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“As a psychology undergraduate”, Monica explains “I was focused on clinical psychology, but I became more interested in systems and how they have an impact on health and wellbeing at scale”. She also spent time working in not-for-profit organisations. “I was working with really driven, caring people who were passionate about what they did, but because of the work design, there were high levels of stress and burnout”.
In this conversation with Monica who works at Curtin University’s Centre for Transformative Work Design, we discuss her mixed-method study on Australian financial and professional services employees experiencing anxiety and distress about climate change, and her work on the Design for Care project, focused on work redesign for healthcare and social assistance organisations.
Speaking about her climate anxiety study which examined the experience of financial and professional staff on the issue of climate change and how the workplace influences their cognitions, emotions and behaviours, Monica notes. “Not everyone I spoke to for my study expressed climate anxiety, but those that did would describe really detailed and intense scenarios that they were worried about”. What Monica discovered through her study was that it is vital for companies to have genuine responses to climate change and provide spaces for discussion.
“Employees may face psychosocial risks if they are concerned about climate change but aren’t able to act in a way that’s coherent with their concerns, and they might further disengage from their work”, says Monica. “On the flip side, employees able to act in accordance with their environmental beliefs have been found to have higher rates of self-efficacy and resilience. Creating opportunity for employees to meaningfully respond to climate change can also generate creative problem-solving.”
It's Monica’s focus on understanding workplace meaningfulness that leads the conversation to work design, and the Design for Care project, of which she is a member of the research team. “Led by Professor Sharon Parker, Curtin University’s Centre for Transformative Design, with Associate Professors Anya Johnson and Helena Nguyen at The University of Sydney, and Professor Alex Collie at Monash University, Design for Care is a research project funded by World Congress Gold Sponsor, icare NSW aimed at developing and assessing work design interventions to create mentally healthy workplaces in the NSW healthcare and social assistance industry”.
Here, we pause to have Monica explain the meaning of work design. “Work design is about the tasks, responsibilities, and relationships within a role. It’s the ‘what’ and ‘how’ of our work, which impacts how we feel about our work” explains Monica. “It includes our role clarity, how interesting the tasks are, our opportunities to receive feedback and develop skills as well as autonomy and our amount of decision-making control”. And whilst this seems very straightforward, redesigning work is not always easy. “Work design needs to be sustainable, and enable people to live good lives, and produce good work consistently”.
“The Design for Care project came about due to the high rates of workers compensation claims for psychological injury in the healthcare and social assistance industry”, Monica explains. “Our research team from Monash University found that between 2011 and 2021, the NSW healthcare and social assistance industry alone, lost more than 170,000 working weeks to staff psychological injury. These claims were putting enormous pressures on insurance rates and non-profit organisations and driving up the price of service provision”.
The project team works with healthcare and social assistance organisations to understand what the work design challenges are for employees, which might contribute to the high rates of psychological injury. “Then”, says Monica, “we co-create solutions to address the challenges”.
Monica explains that “our process of co-creation of work design interventions is guided by Professor Parker’s SMART Work Design Model. We work with leaders and frontline staff to identify work design celebrations and challenges, as well as building internal research capacity so that teams can utilise data and evidence-based practice”.
It’s clear, listening to Monica speak about this work, that for her, collaboration and giving employees multiple opportunities to learn about work design and build solutions collectively, is crucial to empowering employees in the healthcare and social assistance industry. “A common challenge is employees thinking that changing work design is in the hands of executives, but actually, there are many things that managers and employees can do to improve their own work design”.
And the research team is already seeing positive results, with the creation of several interventions arising from the work redesign workshops, which are currently being evaluated. “The solutions are wide ranging”, Monica enthuses. “From team check-ins with employee affirmations to help improve employee relationships, to structured handovers that facilitate staff knowledge sharing and role clarity”. She also shares that “organisations participating in the study are pleased to see that involving staff in this progress can make such a positive difference. It demonstrates the value of giving employees a sense of autonomy and developing a true culture of caring for each other”.
By centring staff in this process, Monica can see the potential for great work design and improved employee wellbeing. “Nobody is more of an expert in work design than the employees who work in the roles every day, so it’s crucial that they are included in decision making and consultation”. “And” Monica says emphatically “leaders must support and amplify the positive effects of the redesign solutions. We need both bottom up and top-down solutions that work together”.
As a speaker at the World Congress, Monica is excited to be participating in the Our Precarious Planet: Climate Change and OSH symposium, which she sees as an opportunity to share her research findings on climate anxiety in the professional sector. “I feel privileged to be included on this panel of speakers, because everyone is doing such important work to really shine a light on the human cost of climate change on workers right now”. The chance to hear “how the speakers feel we can best mitigate the impact of climate change on workers” is also a focus for Monica.
And as a delegate, Monica is keen to connect. “I’m looking forward to meeting with other experts who are passionate about employee work health and safety, sharing knowledge and establishing connections that we can utilise to continue our research”. That’s the power of delegates from over 127 countries coming together in Sydney for the 23rd World Congress, many opportunities for connection, collaboration and shaping the future. There’s still time to register, so don’t hesitate.