Managing Psychosocial Risks (Digital Badge). Free for a limited time - Access here.

> Blog > How Job Design Affects Mental Health

How Job Design Affects Mental Health

Mental Health Productivity Psych Health and Safety

How Job Design Affects Mental Health


Poor job design increases psychosocial risks. Are you designing work that harms your employees’ mental health?

10 min read

In a previous article in our psychological health and safety series, we discussed how Australian work health and safety (WHS) Regulations have recently been amended to focus on psychosocial hazards and risks. These changes have made it clear that workplace mental health is a legal responsibility of employers. (To revise psychological health and safety concepts, including the definitions of psychosocial hazards and risks, refer to this article.)

If your organization has begun to identify psychosocial hazards, or conduct psychosocial risk assessments, it may now be clear that many such hazards and risks are the result of how jobs have been designed. Indeed, Regulation 55A of the amended model WHS Regulations states this explicitly:

Model WHS Regulation

55A Meaning of psychosocial hazard

A psychosocial hazard is a hazard that:

(a)  arises from, or relates to:

          (i)   the design or management of work; or

          (ii)  a work environment; or

          (iii) plant at a workplace; or

          (iv) workplace interactions or behaviors; and

(b) may cause psychological harm (whether or not it may also cause physical harm).

In this article, we will explore a brief history of work design and outline the characteristics of jobs most associated with psychosocial hazards and risks.

A brief history of work design

“In the past the man has been first; in the future the system must be first” – Frederick Winslow Taylor (Vinoski, 2018).

The world of work changed forever during the Industrial Revolution when factory-based machine-operating jobs replaced craft-based cottage industries (Parker et al., 2017). Adam Smith (1776) famously formulated the concept of division of labor – breaking down a complex work process into a series of simplified tasks, each performed by a different person or group of people who specialized in this narrow task.

There were two rationales for this approach: (1) the same number of workers could produce far more output due to limiting unnecessary movements and handling of different tools and parts, and (2) lower-paid, unskilled workers could replace skilled craftsmen. Both of these ultimately resulted in cheaper mass production.

Fast forward to the late 19th century. While working at Bethlehem Steel, engineer Frederick Winslow Taylor noted that managers knew very little about how specific jobs were performed (Masterclass, 2021). Taylor set about changing this by conducting workplace experiments. He broke jobs down into smaller components, timed each task, and evaluated the impact of resequencing the steps. These careful analyses allowed him to optimize production systems and thus improve efficiency and productivity.

Taylor argued that “management must takeover and perform much of the work which is now left to the men,” by which he meant that managers should analyze tasks, break them down into simplified elements, train employees to carry out these elements, and then closely monitor workers to enforce compliance with instructions (Parker, 2015).

The outcomes of Taylor’s studies were not only the simplified and specialized work referred to in the Industrial Revolution section, but standardized work and tools. In other words, each worker was required to do a particular job the same way. This standardization meant that workers had little personal discretion over how they completed their tasks and there was minimal to no opportunity for them to be involved in designing their roles. Management designed jobs and imposed those designs on employees in a top-down fashion (Oldham & Fried, 2016).

Characteristics of simplified, specialized and standardized jobs

  • Lack task variety which makes them repetitive.
  • Give workers little to no autonomy.
  • The monotonous nature of the work makes it inherently uninteresting and unmotivating to many employees. As a result, such workplaces tend to have many layers of management and controlling supervisors who spend most of their time micromanaging employees.

Taylor’s work was pioneering in that he applied scientific methods (time studies) to management. In 1911, Taylor published The Principles of Scientific Management (Taylor, 1911). Time and motion studies (Gilbreth, 1911) complemented these job simplification principles. Ford added moving assembly lines in 1913 which revolutionized the automobile industry (Eschner, 2016).

In the decades that followed, scientific management (also known as Taylorism or a mechanistic approach to job design) had a profound impact on businesses beyond Bethlehem Steel. Simplified, narrow, and low autonomy jobs largely became the work design of choice, particularly in manufacturing industries. For example, in a study of manufacturing firms in the 1950s, researchers reported that most jobs were designed according to scientific management principles (Davis et al., 1955).

More downside than upside

However, around this same period, research began to show that workers were often unmotivated by and deeply dissatisfied with their simplified jobs, and that their mental health was adversely affected. Unsurprisingly, turnover, strikes and absenteeism increased (Fraser, 1947). Productivity also declined as workers actively engaged in behaviors that negated the efficiencies their roles were designed to generate. These behaviors included intentionally reducing output and being late (Walker & Guest, 1952).

In the long run, the cost advantages of Taylorist workplaces, derived from increased efficiency and productivity, can be swallowed up through reduced output of disengaged workers and salaries for middle managers. Competitive advantage may also ultimately disappear as such environments stifle innovation. Standardization is a significant barrier to creative thinking.

Have we learned our lesson?

Despite their well-established and problematic impact on employee mental health, simplified work designs still exist today. Roles where work is machine- or computer-based, or tightly managed, are examples. Modern improvement methodologies such as Lean and Six Sigma are also based on Taylorist principles (Vinoski, 2018).

One organization that has received substantial negative press about their production methods is Foxconn, the Chinese company Apple uses to manufacture the iPhone. The point of the quote below is not to demonize this particular company but to demonstrate the sometimes devastating effect of poor work design on mental health (Parker et al., 2017):

“In 2010…assembly-line workers began killing themselves. Worker after worker threw themselves off the towering dorm buildings, sometimes in broad daylight, in tragic displays of desperation – and in protest at the work conditions inside. There were 18 reported suicide attempts that year alone and 14 confirmed deaths. Twenty more workers were talked down by Foxconn officials” (Merchant, 2017).

A cause and solution

One of the world-leading researchers in the field of work design is Professor Sharon Parker, head of the Centre for Transformative Work Design based at Curtin University in Western Australia. Her research has uncovered a key reason poor work designs seem to persist:

“We’ve been doing some research looking at how do people design jobs, what we call “naive job designers”, which is basically just managers and everyday people. How do they design jobs if given a chance? And our research basically shows that people design very bad jobs. People slip into designing Taylorist sort of jobs with very little variety, very little autonomy. So, if you just leave it to people to intuitively design work it’s not necessarily going to deal with some of the hazards that might occur” – Professor Sharon Parker (2015)

The solution is that HR, WHS and line managers who have responsibility for designing jobs need training. In particular, they need to be able to identify psychosocial hazards and control the risks from these hazards through work design (and redesign in the case of existing jobs). All three groups need to make the case for this training to senior leaders. Remember: poor work design is now against the law.

Key takeaways

  • Poorly designed work harms employees’ mental health by exposing them to psychosocial hazards and risks.
  • Poor work designs have their origin in manufacturing jobs designed during the Industrial Revolution and a theory of management from a century ago called Scientific Management, or Taylorism.
  • Jobs that are simplified, narrow (specialized) and standardized lack task variety and give workers minimal autonomy.
  • Taylorist principles still dominate much contemporary work design despite research showing such jobs are bad for workers and bad for business outcomes.
  • HR officers, WHS professionals and line managers need training in work design to create (and redesign existing) jobs to prevent harm in line with WHS regulatory requirements.