Definition of work/job design

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Roxane L. Gervais, Health & Safety Laboratory


Definition of work/job design

Work/job design is used to assess how tasks or the entire job is organised within the work environment, and then ensure these are well-matched to the attributes of the employee. While both terms, job design and work(place) design are used interchangeably, job design has a focus on those administrative changes that are required to improve working conditions, with work design having a more pragmatic approach and addressing those adjustments that may be required to workstations, tools, and body positions to allow the worker to function more effectively [1]. A properly designed job guarantees that the worker is able to accomplish what is required in a safe and healthy fashion, and thereby reduce physical and psychological strain. Further, it helps with the organisation of work, e.g. in identifying issues such as: work overload, repetitiveness, and limited control over work; and thereby improve on occupational safety and health (OSH) within organisations. A well-designed job could result in more engaged, healthy and productive employees, and these outcomes would benefit both employees and organisations.

The relevance of work/job design to the organisation

It is an accepted belief that all work activities will have physical and mental demands on workers; if this is kept to within acceptable levels, then performance is maintained as well as the health and well-being of the worker; but if the demands exceed the workers’ capacity, then errors, accidents, injuries, and a reduction in physical and mental health could occur [2]. The application of job design principles should help in identifying suitable facilities, furniture, machines and tools that are designed and allocated to be compatible with workers’ attributes, inclusive of size, strength, aerobic capacity, information-processing capacity, and expectations [3]. When this match of the worker to the environment relates to the psychosocial aspect of work, then it is known as person-environment fit, i.e. that the demands of the organisation correspond to the abilities of the employee [4]. [5].

Work/job design, as a process, could address factors within the work environment e.g. control, work overload/underload, ergonomic aspects associated with musculoskeletal disorders (MSDs), shift work, repetitiveness, excessive working hours, job stress/strain, and a limited understanding of the job process. As such, one of its aims is to improve productivity and the psychosocial climate [6]. Another aim could include improving on employees’ health by allowing them more control on the job and thereby reducing the work-related stress which may result in serious health problems such as for example myocardial infarction [7].

Due to the changing nature of the work environment, i.e. moving to a stronger service economy, the increasing number of women in the workforce and the large number of older workers who remain employed for longer periods than ever before; the requirement for good work design and/or good job design is crucial to retain productive, safe and healthy employees. As well, jobs are increasingly less focused on the physical aspects of work, but concentrate more on using mental processes. There is a perception also that as work becomes more complex that this blurs the line between mental and physical activities [8]. The influences on the context and complexity of jobs and work include globalisation, lean production, automation, the change from monotonous tasks to complex tasks, and the upgrading of work related to the increased educational level of the workers. These factors are not stagnant and as societies change and the meaning of ‘work’ continues to evolve, the dynamics of how jobs and work is carried out will evolve as well.


Benefits of suitable work/job design

The way in which a job is designed has great impact on the attitude, beliefs and feelings of the employee [9]. These include organisational commitment [10]., work motivation [11]., performance [12]., job satisfaction [13]., mental health [14]., reduced turnover [15]. [16]., and sickness absence [17]. Poor design impacts also on training and training costs as a poor design could increase the time to learn the system, and requires more skilled trainers and more highly skilled employees. [18].


The benefits that could be attained when work/job design is assessed are highlighted in a study that showed that while the adjustment of rest breaks among workers in a meat-processing plant did not reduce productivity, one of the usual outcomes of work/job design, it did increase well-being. [19]. This study illustrated that a relatively inexpensive adjustment to the work environment realised positive outcomes to both employees and the organisation.

The process of work/job design

Work and job design should occur within organisations when a new job is created or when the work and jobs no longer fit the worker or exceed the capacity of an individual employee. This is shown when the workers display ill health, such as musculoskeletal strain or psychosocial strain [20]., and is usually the time when interventions are needed to address the adverse effects of work. However, effective organisations should have monitoring procedures in place to assess continuously workers’ safety, health and performance levels; and thereby reduce ill health. The periodic assessment of the job or tasks is preferable as it should be able to identify if changes or adjustments are needed to the way in which employees carry out their duties. See Table 1.

