Work Design, a new project for the health of employees in the office

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«Work Design for Health»: an innovative program developed by researchers from Harvard Chan School and MIT Sloan School of Management offers employers an effective alternative to employee welfare programs.

The new study «Work Design for Health – Redesign of Work for the 21st Century: Promising Strategies for Improving the Welfare of Workers» – developed by researchers at the Harvard TH Chan School of Public Health and the MIT Sloan School of Management – provides new guidance on how to create work environments that promote workers’ health and well-being.

The framework offers new and viable directions to improve employee health and well-being, improving employee engagement and productivity. It explains why employers should shift their focus from offering welfare programs, which aim to change individual behavior, to creating working conditions that lighten burdens and support the health and well-being of employees.

The new project «Work Design for Health» is outlined in an article published in the American Journal of Public Health on 9 September 2021. In addition, the team created a toolkit and website to guide employers and help them understand if and how their workplace could benefit from the Work Design for Health approach. On the other hand, how important it is that the office becomes «a forge of serendipity, rather than monotony», we had already spoken in our article «Destination office, the office becomes a landing place».

«Many employers are looking for ways to support their employees‘ health, particularly after a year of intense stress», said Erin L. Kelly, Sloan Distinguished Professor of Work and Organization Studies at MIT Sloan and co-author of the document. «We hope that the structure of work design will inspire more organizations to consider the various ways in which work affects the well-being of employees».

Lisa Berkman, Thomas D. Cabot Professor of Public Policy and Epidemiology at Harvard Chan School, explained: «the innovative Work Design for Health project provides companies with best practices, which will help improve the health and well-being of employees, thereby also maintaining their productivity. The associated website provides concrete and tested examples from the search for practical changes that can improve the condition of workers».

Photo by Elisa Ventur from Unsplash


In recent years, discussions on improving employee health have focused on health promotion or wellness programs focusing on attitudes such as increasing exercise or eating healthy foods. Other recent research indicates that these programs do not change much and fail to have a serious impact on employee happiness. «The health crisis of COVID-19», we read in fact on the study, «has clearly highlighted some of the limits of current approaches, revealing structural conditions that increase the vulnerability of workers and their families to physical and psychosocial stress factors». This requires a new perspective on working conditions and the workplace environment.

The team stresses that these social conditions are the main determinants of poor health: changing them leads in the first place to the prevention of disease and disability.

«To fill these gaps», the research continues, ‘We rely on existing structures and research into the redesign of work in order to propose an up-to-date work reorganisation model, with strategies to reshape the conditions that employees live in the workplace, the main cause of stress-related health problems. Such strategies include increasing the control of working hours and the voice of workers, moderation of job demands, and provision of employer training and support to improve social relations at work».

The team proposes a reorganization model appropriate to the 21st century. This project identifies three strategies to reshape working conditions, which not only improve the well-being of employees, but can also benefit the organization:

  • – Increase workers’ control over their schedules and give them a greater say in their working conditions;
  • Reduce job demands;
  • Provide training and support to the employer to improve social relations at work.

«The redesign of work offers new and viable directions to improve the well-being of employees. Government leadership could encourage the adoption and implementation of such initiatives».


The toolkit provides many examples and case studies of how these strategies have been tested and implemented in a variety of work environments. For example, a study found that giving high-tech professionals more control over their working hours led to more productive, less stressed workers less likely to decrease or quit their businesses.

n addition to being more effective at increasing employee well-being, the Work Design for Health project could save employers money. Wellness programs now cost on average more than $700 per employee, while this extensive redesign initiative costs about half.

«Changes in the workplace during the COVID-19 pandemic showed employers that providing employees with more flexibility on where, when and how to work can be beneficial for employees and their organizations,» said Meg Lovejoy, co-author and program director of the Work and Well-being Initiative at Harvard Chan School’s Center for Population and Development Studies. «The return to more familiar working practices and environments», he continues, «offers a key moment for employers to consider how they can reshape the workplace environment, in order to better promote the well-being, commitment and loyalty of workers. The Work Design for Health approach provides evidence-based guidance and strategies to employers on how they could achieve this goal».

Laura Kubzansky, co-author of the article and Lee Kum Kee Professor of Social and Behavioral Sciences at Harvard Chan School, stresses the importance of working conditions as key determinants of happiness and well-being, important as the socio-economic position, family and community ties, or other aspects of the social environment.

Photo of Priscilla Du Preez from Unsplash


Any demonstration? Let’s mention only two, enlightening ones. First, the experiment done on call centers. «Call center operators often have limited autonomy or have to report on how they do their work», the website says with the toolkit. They engage in highly repetitive customer interactions, with limited discretion in how they can handle customer issues and complaints. These dynamics can create burnout and high turnover and decrease work performance». Therefore, the call center workers were given responsibility for a number of new tasks, including managing teamwork activities, break times and weekly team briefings, as well as handling customer complaints with less involvement by managers. These workers also received training in each of their new areas of responsibility». Result? «Workers who have been given more say in administrative tasks have reported a greater sense of job control and more positive emotions at work, as well as higher work performance».

Another example? «Fortune 500 IT executives were concerned that their highly qualified technical personnel were “exhausted” and at risk of leaving the company. So a research team implemented a work design initiative, called STAR». How did they move? «professionals have been given more control over when and where to do their work. In addition, front-line managers and professionals have been trained to move from evaluating “frontal time” (long hours in the office) to focusing on “results”. Finally, managers were encouraged to share their support and interest in the personal and family life of employees. All employees have received permission to work when and where they have chosen, provided they have completed their work and respected the deadlines». Results? «STAR brought benefits to both employees and the company. Workers were less exhausted and stressed. With fewer interruptions, they felt more productive, more able to concentrate and innovate. Time control has allowed employees to better reconcile work and personal life and has helped parents spend more time with their children. This has benefited physical health, with increased sleep and a reduced risk of diabetes, heart disease or stroke».


  • Now that many are returning to work in the office, Work Design needs to rethink new strategies to ensure that employees live stress-free in the workplace.
  • The recent research «Work Design for Health» provides new guidance on how to create work environments that promote the health and well-being of employees.
  • Numerous case studies, such as in call centers and healthcare companies, show how, by applying this new project, concrete results have already been achieved.

Rachele Zinzocchi

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