and productivity (Safe Work Australia, 2015).

This definition captures two main aims of good work, to: (1) prevent harm to health and (2) optimize performance. Let’s dive a little deeper into each of these now.

The new WHS Regulations focus on psychological (mental) health. The mechanism of harm is job strain, also known as occupational or work-related stress (Figure 1). In other words, substantial research demonstrates that psychosocial hazards can lead to psychological and/or physical harm by creating a stress response (van der Molen et al., 2020; World Health Organization, 2022). Therefore, from a psychosocial point of view, good work is work that is not too stressful.

Psychological Hazards Lead to Harm

Figure 1. How psychosocial hazards can lead to psychological and/or physical harm (Workplace Health and Safety Queensland, 2022).

Worker performance has also been a focus of work design research. One antecedent, or prerequisite, that researchers have consistently shown plays a role is motivation (Hackman & Oldham, 1976; Herzberg, 1964; Humphrey et al., 2007). Thus, to design good work, that is, work that prevents harm to health and optimizes performance, it needs to be:

  • motivating, and
  • not too stressful.

Work that is motivating and not too stressful has obvious benefits for employees. But it’s important to understand there are also substantial advantages for employers. Motivated and less stressed-out workers are more satisfied, take less time off, are easier to retain, and are more productive (Parker, 2015; Safe Work Australia, 2015; Workplace Health and Safety Queensland, 2021).

Designing good work

One of the ways that academics make sense of the vast number of work design studies is to develop models or frameworks based on this evidence. The Job Demands-Resources (JD-R) theory of burnout is a particularly helpful guide when it comes to understanding how to design good work (Bakker & Demerouti, 2014; Bakker & Demerouti, 2017; Bakker et al., 2005; Demerouti et al., 2001).

Burnout is characterized by both a loss of health (often described as exhaustion) and reduced professional efficacy (poor performance) (Maslach & Jackson, 1981; Maslach & Leiter, 2016). According to the JD-R theory of burnout, job performance depends on the balance between worker exhaustion (a measure of health or job strain) and engagement (motivation). These, in turn, depend on the balance between job demands and job resources (Figure 2). Over time, if job demands remain high and there are few job resources to buffer these, burnout will be the result.

Job demands are aspects of work that cause job strain (stress). Examples include a high workload, difficult-to-meet deadlines, and emotional demands. You’ll recognize these examples from past articles as psychosocial hazards.

By contrast, job resources stimulate motivation (also called engagement) and include feedback, reward and recognition, job control, job security and supervisor support. You may also recognize the opposite of these job resources, e.g., low job control or inadequate recognition, as psychosocial hazards. Importantly, job resources can buffer (lessen the impact of) job demands.

A simple work design tool

Figure 2 serves as a simple visual prompt to guide work design. The goal is to reduce job demands and increase job resources. Figure 2 can also be interpreted to mean that job demands decrease workers’ mental health (by increasing job strain or stress) whereas job resources increase mental health (by increasing motivation).

JD-R model of burnout

Figure 2. JD-R model of burnout.

In an upcoming article, we will cover the more practical aspects of work design using a model developed by leading Australian scholar, Professor Sharon Parker. This model will explain how to increase job resources and ensure tolerable job demands.

Key takeaways

  • Good work prevents harm to mental health and optimizes employee performance.
  • Good work is good for workers and organizations.
  • From a psychosocial perspective, good work is work that is motivating and not too stressful.
  • Good work can be designed by increasing job resources and ensuring tolerable job demands.
  • The JD-R model of burnout is a useful framework to guide decisions around work design.