There are various elements of and in the work environment that should be considered when organising or carrying out work/job design, as they may influence employees’ effectiveness. Some of these are: cold environments (to reduce cold stress) [21]. [22]. the physical capabilities of the worker, such as ‘reach’ if needing to move the upper body in completing duties [23]., matching the worker to the job to ensure that the control that is allowed is what is required or needed by the worker or that the demands of job meets the worker’s abilities to carry out those demands [24]. Other elements that should be considered, as they are seen as risk factors are: forceful exertions, awkward positions, localised mechanical contact stresses, vibration, temperature extremes, repetitive exertions and sustained or prolonged static exertions or postures [25].


Table 1: Stages in a job design


Source: CCOHS, 2002 [26].


The end result of any work or job design intervention is to achieve jobs with the following qualities:

  • Task variety. An attempt must be made to provide an optimal variety of tasks within each job. Too much variety can be inefficient for training and frustrating for the employee. Too little can lead to boredom and fatigue. The optimal level is one that allows the employee to rest from a high level of attention or effort while working on another task or, conversely, to stretch after periods of routine activity.
  • Skill variety. Research suggests that employees derive satisfaction from using a number of skill levels.
  • Feedback. There should be some means for informing employees quickly when they have achieved their targets. Fast feedback aids the learning process. Ideally, employees should have some responsibility for setting their own standards of quantity and quality.
  • Task identity. Sets of tasks should be separated from other sets of tasks by some clear boundary. Whenever possible, a group or individual employee should have responsibility for a set of tasks that is clearly defined, visible, and meaningful. In this way, work is seen as important by the group or individual undertaking it, and others understand and respect its significance.
  • Task autonomy. Employees should be able to exercise some control over their work. Areas of discretion and decision making should be available to them [27].

The different aspects of job design could be incorporated into a model so that the design to output stages is clearly visible, as shown in Figure 1. Figure 1 shows the job characteristics that should be included into any design, as well as those factors that impact on these factors, such as responsibility, and the outcomes that should be expected e.g. well-being, at the end of a well-designed process.


Figure 1: An integrative model of job design


Source: Grant, A. M., Fried, Y., & Juillerat, T., ‘Work matters: job design in classic and contemporary perspectives’, In Zedeck, S. (Ed.), APA handbook of industrial and organizational psychology, 1. Washington, DC: American Psychological Association, 2010, pp. 417-453, p. 427. Reprinted with permission. [28].


Cost of work/job design

The cost effectiveness of work/job design interventions is seldom calculated, and when this is combined with the low reporting of unsuccessful interventions, [29]. makes it difficult to thoroughly assess those designs that are most useful in promoting to other organisations. If organisations are to realise the importance and cost benefits of doing work/job design in a consistent manner, then they need to see the effectiveness of doing these types of interventions. This is obtained by proper record keeping of what has happened, when it has happened and the favourable or unfavourable outcomes.


However, the costs of the consequences of poor design and the poor synchronisation between the worker and the work could be calculated. For example, MSDs may occur because of poor design. Even though MSDs may be non-work related [30].; as they affect the muscles, joints, tendons and other parts of the musculoskeletal system [31]., they impact the workability of employees. MSDs account for a higher proportion of sickness absence from work than any other health condition, which amounts to roughly half of all work-related disorders in EU member states. In economic terms, it is estimated that up to two per cent of gross domestic product (GDP) is accounted for by the direct costs of MSDs each year. In the Netherlands, for example, repetitive strain injury (RSI) at work costs €2.1billion each year [32]. Too many MSDs caused by work are preventable by better work organisation, job design and through ergonomic interventions [33]. In the United Kingdom (UK), MSDs are the most common cause of occupational ill health in Great Britain, currently affecting one million people a year and costing society £5.7 billion [34].


