We spend approximately 4,821 days at work, or 13.2 years of our lives. It’s no surprise then that work greatly impacts our wellbeing. With mental health disorders predicted to be the leading cause of disease burden by 2020, there is growing interest in the public health arena to find ways to create and maintain mentally healthy workplaces.
Thrive at Work is a Curtin wellbeing initiative centred on designing work that helps employees, organisations and industry to go beyond wellness in the workplace, to thriving.
It’s founded on research that conclusively shows that if we’re happy at work and with our work, we’re happier and healthier in all domains of our lives.
The initiative, led by the Centre for Transformative Work Design within the Future of Work Institute at Curtin, is supported with foundational funding from the WA Mental Health Commission. It aims to provide evidence-based tools and resources to help workplaces promote positive mental health among employees.
“Organisations are uniquely positioned to have both a positive and negative impact on people’s mental health,” says lead researcher of Thrive at Work, Associate Professor Karina Jorritsma.
“There is often a lack of understanding from organisations that work not only needs to be a place where people are safe from harm, but a place where they can thrive, flourish and continually learn.”
While many organisations may provide wellbeing services for staff, such as mental health first aid training, mindfulness classes or counselling, Thrive at Work focuses on enhancing wellness through the tasks that people perform.
“A key element to creating mentally healthy workplaces and encouraging employees to thrive is work design,” Jorritsma says.
“By work design, we don’t mean ergonomic chairs or indoor plants, but rather the nature of work that people do.”
Director of the Centre for Transformative Work Design, Professor Sharon K Parker, defines work design as “the content and organisation of one’s tasks, activities, relationships and responsibilities in a job.
“In designing the role of a nurse, for example, work design considers questions such as, which tasks should the nurse do? Which tasks should be allocated to doctors or other medical professionals? How much patient care should there be relative to paper work?
“Often we don’t think about these questions because the job is already designed. Sometimes it’s only when symptoms of poor work design emerge, like high levels of burn out, or talented people leaving the job, that we start to ask these sorts of questions.”
While some jobs are naturally more challenging than others, good work design reduces the stressors of a work role as much as possible, and shifts the responsibility of wellbeing onto employers as well as employees.
“There is only so much an individual can do to protect themselves mentally. It’s not enough for organisations to expect individuals to cope with problems themselves.
“Organisations need to think about their work environment and what they’re asking people to do,” Jorritsma says.
Thrive at Work is developing evidenced-based resources, including a thrive framework, an audit tool and evaluation mechanisms that will enable organisations and employees to measure the effectiveness of pre-existing work design and wellbeing practices, and identify areas of improvement.
“We’ve also developed a range of tools for employees, such as focus group methodology and perception surveys, so they can identify the biggest demands and stressors of their work.
“With foundational funding from the WA Mental Health Commission, we will continue to grow partnerships that enable us to monitor these programs, and work closely with organisations to develop effective work design strategies.”
Thrive at Work has already demonstrated that good work design leads to a range of positive outcomes such as productivity, decreased turnover, increased commitment of employees and greater job satisfaction. This is especially pertinent during a time of a technological and societal change.
“Work design has always been important, but with the type of rapid changes we’re seeing within the digital age, understanding the impact of these rapid changes on the health, wellbeing and motivation of the workforce is increasingly urgent and complex.
“The Thrive initiative aims to support organisations to design high quality work that capitalises on these changes, rather than just mitigating some of the risks,” Jorritsma says.
With more than $9billion of Australian Government funding allocated to mental health, Thrive at Work will play an instrumental role in future-proofing the workforce and ensuring all individuals have the opportunity to achieve wellness, both within and outside the workplace.
“Many organisations recognise that the actual work their employees do needs to be re-examined, but aren’t sure how to go about it,” Jorritsma says.
“Thrive at Work will give them the knowledge, tools and skills to do it.”