Companies have to deal with how working conditions affect employee well-being.

By Erin L. Kelly 6 minutes Read

If you work for a large company, you know that its management cares about you believing that the company cares about your well-being. You receive emails from HR offering wellness programs that encourage health-promoting behaviors, such as exercise or quitting smoking. But recent research suggests that these wellness programs often have limited effectiveness. To truly build a healthier future of work, employers will need to identify how their own management practices contribute to poor employee health and work to change them. The good news is that such changes don’t need to be expensive and often benefit the organization as well as the workers.

The first step for business leaders is to recognize that working 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 grown in popularity over the past decades have negative effects on the health and well-being of workers. For example, many companies in service industries such as retail have turned to just-in-time scheduling policies that attempt to match staff coverage with fluctuating demand in stores.

The goal is to increase efficiency, but the result for frontline workers is schedules that can vary dramatically from week to week. This unpredictability of schedules has detrimental effects on the psychological well-being of workers and their children, and increases the likelihood that these households will experience economic hardship such as hunger. Additionally, research has found that workers of color in the service industry, especially women of color, are likely to have more unpredictable — and therefore potentially dangerous — schedules than their white counterparts.

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

Whether due to “always-on” technologies (such as email, direct messaging apps and mobile phones) or increased global competition, or both, research indicates that the proportion of workers who feel overloaded at work, i.e. they have more to do 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 at a Fortune 500 company, many employees reported work overload. For them, the long hours and demands of always being available via digital technologies have led to stress and burnout.

Work should not be a source of excessive and unhealthy overload and stress. At the Fortune 500 company studied by our team, we conducted an experiment that redesigned work practices and policies to improve employee health while reducing burnout and voluntary turnover.

More recently, a group of colleagues from the Harvard TH Chan School of Public Health and I identified a wide range of organizational practices that research has shown promote health and well-being in the workplace. These practices involve three general principles:

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

Research shows that not having a say in how your job is done is detrimental to your health and well-being. For example, the combination of high demands on employees (such as pressure to work fast) and a lack of control over their work increases their risk of diabetes as well as death from cardiovascular disease. Conversely, giving employees more say in their work, for example by giving them greater control over their work schedule or the ability to take on new tasks independently, can improve well-being. Increasing employee voice in how they do their jobs could also help reduce racial inequalities in health, as black employees tend to report having less control in the workplace than white workers.

2: Control excessive work demands

Managers naturally 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, high levels of work-related stress can have negative effects on the business, as stress can impair employees’ ability to sleep well, concentrate at work, and take good decisions. High stress or health issues can also make employees more likely to quit, creating turnover costs for the organization.

An effective management strategy to combat burnout is to engage employees in identifying processes that can be improved and low-value work that can be eliminated or reduced, such as reducing the size of a regular meeting. which has more participants than necessary.

3: Foster positive social relations in the workplace

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

These three general principles apply to all types of work, from overburdened knowledge workers and middle managers to frontline workers in service industries. By implementing these ideas, managers can redesign work for health and, in doing so, often achieve positive business results.

An experiment carried out in Gap is a good illustration of this. As part of the experiment, managers at participating Gap stores increased the stability of worker schedules, introduced an app to make it easier for workers to swap shifts, and offered more hours to a core group of employees. part time.

These changes have had positive effects on workers’ 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 led to improvements in income and productivity. Stores that made these changes in scheduling practices saw productivity improve by an average of 5%. In recent years, some cities and states have enacted stable hours regulations, and new research reveals that these ordinances can improve workers’ well-being and economic security; but companies can also make these changes without this regulatory push.

Even smaller-scale changes can make a difference. For example, one study found that employees who were given the opportunity to participate in a structured problem-solving process to resolve workplace issues were less likely to experience burnout and want to quit their job.

To facilitate learning about these types of changes and how they can be implemented, my colleagues and I have synthesized the results of many studies on work and well-being into a free web-based toolkit for managers. Forward-thinking business leaders can adopt sound strategies to reduce the negative impact of common management practices on employee health and well-being.

Imagine a future of work in which all workers are treated with respect and dignity, and their experiences at work contribute to their well-being rather than threaten it. Such a future is within our reach as a society. However, to achieve this, business leaders must recognize the importance of fostering a healthy and inclusive future of work and act accordingly.


Erin L. Kelly is the Sloan Professor Emeritus of Labor and Organizational Studies at the MIT Sloan School of Management and co-director of the MIT Institute for Labor and Employment Research. She is co-author, with Phyllis Moen, of the book Overload: how good jobs have gone bad and what we can do about it.

How healthy is the future of work? is a series of essays featuring people working at the forefront of their fields and sharing how emerging trends will affect the health of our nation’s workers and workplaces in the future.

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