Ways to ensure good work/job design

A good work or job design would, for example, involve employees, provide good feedback on performance, as well as balance static and dynamic work. It is important to assess the cognitive aspects of the job as well as the physical aspects, as correcting only the physical hazards in the job will not realise sustainable results of improving employee performance [35]. Other factors to consider are person factors, such as age, as age is a contributory reason to how tasks are done, but this may be mitigated by training and experience [36]. [37]. and to controlling overload [38]. Gender is another factor that should be incorporated into work/job design, especially considering the increasing number of women in the workforce. Work/job design should take into account also the physical capabilities of the individual worker, [39]., rather than using data based on the ‘average’ employee [40]. [41]. This includes gender, as women and men in general, have different physical capacity. As such, the stereotypical job description may not be appropriate for all employees and this could be addressed through observation and carrying out simple tests or carefully calibrated measurements of strength, physical fitness and aptitude to ‘adjust’ the job to the worker [42]. Further, it is possible to enhance the worker’s capacities through physical conditioning programmes and preliminary job training [43].

With respect to the age factor, one study of older Finnish fire fighters and policemen showed that they had reduced physical work capacity, which may contribute to overstrain and increase risk for injuries in occupational peak load situations. It was proposed that the fire fighters and policemen engage in regular and effective physical training to maintain a sufficiently high level of physical work capacity [44]. Overall, it is recommended that jobs are redesigned to counteract the effects of ageing [45]. The lower physical workloads that many workers now experience may reduce health due to the lower physical activity involved and it is proposed that work is designed to take this factor into account [46].

Another simple way to improve on work/job design is to ensure that the personal protective equipment (PPE) that is available for employees does fit. Generally, PPE is designed for the average-sized white male worker, which may be disadvantageous and hazardous to men, who may not fall within the average-size range, as it would be to women and to ethnic groups that also may not reflect the average-size of an employee. These latter groups may find that they are unable to obtain proper fitting PPE that is readily available [47]. [48].

Other ways to improve on the design of work is to directly observe the employee on the job, rather than assessing through interviews or structured questionnaires. This is especially important for jobs in the service sector with workers who are required to use specific equipment, but who do not fit into the ‘norm’ with respect to size. One study in the retail sector observing female employees using laser scanners was able to observe the issues that led to e.g. fatigue (posture, reach, awkward tasks, length of shift, pressure to work quickly) and MSDs (uncomfortable postures, seating e.g. the relationship between the seat and counter heights)[49]. This direct observation allowed the operational problems to be seen as they occurred, especially in the context of the ‘smaller’ worker having to use ‘average’ size equipment.

Jobs can be assessed by specially designed measures such as the Job Diagnostic Survey (JDS) and Multimethod Job Design Questionnaire (MJDQ) that target various elements of the job, inclusive of tasks, skills, motivation and autonomy[50] [51]. [52] [53], Recent measures include the Work Design Questionnaire (WDQ), which aims to provide a comprehensive assessment of the job/work design process, inclusive of task characteristics, task variety, information processing, problem solving and skill variety [54].

This process of enriching/enchaining jobs is shown in Table 2.

Table 2: Some suggestions for enriching jobs

Principles of Job Design Core Job Dimensions Incorporated
1. Combine jobs, enabling workers to perform the entire job • Skill variety
• Task identity
2. Establish client relationships, allowing providers of a service to meet the recipients • Skill variety
• Autonomy 
• Feedback


3. Loads job vertically, allowing greater responsibility and control overwork • Autonomy


4. Open feedback channels, giving workers knowledge of the results of their work • Feedback


Source: Greenberg & Baron, 1995, p. 151[55].


A holistic approach

There is recent research that suggests that a holistic approach to work/job design is a more feasible option in ensuring that individuals’ experience and needs are incorporated into the process. See Table 3. This means including biology, economics, sociology, and anthropology, in addition to the psychological element that assesses the ‘person’ rather than tying to implement previous defined attributes to the job, and the person, such as growth need strength (GNS).[56]. GNS refers to ‘the strength of the respondent’s desire to obtain “growth” satisfaction from his or her work’ [57].[36], which is reflected in obtaining autonomy, independence, a sense of accomplishment and self-actualisation [58].[38]. The usefulness of this perspective is shown in the assessment of Danish cleaners who were provided with new equipment and forms of work organisation to improve on efficiency, but which were seen to have negative health impacts on the cleaners’ bodies. Further investigation showed that the new equipment did not reduce the impact on the muscle load levels or the load on their hearts. The researchers recommended taking a more comprehensive strategy to work redesign [39]. The progression to a more comprehensive approach is even more important as it may seem that the process of work/job design may not have progressed as much as it could. Research from close to forty years showed that the use of one or two factors when redesigning jobs did not lead to positive impacts on workers’ motivation, job involvement, growth need satisfaction or improved their close relationships [59].[7].


