Experts agree that getting job design right is one of the essential elements to establishing wellbeing in the workplace.

That was one of the key takeaways from Health Central’s ChalkTalks panel discussion on Wellbeing in the Workplace, held this week in Wellington.

Good job design first step towards wellbeing

Terry Buckingham, Health and Wellbeing Manager for Fonterra New Zealand was among the panellists.

“Any health and wellbeing programme has to be built on the foundation of good work design,” he said.

Associate Professor Bevan Catley of Massey University said it’s about focusing on the work environment and committing to addressing sub-optimal workplace factors.

“So making sure you’ve got role clarity. Have people got enough resources to do their job? Can they cope with the demands?”

Catley added that flexibility needed to be applied to job design to allow for the needs of different workers. An older worker might approach a job differently to someone in their twenties, for example.

Alex Beattie, social media and wellbeing researcher at Victoria University of Wellington, suggested flexibility needed to be applied to workplace design as well.

He said the open-plan office environments typically suited extroverts best, people who work well in teams.

“But for a third of the population we’re actually better working by ourselves and we’re much more creative when we’re by ourselves.”

“I’d like organisations to recognise that some people like to work by themselves or in solitude.”

Regardless of the sector, regardless of the job, it’s important to get the job and workplace design right, said Jude Urlich, general manager strategy and engagement for WorkSafe.

“Poor job design can lead to impairment which can lead to injury and stress and anxiety and poor mental health,” she said.

“It’s a reasonably practical thing for an employer to use the language of the legislation to ask, have I got the job design right? What is the impact of this job design on the wellbeing of my workers? How is the competency of my leadership, my management affecting the wellbeing of my workers?”

Management competencies a key ingredient

Bevan Catley agrees management is well placed to influence job design and therefore we should be focused on developing management competencies.

“What we’re really good at is promoting the technical competencies,” he said, “so managers get to a management position because of their technical competencies…but actually when they come to that management role those technical competencies become less important; it’s the interpersonal competencies [that matter]. What we would like to see is continued investment into those interpersonal competencies.”

He said that poor management is likely to have an effect on workplace bullying.

“There seems to be an indication partly why we have the issues that we do in New Zealand; why we have hierarchical bullying might be linked to management competencies.”

Alastair Duncan, industrial leader at E tū, said that it’s not easy to address poor management.

“If we see a faulty piece of machinery there’s likely to be a regulation to deal with it. If we see a faulty piece of management whose responsibility is it that that’s corrected? I think that’s the challenge.”

Buckingham said these interpersonal skills are generally “caught, not taught” and that people need an appetite to learn these skills.

Jude Urlich said part of good management is making an effort to really know who people are.

“In my team, do I know who my workers are?” she said. “Do I know what makes them tick? Do I know that they are needing some support to manage some difficult family situation right now? Are they aware they have access to employee assistance programmes? Do I validate the cultural needs of my workers? Do I even know they exist?

“There’s still a responsibility to have effective leadership and management practices – but you need to engage workers in these conversations,” she said.

Within the parameters of employment legislation

However, Alastair Duncan said that what workers in many sectors really want is for employers to get the fundamental aspects of employment and job design right – things like pay, staffing ratios, hours.

“It comes down to things like pay equity,” he said. “The women cleaning the offices all around Wellington – in 1990 they were paid 24 per cent above the minimum wage, today they’re paid 25 cents above the minimum wage. We’ve seen a hollowing out, a devaluing. We’ve got a long way to go.”

Duncan drew attention to the inherent inequality of our employment relationships that resulted from 1990s’ employment legislation, which saw New Zealand deregulate its workforce and remove all references to workers’ rights. He argued that imbalances still exist even under the Employment Relations Act, citing the “good faith” concept as an example.

“Good faith can often mean we don’t make mistakes,” he said. “This is about power challenges and New Zealand is a country where most workers do not have a collective voice for bargaining and that surely diminishes power that we can share with the community.”

New Zealand was the first country in the world to legislate for the 40-hour week, said Duncan.

“The same day we lost the 40-hour week, we lost the statutory right to paid overtime.”

He said that while some companies are toying with the idea of a four-day week, it’s important to remember that many sectors, like community support or farming for example, don’t have that luxury.

Culture is critical

Whether we’re talking about a dairy farm, a rest home, an SME or a large corporate, panellists agreed that wellbeing in any workplace hinges on getting the culture right.

“It’s about values and culture in the organisation,” said Urlich. “Leadership, critical risk, worker engagement are three key parts of the package. And getting that worker voice is absolutely essential.”

She cited a McKinsey article published in November 2018 that shows that management practices that focus on incentives and on employees’ mindsets and values make workplaces safer. The researchers point to a clear correlation between organisational health and the rate of injuries.

WorkSafe is doing some research in this space, including partnering with Massey University to delve into the organisational health within seven occupational groups. Urlich is perturbed to find high levels of workplace bullying in many of the groups, including from customers.

“So that’s starting to tell us, New Zealand, we have a culture problem, and it’s quite deep. It’s in our schools and its starting to play out in workplaces,” says Urlich.

“All of our society needs to stand up and take some responsibility and start having a conversation about our society. We have road rage, supermarket rage, domestic violence, bullying at work – what is that telling us? As a society we need to talk about it.”

Alastair Duncan agrees.

“Cultures are shaped by the norms of societies and norms are informed by the rules and regulations – be they explicit in terms of statute or implicit in terms of how we deal with each other,” he said.

Terry Buckingham believes we’re making progress, but still have a long way to go.

“We are starting to open up more as New Zealanders to seek support not only from our family but from our colleagues,” he said. “I think it’s a good thing – we’ve been through that evolution for safety but we’ve got some way to go in terms of health.”

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