Domains in Action – Preventing harm through good job design
By the APS Mental Health and Suicide Prevention Unit (APSC)
Australian Public Service (APS) agencies are flexible, agile and responsive to the needs of government and the community. This includes being able to deliver outcomes with increased levels of productivity, streamlined processes and using new technologies. The dynamic landscape of the APS has resulted in an increased focus on how we design work not only to get tasks done, but also to enhance employee mental health, wellbeing and engagement.
Rachael McMahon is the Principal Psychologist and Director of the APS Mental Health and Suicide Prevention Unit (the Unit), within the Australian Public Service Commission. Rachael notes that job design is a key action item supporting the Prevent Harm domain of the APS Mental Health Capability Framework (the framework). “The framework provides a bespoke and systems-based approach to building mental health and suicide prevention capability within the APS. It acts as an overarching architecture for agencies to use as a base from which to build mental health capability, while remaining flexible and adaptable to agency-specific needs. Agencies are encouraged to develop roles using the principles of job quality and good work design to focus on the prevention of workplace injury or illness.”
Job design can occur for a single role, a team, job family or across an entire agency. Irrespective of the focus, employee consultation and sound change management is critical to success. Changes in job design can have an impact on an employee’s mental health and wellbeing directly or indirectly. Job design elements have a lasting impacting on employee mental health and wellbeing.
Job design elements that can impact employee mental health include:
- Demand and control  – the physical, emotional and cognitive demands of a job role on an individual and their ability to control these demands (e.g. high demands such as time pressure and low control over prioritisation, delegation or capacity management) can influence stress.
- Resources and engagement – providing employees access to adequate resources, support, constructive feedback, work variety and development opportunities can increase employee engagement and provides opportunities for employees to exert some control over their tasks and how their job is designed.
- Job characteristics – skill variety, task identity, task significance, autonomy and feedback are core factors that contribute to employees attaching meaning to their work, feeling that they have responsibility over outcomes and having knowledge of what results look like. These in turn lead to better job outcomes in the form of intrinsic motivation, job satisfaction and better job performance.
- Emotional nature of the work – how well the impacts of exposure to emotionally impactful events/material are mitigated by organisations to ensure there’s support, intervention and acknowledgement.
Sam Junor, the Framework Implementation Lead says the Unit is providing practical implementation support and coaching to APS agencies as they align their practices to the framework, and that there is a lot agencies can do to meet the spirit of the domain. “The concept of designing work to minimise harm, particularly in a psychosocial context, is starting to gain real momentum in the APS. A lot of agencies are already doing work to embody this, such as re-positioning policies to focus on principles of autonomy and flexibility in how work is structured in relation to flexible working arrangements or implementing job sharing arrangements to accommodate part-time workers.”
Under the Prevent Harm domain, other practical examples that can support good job design include:
- Create detailed role descriptions and communicate information about any psychological or emotional demands inherent to the role to enable applicants to make informed choices about the positon before applying for it.
- Consider arrangements for staff commencing in psychologically demanding roles to allow for a period of adjustment and assessment of job fit between the person and role.
- Build in structured onboarding and offboarding procedures for staff working with objectionable or emotionally demanding material.
- Embed routine formal and informal check-in processes for staff working in demanding areas.
- Share information on principles of good work design with staff and managers, using information promoted by trusted sources such as Safe Work Australia as a starting point.
- Build the job design capability within HR teams by engaging with the Workforce Planning Centre of Excellence.
Taking a person-centric approach, engaging and consulting with employees who are performing the tasks, following processes and using systems is important. From an operational perspective, it provides an opportunity for decision makers to understand how work is performed as well as the relevant inter-dependencies between people, systems and technology. By involving employees in job design, agencies can support employee mental health and wellbeing by providing an opportunity for inclusive practice and validation of employee knowledge and experience which can also lead to better outcomes.
In a competitive employment market, roles need to fit the agency and provide challenging, stimulating and rewarding opportunities for prospective and current employees. This makes good business sense.
For more information on the APS Mental Health Capability Framework please contact MHSP@apsc.gov.au
Rachael McMahon, Principal Psychologist and Director of the APS Mental Health and Suicide Prevention Unit. “The APS Mental Health Capability Framework provides a bespoke and systems-based approach to building mental health and suicide prevention capability within the APS.
 Karasek, R., & Theorell, T. (1990). Healthy work: Stress, productivity, and the reconstruction of working life. Basic Books.
 Hackman, J. R. & Oldham, G. R. (1974). The job diagnostic survey: An instrument for the diagnosis of jobs and evaluation of job redesign projects. Yale University, School of Organization and Management.