Table 3: Factors to include in a holistic approach

1. Goals: Job design models need to take greater account of goals that motivate and direct job incumbents, and how they alter according to life circumstance. This could benefit from a self-regulatory frame that would enable the prediction of the different adaptive strategies (shift goals, alter perceptions, change behaviours, self-appraisal) that individuals may deploy when taking on a role, or over the duration of extended incumbency.
2. Individual differences: A deeper appreciation is needed for the role of stable individual differences in people’s adoption and performance of work roles. This would be especially appropriate in assessing the degree to which job incumbents actively seek to ‘craft’ or more radically alter their jobs, and how they appraise the risks of doing so.
3. Sex: Various predictions could be tested around the preferences and choices men and women characteristically make around some of the main parameters of work roles, including modes of enactment, responses to incentives, pursuit of status, and other outcomes.
4. Status: As a primary goal of most employees (subject to gender and individual differences variation), this probably deserves more separate attention than it has received, since it is critical not just to the familiar parameters of job design, such as discretion, but also to a range of valued outcomes. The likelihood of status seeking impairing other aspect of person-job fit in particular could be investigated.
5. Group context: How jobs are embedded in networks of interaction and association is also a key consideration for understanding how people respond to pressures, incentives and rules. Cooperation and completive behaviours are readily induced by management frameworks. The role of supervisors as active elements in the co-evolution of job incumbent’s response to work is also implicated.
6. Wider contact: The co-evolutionary argument is that the work environment operates as cultures, and sometimes committed, within which different strategies for optimising person-job fit may be enacted. The evolutional approach requires the integration of levels of analysis and can help the field to integrate the plethora of current mid-range theorising around topics in job design.

Source: Nicholson, 2010, p. 429 [60].


It is important to realise that the process of job/work design should be seen as one that is long-term and is continuous, if effective and sustainable effects are to be achieved. Although short-term assessments are useful and would realise change, job/work redesign that is done over longer periods would allow evaluations at different stages of the process to gauge progress in the outcomes, [61] and thereby determine if these are achieving the required results or would need to be adjusted.


Conclusions

Job/work design has evolved and continues to evolve to meet the demands of a dynamic work environment. An holistic approach [62] [63] [64] that is in line to obtain an output of organisational excellence sees a movement away from job design to an integrated improvement strategy [65], that is one that is incorporated into the work principles of the organisation and not seen as a ‘one-off’ intervention.


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  65. Genaidy, A., Salem, S., Karwowski, W., Paez, O. & Tuncel, S., ‘The work compatibility improvement framework: an integrated perspective of the human-at-work system’, Ergonomics, Vol. 50, No 1, 2007, pp. 3-25.


Links for further reading

Bergamasco, R., Girola, C. & Colombini, D., 'Guidelines for designing jobs featuring repetitive tasks', Ergonomics, Vol. 41, No 9, 1998, pp. 1364-1383.

Canadian Centre for Occupational Health & Safety (2008). Basic Information. Retrieved 17 May 2012, from: [1]

Genaidy, A., Salem, S., Karwowski, W., Paez, O. & Tuncel, S., ‘The work compatibility improvement framework: an integrated perspective of the human-at-work system’, Ergonomics, Vol. 50, No 1, 2007, pp. 3-25.

ILO - International Labour Organization (no date). Your health and safety at work. Ergonomics. Retrieved 17 May 2012, from: [2]

Queinnec, Y. & Daniellou, F., Designing for everyone (Conception ergonomique pour tous), Proceedings of the 11th Congress of the International Ergonomics Association, held in Paris in 1991, International Ergonomics Association, Taylor and Francis Ltd., Basingstoke, Hampshire, 1991