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MIT Better World

By Kara Baskin

The long-held focus on efficiency and productivity has been dwarfed by the most human need of all: safety.

This makes Erin Kelly’s work particularly timely. As the Sloan Distinguished Professor of Work and Organization Studies at MIT, her research focuses on how to make workplaces more equitable, sustainable, and supportive of people’s health and well-being. These outcomes are important in their own right, and research suggests that organizations also benefit in terms of engagement, retention, and productivity when their employees are happier, healthier, and feel they belong, she says.

“How do we organize work, and how do we set up workplace policies and practices to do right by workers and still get the job done?” asks Kelly, who is also the co-director of the MIT Institute for Work and Employment Research. Covid-19 has drawn those priorities to the fore.

“The positive spin is that the pandemic has laid bare problems that need to be addressed and made it more obvious to a broader audience that work fundamentally affects people’s well-being and health,” says Kelly, who focuses mainly on workers in health care, warehouses, and information technology (IT), three sectors feeling the strain of Covid-19 in different ways.

Health care workers are under enormous mental strain, experiencing burnout due to the intensity of the crisis, in addition to facing physical risks. Warehouse workers are facing new safety risks along with their usual long and unpredictable hours. IT workers, along with others in white-collar jobs, are suffering from exhaustion due to poor work-life boundaries.

In all cases, Kelly says, empowering workers is the key to ensuring health and happiness on the job, a goal that has new urgency in the Covid-19 era. “We need to consider how to set up supportive workplaces where people aren’t pushed too far, because they may well walk away,” she says.

Health care and warehouse workers

In many cases, workers were under significant stress even before the pandemic. “Burnout was already a problem among health care providers,” she says, and warehouse workers have long harbored frustrations over arbitrary schedules.

For these latter workers, the popularity of online shopping during the pandemic has increased workloads, and mandatory overtime is common. “People don’t know whether and when they’ll be required to stay an additional one, two, or three or more hours,” which causes strain and fatigue, she says.

The pandemic has also added health and safety concerns, which can tempt workers in any industry to call in sick or skip work out of fear. Conversely, they might put the desire for overtime pay ahead of their personal safety.

“To address those concerns, organizations can set up new channels for workers to share their worries, provide adequate equipment or redesign work practices to allow for more space, and then ask how it is working,” Kelly says, noting that paid leave is also important so that workers can take time off when illness strikes.

With the increasing need for frontline workers in warehouses and health care, Kelly sees this as a good time for workers to gain leverage to improve their working conditions. “I hope that they’re able to negotiate either informally or through policy changes or union contracts for better work conditions. I think there’s growing support for that kind of rebalancing from management to a shared perspective on how we’re in it together.”

IT sector overload

The IT sector’s problems are more subtle but no less challenging. These workers are the focus of Kelly’s March 2020 book, Overload: How Good Jobs Went Bad and What We Can Do About It (Princeton University Press, coauthored with Phyllis Moen). Employees are grappling with too much work and not enough resources. At the same time, they are confronting the expectation of constant availability when working remotely thanks to the prevalence of online collaboration technologies.

The pandemic can exacerbate these issues. “There’s a real risk of increased overload, of people feeling like they must work all of the time, having no way to set boundaries around their work time,” she warns, adding that managers, coworkers, and employees all need to recognize the need for time offline to prevent burnout.

Communicating with coworkers or clients is important, but Kelly says the “real work” gets done with uninterrupted periods of concentration. “There is a temptation to be virtually visible,” she says, “but that can quickly devolve into frantic activities without meaningful thinking.”

To protect workers’ health, managers should focus “less on when, where, and how the work happens and more on the results of the work, and encourage employees to craft their days in ways that make sense to them and encourage teams to talk through how they’re going to coordinate and communicate effectively,” Kelly says. “I think the pandemic push to work at home has helped people take some of those steps.”

The pandemic has also shone a spotlight on the ways in which health and happiness on the job are connected, and that gives Kelly hope for change.

“Covid-19 has reminded us of physical risks and exposures that happen on the job. But actually there’s a rich tradition of research that establishes how much say you have at work, whether you feel listened to and respected, and the pace and demands of the work—that those more subtle organizational features of your work affect your mental health and your physical health as well,” she says. “The conditions of work really do matter for people’s health and well-being.”