Keep up the ‘good work’

So what is ‘good work’ and how can we identify ‘good work’ to ensure workers obtain the positive mental health benefits of work? KATE THOMSON reports.


With awareness of the health benefits of work and the relationship between unemployment and ill health (be it mental health or sustaining a physical injury) rapidly increasing, it appears that a view point has formed that returning to any form of work after injury is good for our health. Recent studies however have shown that ‘bad work’ can be even worse for physical and mental health than unemployment.

In accordance with the Australasian Faculty of Occupational and Environments Medicine (AFOEM) companion statement, What is Good Work?, not all work has a beneficial impact on our health and that in order to reap the health, social and economic benefits of work, it must constitute “good work’’. So what is ‘good work’ and how can we identify ‘good work’ to ensure workers obtain the positive mental health benefits of work?

“Good Work” has been defined as a source of productive engagement, economic stability and personal interaction. What constitutes ‘good work’ in terms of job design and its characteristics has been researched in science by Hackman and Oldham (1975) Job Characteristics Model (JCM). The JCM is one of the most influential theories ever presented in the field of organisational psychology and has served as the basis for job design interventions for the past three decades.

The JCM identified the following set of characteristics for enriching and good quality jobs:

  • Skill variety: Using an appropriate variety of your skills and talents; too many might be overwhelming, too few, boring.
  • Task identity: Being able to identify with the work at hand as more whole and complete, hence enabling more pride to be taken in the outcome of that work.
  • Task significance: Being able to identify the task as contributing to something wider, to society or a group over and beyond the self.
  • Autonomy: Responsibility is derived from autonomy when the job provides substantial freedom, independence and discretion to the individual in scheduling the work and in determining the procedures to be used in carrying it out.
  • Feedback: It implies an employee awareness of how effective he/she is converting his/her effort into performance. Feedback offers information that can be used to do things, it can come from other people or the job itself.

According to the theory, these core job characteristics are responsible for a psychological state:

  • Meaningfulness of work: That work has meaning to you, something that can be relatable to, and does not occur just as a set of movements to be repeated. This is fundamental to intrinsic motivation, i.e. that work in itself is motivating.
  • Experience responsibility for outcomes of work: The employee has been given the opportunity to be a success or failure at the job because of the sufficient freedom of action. This would include the ability to make changes and incorporate the learning gained whilst doing the job.
  • Knowledge of the results of work activities: This is important for two reasons. Firstly to provide the employee with knowledge on how successful their work has been, which in turn enables them to learn from mistakes. The second is to connect them emotionally to the customer of their outputs, thus giving further purpose to the work (e.g. I may only work on a production line, but I know that the food rations I produce are used to help people in disaster areas, saving many lives). 

Numerous studies have systematically assessed the JCM and the relationship between the psychological states (‘Experienced Meaningfulness, ‘Experienced Responsibility, and Knowledge of Results) and work outcomes. Previous research on work design showed that job characteristics can predict individual performance, but did not provide “why” and “how” this relationship existed. Job Characteristics Theory filled this gap by building a bridge between job characteristics and work-related outcomes through the use of the three critical psychological states. The Theory identifies that autonomy and feedback are essential characteristics of all quality job design or ‘good work’, because having agency over your work and having reinforcement that you are doing the right thing is motivating and energizing.

The empirical evidence tells us that every employee will define their five core job characteristics differently and there will be significant contrast across different occupations. For example, office workers will inherently place a higher value on task variety than a process worker who appears to place stronger emphasis on task significance.

When considering the JCM and the value of returning to good work following injury or illness, it is important for the employer to understand the elements that characterise meaningful work for an employee. This in turn will improve the chances of sustainable return to work outcomes. Employers and RTW Coordinators can develop an understanding of what constitutes good work for an employee by engaging in a conversation about the elements of good work using the JCM’s five core job characteristics, coupled with what is feasible from a business perspective.

