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The What Works for Wellbeing Centre is UK national centre for providing scientifically rigorous advice for decision makers on how to improve the nation’s wellbeing. The Work, Learning and Wellbeing Programme is one of the Centre’s four research programmes.
Professor Kevin Daniels and Dr David Watson from the University of East Anglia and Dr Cigdem Gedikli from the University of Hertfordshire are with the Work, Learning and Wellbeing Programme. They have been looking at the features of high quality jobs and the actions organisations can take to improve employee wellbeing through improving job quality.
They have found developing high quality jobs is about more than the job itself, but also about the HR practices that support and develop the job holder.
We generally think it is better to have a job than not to have a job – but our wellbeing in the workplace depends on a number of factors, including the quality of our jobs.
Researchers and policy analysts tend to classify jobs as high quality jobs if the jobs:
- Allow workers some input into decisions that affect how, when and what work is accomplished;
- Have reasonable work demands and working hours;
- Have clear role descriptions;
- Allow workers to use a range of their skills;
- Have variety in tasks that needs to be accomplished;
- Provide support from co-workers and line managers;
- Are secure jobs.
There is a great deal of evidence that high quality jobs promote protect people from stress and common mental health problems and promote wellbeing and physical health. This is why many of the features of high quality work figure prominently in the UK Health and Safety Executive Management Standards for Work-Related Stress.
Even though we know what makes a good quality job, the evidence shows that attempts to improve wellbeing through improving job quality can be a rather hit and miss affair. In our research, we decided to explore whether organisations that successfully improved wellbeing by improving the quality of jobs also did something else alongside making improvements to jobs.
In particular, we focused on the introduction of other human resource management practices alongside improvements to the quality of work, such as good performance management, training and development. This is because such integrated packages or bundles of HR practices are labelled high performance work practices held by HR practitioners and researchers. To do so, we used systematic review methods to look at research on changes made in organisations.
Systematic review methods are very well placed to ensure unbiased answers to questions.
Systematic review methods place strict restrictions on how researchers can search for and select scientific papers to include in their reviews. This means all relevant papers must be included in a review rather than those that might happen to support a particular point of view.
Ideally, researchers register their review protocols before they start reviewing too to ensure that researchers do not change their search strategies if the review starts to reveal that a preferred course of action isn’t supported by sound scientific evidence.
We started by trawling databases of scientific literature, and initially found over 4143 potentially relevant scientific studies. We whittled this large number down to 33 studies that provided evidence on the effects of actions to improve job quality.
What don't we know?
One of the advantages of systematic reviewing is that the review provides information on what works but also highlights grey areas or evidence on what does not work and even what can be harmful.
In our review, we found too little on evidence to make any firm conclusions about training managers on how to improve their team’s job quality. This might be a fruitful area for future research and action.
We also found that allowing teams to make changes to their jobs can sometimes lead to improvements in the quality of jobs, wellbeing and performance – but can sometimes have no effects or even harmful effects. Issues concerning the relationships teams have with their managers and relationships within teams could be responsible for the mixed results.
We found evidence for three approaches that seemed to offer the best chance of improving workers wellbeing.
Job crafting and training
First, organisations can train workers so that they have the skills and knowledge to improve the quality of their jobs themselves, so that workers can make incremental changes to their jobs, by for example taking on more responsibility for decisions of how to complete tasks.
We found nine studies of such training programmes, with six studies demonstrating some positive impact on wellbeing and three showing no impact. Two of the studies examined performance as well as wellbeing and both found that the training had a beneficial impact on performance.
Improving the quality of jobs
Second, organisations can introduce training alongside improvements in the quality of jobs, through for example changing office layouts to make it easier for people to collaborate or delegating decision making.
We found six studies that looked at the effects of simultaneously introducing training alongside changes to jobs, with five out of six showing improvements.
In each case however, the training was focused on issues concerned with health or wellbeing – for example resilience style-training. Three studies also looked at the impact of the changes on performance – only one studied found positive effects on performance with the other showing no effects on performance.
Changes to HRM practices
Third, organisations can adopt extensive changes to human resource management practices, including improvements in job quality, management development, training programmes, changes to performance and rewards management and improvements in communication.
We found four studies that looked at such extensive changes, with three out of four showing improvements in wellbeing and performance.
We found that the key factor differentiating the three successful studies from the non-successful study was one of the intended goals for the changes. In the three successful changes, one of the intended goals of the changes was to improve some aspect of worker wellbeing or welfare.
Although such extensive changes to HR practices are likely to be more expensive to implement than interventions focused more narrowly on just training workers, we think that this approach can lead to significant returns on investment.
We also found evidence of a number of steps managers can take when introducing changes to improve the quality of jobs:
- Understand staff concerns about jobs;
- Engage and involve workers in the changes;
- Ensure line managers are committed to improving the quality of jobs;
- Ensure that the changes are compatible with other organisations systems and processes.
Taking these steps seems to improve the chances that making improvements to jobs will have a tangible effect on workers’ wellbeing.
- The published scientific review paper is free to download.
- A non-technical summary of the review which includes information on costs is also free to download.
- There is also a report on the features of high quality work that also shows high quality jobs are supported by good HR practices. The report also includes information on who is more or less likely to have a high quality job. There is both a non-technical summary and technical report that can be found here.
- The What Works for Wellbeing Centre
- You can keep up to date with the Work, Learning and Wellbeing Programme on Twitter @WorkLearnWell
- Presentations on their research are posted on their Youtube channel.
About Kevin Daniels
Professor Kevin Daniels is a founding member and first head of Employment Systems and Institutions group, Norwich Business School, University of East Anglia. Kevin is also the lead for the Work, Learning and Wellbeing evidence programme for the national What Works Wellbeing Centre.
Kevin’s main areas of expertise are work related wellbeing, health and safety. Kevin has a background in occupational psychology and is a Fellow of the British Psychological Society. Kevin has extensive research experience. Kevin has written in excess of 270 scientific publications and has led many projects funded by Economic and Social Research Council, Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council and the Health and Safety Executive amongst others. He is currently the Editor-in-Chief of the European Journal of Work and Organizational Psychology, an associate editor of the British Journal of Management and series co-editor for Springeer's Handbook Series in Occupational Health Sciences. He servves on the editorial boards of Human Relations, Journal of Management and Journal of Occupational and Organizational Psychology.