A framework for building a healthier workplace

If wellness programs on their own show insufficient results, how can leaders remake the work environment to keep employees healthy and happy?

By Ted Kitterman      

Much of the research shows that one-off workplace wellness programs do little to combat the stress and strain of the modern workplace for employees.

The trouble is that the problem is embedded in the way organizations have been built, responding to marketplace changes and economic burdens without thinking about the impact on employees. Now, after almost two years of pandemic crisis and with thousands of employees reconsidering their commitment to their work, employers are trying to change things.

For leaders who are invested in creating a healthier work environment for employees, Harvard’s T. H. Chan School of Public Health and the MIT Sloan School of Management have put together a framework: “Work Design for Health.”

“Workplace changes during the COVID-19 pandemic have shown employers that providing workers with more flexibility in where, when, and how they work can be beneficial to employees and their organizations,” said Meg Lovejoy, a co-author of the paper and research program director of the Work and Well-being Initiative at the Center for Population and Development Studies at the Harvard Chan School.

“The return to more familiar workplace practices and settings offers a key moment for employers to consider how they can reshape the work environment to better promote worker well-being, engagement, and retention. The Work Design for Health approach offers guidance and evidence-based strategies to employers on how they might accomplish this.”

The team has created a website that offers examples and references for its major suggestions on improving the workplace:

  •  Give employees more control over their work.

The framework offers a few examples of what this might look like in a common work environment. For example, offering call center employees more autonomy and task variety in their workflow has been shown to lead to a greater sense of job control and overall well-being.

Other actions that show strong results include giving employees more autonomy over work schedules (flexibility) and creating opportunities for employee influence.

  • Tame excessive work demands.

Ideally, demands at work create a sense of positive challenge and skill mastery, according to the framework. However, unbalanced and excessive demands can lead to stress and burnout.

Tactics that the framework suggests include easing the demands on workers (hiring more employees, provide improved training, offer psychological support). The framework cites a study of retail stores run by Gap where better staffing and management of schedules led to higher employee well-being scores and increased sales.

  • Improve social relationships in the workplace.

The proposed tactics for this part of the framework included fostering supportive supervisor relationships, social belonging and addressing inclusion and diversity for underrepresented backgrounds and demographics.

Making the change

For those who want to pursue the framework and create a new way of working at their organizations, the program suggests three actions for getting started:

  • Make the case for change. While some leaders might be eager to make changes to address employee health and well-being, the framework notes that it’s always important to come to the table with data to support the argument.
  • Ensure buy in from all levels of leadership. Without the desire from top leaders to make a change, your program won’t do much good. Start by making sure leaders are invested in the change that you hope to make.
  • Build a steering committee. “An inclusive steering group helps ensure support for the proposed changes among frontline employees, middle management, and senior leadership,” the framework argues. Make sure you hear from all concerned stakeholders before launching any changes.

Check out the toolkit and full framework for yourself here.