Another key element of return to good work for an employee can be considered in the context of Karasek’s Job Demand Control model (1979). This widely used theoretical framework identifies two essential aspects of work design that enhance the psychological and physical well-being; job demand and job control.

  1. Job Demands: the psychological stressors involved in accomplishing the workload, stressors related to unexpected tasks, and stressors of jobrelated personal conflict
  2. Job Control: Decision latitude, the potential control the employee has over their work tasks.

Karasek’s Job Demand-Control model hypothesises that a combination of high job demands and low job control produced job strain. The most negative impact of psychological strain occurs among employees working with high job demands and low job control (high strain job). When developing ‘return to good work’ plans, elements of demand and control are recommended to be considered for a safe and sustainable return to work to occur.

Finally, more recent research in the area of positive psychology with Professor Martin Seligman, demonstrates that having an understanding of one’s own signature strengths can add value to an employee’s role. For an employee, having an understanding of their own signature strengths and how this may translate into adding personal meaning to an employee’s work can assist in gaining commitment and engagement to a role, as well as enhancing an employee’s overall psychological wellbeing.

The Development of “RTGW” Plans

Return to good work plans (RTGWP) will be most engaging, motivating and successful when the workers core job characteristics are explored and included in the plan. Having insight into an employee’s intrinsic motivators means that good work options or suitable duties can be readily identified and are more likely to be sustainable. We also know that General Practitioners are more likely to approve RTGW Plans when the worker is motivated and satisfied with the vocational options or work duties that have been identified. And as outline above, it is best practise to have these options reflective of the principles of Hackman and Oldham, Karasek, and positive psychology principles reflected in the work of Seligman.

Applying these principles that underpin ‘good work’, consider the example of a Truck Driver (Mr Odgers) being assisted to return back to work following a compensable injury. This worker was diagnosed with Adjustment Disorder after he witnessed a serious car accident and had a medical restriction of being unable to return to truck driving due to avoidant behaviours of being on the road reflective of an adjustment disorder. He did not meet the criteria for PTSD due to a lack of hyervigilence or hyperarousal in his presentation. The worker stated that while his job as a truck driver did not provide task variety or identity, he experienced meaningfulness through the realisation that others depended on his work, and customers needed the food that he was transporting around the country. This realisation led us to understand that task significance influenced his experience meaningfulness of the job. The worker disclosed that enjoyed the autonomy of his pre-injury role, he got to plan his driving trips, rest breaks and felt that he had control of his time. With an understanding of what characteristic constituted ‘good work’ for Mr Odgers the vocational option Heavy Vehicle Inspector was identified. This role relates to the importance he places on task significance, with the new role requiring him to maintain the safety of the public on our roads. And also autonomy, the role enabled Mr Odgers to schedule his own inspections and work in an unsupervised work environment. Mr Odgers successfully completed the necessary up skilling course and return to full-time employment within his new role for which he continues to describe as his dream job!

Final Comments

In the workplace, human capital or the employee is the most valuable asset of an organisation. Their dissatisfaction with their job will significantly affect their commitment and dedication to their work and the employer. By better understanding the drivers of meaningful and ‘good work’ employer are able to identify good quality jobs, jobs that motivate employees to work hard. In a return to work context, understanding the elements of what constitutes ‘good work’ for a worker returning to work following injury or illness is imperative as it allows for the identification of suitable duties (from their pre-injury duties tasks) that will engage and incentivise the worker to return back to work.

When identifying redeployment options for workers, the more we know about the workers intrinsic motivators and their own signature strengths, better quality jobs can be identified. This will inspire the worker to drive their own recovery and return back to work. Taking things a step further, ensuring that employers are designing good quality jobs, in accordance with the research outlined above, will assist with mitigating the risk of psychological claims in the first instance or support a timely return back to work for employees who have taken time off work following illness or injury.

Contact us now for more information on our RTGW services.