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Companies need to confront how work conditions affect the well-being of their employees

To build a healthier future of work, employers need to stop offering cosmetic wellness programs and instead make sure work itself is promoting wellness.

Companies need to confront how work conditions affect the well-being of their employees
[Photo: Dynamic Graphics Group/Getty Images Plus, ismagilov/iStock/Getty Images Plus, maytih/iStock/Getty Images Plus]

If you work for a big company, you know that its leadership is eager for you to think the company cares about your well-being. You get emails from HR offering wellness programs that encourage health-promoting behaviors such as exercising or quitting smoking. But recent research suggests that such wellness programs often have limited effectiveness. To truly build a healthier future of work, employers will need to address how their own management practices contribute to employee ill health—and focus on changing those. The good news is that such changes don’t need to be costly, and often benefit the organization as well as workers.

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The first step for business leaders is recognizing that work conditions can have a major impact on employee health, and that these conditions reflect management decisions that can be reconsidered. Unfortunately, many business practices that have increased in popularity in recent decades have negative effects on worker health and well-being. For instance, many companies in service industries such as retail have gravitated to just-in-time scheduling policies that attempt to match staff coverage with fluctuating demand in stores.

The aim is to increase efficiency, but the result for frontline workers is schedules that can vary substantially from week to week. This scheduling unpredictability has detrimental impacts on the psychological well-being of workers and their children, and increases the likelihood that these households will experience economic hardships such as hunger. What’s more, research has found that workers of color in the service industry, particularly women of color, are likely to be given more unpredictable—and thus potentially harmful—schedules than their white counterparts.

However, the adverse health effects of business practices aren’t limited to one sector. For one thing, many businesses in the U.S. don’t offer a living wage or good benefits to their frontline employees, and low income is associated with negative health outcomes. But even for employees who aren’t stuck in low-wage jobs, research suggests that U.S. workplaces are generally more stressful than they were several decades ago.

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Whether as a result of “always on” technologies (such as email, direct messaging applications, and cellphones) or intensified global competition or both, research indicates that the proportion of workers who feel overloaded at work—that is, that they have more to get done than they can do well—has increased over time. In a study my colleagues and I conducted several years ago of white-collar IT workers in a Fortune 500 company, many employees reported work overload. For them, long hours and demands to be always available via digital technologies resulted in stress and burnout.

Work doesn’t have to be a source of overload and excessive, unhealthy stress. At the Fortune 500 company that our team studied, we conducted an experiment that redesigned work practices and policies in ways that improved employee health while reducing burnout and voluntary turnover.

More recently, a group of colleagues from the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health and I identified a wide range of organizational practices that research demonstrates foster health and well-being in workplaces. These practices involve three general principles:

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1: Allowing workers more control over how they do their jobs

Research demonstrates that lacking a say over how one’s work is done harms one’s health and well-being. For example, the combination of high demands on employees (such as pressure to work fast) and little control over their jobs increases their risk of diabetes as well as of death from cardiovascular disease. Conversely, giving employees more say in their work—for instance, by offering greater control over their work schedule or the opportunity to take on new tasks independently—can improve well-being. Increasing employees’ say in how they do their work could also help to reduce racial inequities in health outcomes, since Black employees tend to report having less control in the workplace than white workers do.

2: Reining in excessive work demands

Managers understandably want employees to work hard, but in the long run, overworking employees can be counterproductive. Working long hours or under stressful conditions is associated with negative health consequences over time, including a higher risk of stroke or cardiovascular disease. Even if employees don’t get sick, ongoing levels of high work-related stress can have negative effects on the business, because stress can adversely affect employees’ ability to sleep well, focus at work, and make good decisions. High stress or health problems can also make employees more likely to quit, which creates turnover-related costs for the organization.

One effective management strategy for countering overwork is enlisting employees’ input in identifying processes that can be improved and low-value work that can be eliminated or reduced—for instance, trimming the size of a regular meeting that has more attendees than necessary.

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3: Fostering positive social relationships in the workplace

Studies have shown that strong social relationships are extremely important to people’s health and well-being, and that extends into the workplace. Having positive social interactions at work can ameliorate the negative effects of work-related stress and also make it easier for teammates to work together effectively. One example: Several studies have found that training supervisors to be more supportive of employees’ personal and family lives has significant positive effects on workers’ well-being and their attitudes about work.

These three overarching principles are relevant to all kinds of work, from overloaded knowledge workers and middle managers to frontline workers in service industries. By implementing these ideas, managers can redesign work for health—and in the process, often achieve beneficial results for the business.

An experiment conducted at the Gap provides a good illustration. In the experiment, managers at participating Gap stores increased the stability of workers’ schedules, introduced an app that allowed workers to more easily trade shifts with each other, and offered a core group of part-time employees more hours.

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These changes had positive effects on worker health and well-being, with employees reporting better sleep quality and those with children reporting less stress. What was perhaps more surprising was the extent to which these changes yielded improvements to revenue and productivity. The stores that made these changes in scheduling practices saw their productivity improve by 5% on average. In recent years some cities and states have adopted stable scheduling regulations, and new research finds these ordinances can improve workers’ well-being and economic security; but companies can also make these changes without that regulatory push.

Even smaller-scale changes can make a difference. For instance, one study found that employees who had the opportunity to participate in a structured problem-solving process to address issues in their workplace were less likely to experience burnout and a desire to leave their jobs.

To make it easier to learn more about these kinds of changes and how they can be implemented, my colleagues and I have synthesized findings from numerous studies about work and well-being into a free web-based tool kit for managers. Forward-thinking business leaders can adopt sound strategies to reduce the negative impact common management practices have on employee health and well-being.

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Imagine a future of work in which all workers are treated with respect and dignity, and their experiences on the job contribute to their well-being rather than threaten it. Such a future is within our grasp as a society. However, achieving it requires business leaders to acknowledge the importance of fostering a healthy and inclusive future of work—and act on that knowledge.


Erin L. Kelly is the Sloan distinguished professor of work and organization studies at the MIT Sloan School of Management and codirector of the MIT Institute for Work and Employment Research. She is the coauthor, with Phyllis Moen, of the book Overload: How Good Jobs Went Bad and What We Can Do About It.

How Healthy Is the Future of Work? is an essay series featuring people working at the cutting edge of their fields sharing how emerging trends will affect the health of our country’s workers and workplaces in the future.

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The series is curated by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation. The authors’ views are their own.

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