A large percentage of the workforce are employed in ‘knowledge’ jobs, cognitively demanding jobs such as IT engineers, academics, and accountants. These jobs are known to be stressful for the workers, however, job redesign is challenging. Over 14 months, a participative organizational-level health intervention was evaluated across six organizations in Denmark. The intervention was designed to improve working conditions and psychological well-being of knowledge workers.
Who conducted the study?
Ole Henning Sørensen of the Aalborg University, Aalborg, Denmark at the Department of Business and Management.
David Holman of The University of Manchester, Manchester, UK at the Manchester Business School.
What was the aim of the study?
Knowledge work jobs focus on the acquisition, creation and application of knowledge, and can be very motivating and rewarding. At the same time, knowledge jobs can be experienced as stressful.
There are many reasons knowledge jobs can be stressful. Jobs may make demands that exceed the abilities of workers, long working hours make it can stress at home and work, high task uncertainty makes assessing progress difficult, and the high levels of job require considerable mental effort and act as a chronic stressor.
The aims of this study were to examine how organizational-level occupational health (OL-OH) initiatives can benefit knowledge workers and to show how implementation can shape the success of these interventions. Various factors such as management support, employee participation can affect the intervention.
In the past there have been very few published studies for OL-OH intervention in knowledge work jobs. These studies have produced inconsistent findings. In this study, researchers use a longitudinal mixed methods evaluation of a participative OL-OH intervention, as only one other study uses this method in the field of knowledge workers.
What did they find?
The study found there were five key phases to an OL-OH intervention. Preparation (setting up the project and securing support), screening (determining the appropriate problems and solutions), action planning (designing the implementation and securing the necessary support), implementation (involving the right people and executing plans), and evaluation (learning from the course of events). During implementation phase, a high implementation group, a medium-implementation group, and a non implemention group formed due to difference in type and extent of initiative and speed of implementation.
Results showed that support must be given at key points in the intervention process, particularly soon after intervention workshops (when ideas need to be developed further and made workable), and also during the implementation process, to ensure that change initiatives are widely adopted. The results of the multilevel regression indicated that improvements in relational job characteristics were significantly greater in the high-implementation group with regard to all the relational variables except co-worker support.
The study found that occupational health initiatives among knowledge workers should focus on reducing task uncertainty and ambiguity and on increasing an employee’s ability to coordinate action with others. The findings suggest that initiatives to improve management and colleague feedback and to formalize rules and procedures regulating task coordination and social interaction can have positive effects on knowledge work job characteristics and on well-being.
Important factors inhibiting the implementation of work process initiatives were established norms concerning social interaction and the differences in meaning that people attached to initiatives. This shows that the introduction of work process initiatives may require the social meaning and relational implications of workplace changes to be considered.
Why are these findings important?
Preventing stress in knowledge work jobs is important, as they constitute a significant proportion of jobs in many developed economies and may constitute up to 25% of jobs in Denmark. The findings of this study reflect the growing need for understanding how the design and implementation of OL-OH interventions shapes their success or otherwise.
OL-OH initiatives are shown to benefit knowledge workers. Implementation factors are also shown to shape the success of the OL-OH initiatives. This study confirms that effective communication, employee acceptance and willingness to adopt a new initiative, together with support from senior management, are important implementation factors in occupational health interventions.
This study also confirms lessons from sociotechnical theory related to industrial work, social and technical changes are interrelated. The successful implementation of OL-OH initiatives may require a set of skills that may not be normally possessed by participants who are infrequently engaged in change activities.
This process evaluation highlighted the challenges related to implementing work process initiatives by showing the possible benefits of using formalized rules and procedures in knowledge work jobs.
Where can these results be applied?
Preventing stress is important for all aspects of life, but especially in the workplace. An OL-OH intervention presents one possible means of dealing with the problematic aspects of knowledge work jobs. These results can also be applied to any job involving high demands and high stress, as well as to jobs involving management, colleague feedback, or more ambiguous requirements.
Future studies of occupational health interventions for knowledge workers could focus on whether the formalization and the development of an enabling bureaucracy is a valid approach to take, exploring the social meanings of formalization and other changes for knowledge workers, focusing on how support can be provided during the implementation of an intervention while still developing ideas and action plans in order to complement support typically provided, or examining the control that knowledge workers have over when and who they interact with in their jobs.
In recent news, the BIM Journal reported that millions of working days were lost due to work-related stress. Nicola Gillen suggests that redesigning and reimagining the workplace is key to enhance employee well being, improve performance, and increased productivity.
Sørensen, O. H., & Holman, D. (2014). A participative intervention to improve employee well-being in knowledge work jobs: A mixed-methods evaluation study. Work & Stress, 28(1), 67-86.