Opinion article

SMART Work Design: A preventative approach to mental health at work

Work design is (rightly) being seen as a way to address psychosocial hazards in the workplace in Australian organisations right now. Self-managing teams are now at the heart of “radical” work designs used by companies that are seeing remarkable change: from passive to active; from disengaged to thriving; and from low to high performing. Distinguished Professor Sharon Parker writes that SMART Work Design is a healthier and more productive way to design work.

More than 30 years ago, I conducted my PhD research on the implementation of self-managing teams at a UK company. Self-managing teams are now at the heart of “radical” work designs used by companies that are seeing remarkable change: from passive to active; from disengaged to thriving; and from low to high performing.

I am thrilled to see such strong interest in work design in Australian organisations right now. Work design is (rightly) being seen as a way to address psychosocial hazards in the workplace.

What is work design? 

During the Industrial Revolution, the most popular way to design work was to break it down into small tasks and then assign one task to each person. Managers were given all the responsibility and decision-making. This approach, which became known as scientific management, was thought to be the most cost-effective because people could be easily trained and were readily replaceable.

But the resulting repetition and lack of autonomy resulted in alienation, boredom, stress and injury for workers, as well as strikes, absenteeism, turnover and inflexibility for organisations.

Hundreds of subsequent research studies have shown that there are healthier and more productive ways to design work. SMART Work Design captures this evidence in one simple model.

What is SMART work design?

More than 100 years of evidence shows the key ingredients for a healthy, motivating and meaningful work role are as follows:

  • Stimulating work refers to having a job with task variety, that employs a range of skills, that provides the chance to further learn and develop, and that has some challenge and meaning. An example of a lack of stimulation in work is having a highly repetitive set of tasks in which individuals have no chance to develop and grow their skills.
  • Mastery at work is enabled when workers have a clear understanding of their roles and responsibilities (role clarity) and receive feedback on their job performance. Mastery is also boosted if workers know how their work fits into the bigger picture of the organisation. Low mastery is not only stressful, it also impairs worker performance.
  • Agency is about autonomy, control and influence. People have a fundamental need to be in control of their lives. At work, this means allowing workers discretion over work timing (when they do things), work methods (how they approach their tasks, including the chance to use their initiative), work schedules (where/when they work) and day-to-day work decisions. Low agency generates learned helplessness and fosters a narrow “that’s not my job” mindset.
  • Relational work is about connections with others, such as having support from peers and leaders, the opportunity in the job for positive social contact, belonging to a team and the chance to make a difference to the lives of others. Relational work is important because all human beings have a fundamental need to belong and connect with other people.
  • Tolerable work means having job demands that are manageable. Job demands are the aspects of work that require effort (e.g., physical, cognitive or emotional effort), and therefore can take a psychological toll on people. Job demands should not exceed people’s ability to cope with them. Examples of intolerable demands include working under constant time pressure, having chronically long working hours, or needing to deal frequently with abusive clients. One way to achieve more tolerable demands is to reduce them, such as by automating tasks. Providing more Stimulation, Mastery, Agency and Relational work also can help demands feel more tolerable. For instance, having support from your boss and peers can make working under pressure to meet deadlines feel tolerable.

Using the SMART Model

The SMART work design model can be used in different ways.

First, SMART captures the key modifiable aspects of work that affect employee mental health (sometimes referred to as psychosocial risks). Work can be “redesigned”. Focusing on SMART helps to shift the discussion away from solely focusing on individually-oriented solutions like resilience training to preventing harm by improving work (for more detail on this idea, see the Thrive at Work model).

Second, the SMART work design model can be used to improve hybrid working. Instead of focusing on questions like ‘should we have flexible working or not?’, ask ‘how can we create meaningful and high-performing work - irrespective of where it is carried out?’.

Third, the SMART work design model can be used to successfully implement automation, AI and other digital technologies, which can dramatically change work, both for the better or the worse. When technological change is introduced, managers, unions and change agents can use the SMART model to proactively design high-quality human work roles.

The time is right to ensure your workers have SMART work. As well as fostering mental and physical health and well-being, you will create a workforce that is high performing, motivated, creative, adaptive and ready to embrace the challenges of the future.

If using the SMART work design model, please acknowledge its creator, Sharon K. Parker, Curtin University, s.parker@curtin.edu.au

Resources and References

Free resources about the SMART model are here- smartworkdesign.com.au and about mental health more broadly are here: thriveatwork.org.au

A conference on work design featuring world-leading speakers on the topic, practical workshops, and thought-leading symposia, will be held in Perth, February 12-14, 2024. See www.transformativeworkdesign.com

About the authors

Sharon Parker

See all articles
Sharon Parker is an Australian Research Council Laureate Fellow, and a John Curtin Distinguished Professor of Organizational Behavior at the Curtin Faculty of Business and Law.