Companies need to confront how working conditions affect the quality of employees.

Written by Erin L. Kelly 6 minutes Read

If you work for a large company, you know that its leadership is eager to believe that the company cares about your well-being. You receive emails from Human Resources offering health programs that encourage health-promoting behaviors such as exercise or smoking cessation. But recent research indicates that these wellness programs often have limited efficacy. To truly build a healthier work future, employers will need to address how their own management practices contribute to employee ill health — and focus on changing it. The good news is that such changes do not need to be costly, and often benefit the organization and workers alike.

The first step for business leaders is to recognize that working conditions can have a significant impact on employee health, and that these conditions reflect management decisions that can be reconsidered. Unfortunately, many of the business practices that have increased in popularity in recent decades have negative effects on the health and well-being of workers. For example, many companies in service industries such as retail have been attracted to just-in-time scheduling policies that attempt to reconcile employee coverage with fluctuating demand in stores.

The goal is to increase efficiency, but the result for frontline workers are schedules that can vary widely from week to week. This unexpected scheduling has adverse effects on the psychological well-being of workers and their children, and increases the likelihood that these families will experience economic hardship such as starvation. Moreover, research has found that workers of color in the service industry, especially women of color, are more likely to be given unexpected—and therefore potentially harmful—scheduling than their white counterparts.

However, the negative health effects of business practices are not limited to one sector. For one thing, many companies in the United States do not offer a good living wage or benefits to their frontline employees, and lower incomes are associated with negative health outcomes. But even for employees who aren’t stuck in low-paying jobs, research suggests that US workplaces in general are more stressful than they were several decades ago.

Whether this is the result of “always on” technologies (such as email, direct messaging apps, and mobile phones), intense global competition, or both, research indicates that the proportion of workers who feel overburdened at work – that is, they have more to accomplish than they can normally do. Good — it has increased over time. In a study my colleagues and I conducted several years ago for white-collar IT employees at a Fortune 500 company, many employees reported increased workload. For them, long working hours and the demands that always have to be met through digital technologies have resulted in stress and burnout.

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

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

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

Research shows that the inability to have a say in how work is performed is detrimental to an individual’s health and well-being. For example, the combination of high demands on employees (such as pressure to work quickly) and lack of control over their jobs increases the risk of diabetes as well as death from cardiovascular disease. Conversely, giving employees a greater role in their work—for example, by providing greater control over their work schedule or providing the opportunity to take on new tasks independently—can improve well-being. Increasing employees’ opinion of how they do their work can also help reduce racial inequality in health outcomes, as black employees tend to report less control over the workplace than white workers.

2: Curb excessive work demands

It’s understandable that managers want employees to work hard, but in the long run, overworking can be counterproductive. Working long hours or under stressful conditions is associated with negative health consequences over time, including an increased risk of stroke or cardiovascular disease. Even if employees don’t get sick, persistent levels of work-related stress can have negative effects on work, as stress can negatively affect employees’ ability to sleep well, focus at work, and make good decisions. Severe stress or health issues can also increase the likelihood of employees quitting, leading to costs associated with the business cycle of the organization.

One effective management strategy to combat overwork is to enlist employee input to identify processes that can be improved and low-value work that can be eliminated or reduced – eg, downsizing a regular meeting with too many attendees.

3: Promote positive social relationships in the workplace

Studies have shown that strong social relationships are extremely important to people’s health and well-being, and this extends to the workplace. Having positive social interactions at work can mitigate the negative effects of work-related stress and make it easier for team members 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 attitudes toward work.

These three overarching principles are relevant 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 business for health—and in the process, often achieve beneficial business outcomes.

An experiment conducted at Gap provides a good example of this. In the experiment, managers at participating Gap stores increased the stability of workers’ schedules, introduced an app that allowed workers to swap shifts more easily with one another, and freed a core group of part-time employees more hours.

These changes had positive effects on workers’ health and well-being, with employees reporting better sleep quality and those with children reporting less fatigue. Perhaps most surprising was the extent to which these changes resulted in improvements in revenue and productivity. Stores that made these changes to their scheduling practices saw their productivity improve by 5% on average. In recent years, some cities and states have adopted stable scheduling systems, and new research has found that these laws can improve workers’ welfare and economic security; But companies can also make these changes without that regulatory push.

Even changes on a smaller scale can make a difference. For example, one study found that employees who had the opportunity to participate in a structured problem-solving process to address problems in their workplace were less likely to be fatigued and want to quit their job.

To make it easier to learn more about these types of changes and how they can be implemented, my colleagues and I have compiled findings from several studies on work and wellbeing into a free online toolkit for managers. Forward-thinking business leaders can adopt sound strategies to reduce the negative impact of co-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 work experiences contribute to their well-being rather than threaten it. Such a future is within our grasp as a society. However, achieving this requires business leaders to recognize the importance of promoting a healthy and inclusive future for business – and to act on that knowledge.

Erin L. Kelly is the Sloan Distinguished Professor of Labor and Organizational Studies at the MIT Sloan School of Management and co-director of the MIT Employment and Labor Research Institute. She co-wrote the book with Phyllis Moen Overload: How Bad Functions Did and What We Can Do About It.

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