Depending on the person, company, or even building, what constitutes wellness can vary a great deal. The best approach to the topic is to first define wellness in a comprehensive way that allows for solutions to be implemented through design and planning.
Research is proving that the human element is quietly disproving workplace strategies of the past and forcing businesses to rethink how their environments are planned and designed. As a result, architects and designers around the world have found the solution is about creating harmony. Ideally, creating places where people can make choices about being healthy in the work environment. The first thoughts in office design are no longer about who gets which office or the height of the cubicle walls. Now, the collective thought process is about creating a more holistic system.
Workplace wellness is not the exclusive domain of the physical or the psychological, rather a balance of three workplace dynamics; people, process, and place. This balance calls for well developed insight and tactics in employee engagement as well as the vision to (respectfully) challenge existing standards to unlock greater potential.
If there is one word on which to focus when developing workplace wellness it is "holistic."
Let's dive into the process of creating a holistic work environment.
The design of a workplace has the power to make an impression and fortify the organization's culture. This applies to all types of spaces. Design plays such a crucial part in encouraging movement and collaboration in the workplace. Design choices also make significant contributions to employee health through specifications of materials, air quality and ergonomics. Those elements are just the tip of the iceberg. One of the top proven design concepts for improving wellness is access to natural light. Exposure to adequate levels of sunlight is critical for health and well-being and contributes to positive effects ranging from visual comfort to improved sleep quality. Proximity to windows, outdoor views, and daylight are some of the most sought-after elements of building design. The next two key elements to designing for workplace wellness are ergonomics and providing restorative spaces. Lastly, a good design will also help employees to stay health by empowering effective communication, providing education, and encouraging them to embrace new ways of working in the future.
Clarity of Mind and Mental Well-being
Metropolis magazine made this concept much easier to comprehend by stating "thoughtful workers equal good business." Today's office environments employ the collaborative spaces where staff are out in the open and therefore more likely to be interrupted than those workers tucked away in private offices. This design strategy has improved collaboration but has also presented its own set of problems with noise and distraction. The best resolution is to analyze employees' work-styles and how they interact. Then, provide the appropriate spaces best suited to how they work. By giving them the choice and control over how they plan their work day, the result will be clearer, more focused minds. For example, designate a quiet place for more concentration-based tasks or relaxation and also a noisy place for brainstorming and larger group tasks. Well-supplied break rooms and versatile spaces have the potential to become psychological respites. Research demonstrates that presenting a variety of these spaces enables individuals to adjust their environments, positively influencing job satisfaction and group cohesiveness. This empowering strategy is starting to gather steam as more companies have incorporated these spaces in their offices and are seeing tangible results.
For this strategy to work, companies must encourage breaks and congeniality.
It's not just a mental thing, our work environment has its physical effects on us too. Most workplace wellness discussions begin with concerns of physical discomfort or poor health as a result of the work environment.
Dr. Eve A. Edelsien, Director of the Human Experience Lab at Perkins+Will, talks in depth about her research on the physical effects of our work environment. In a Q&A with Metropolis she said, "When we ask how we respond to built environments, we use behavioral observation, but now we can dig beneath that to our biological responses. We collect metrics on sensory stimulus— light, sound, dimensions. There is also research that links exercise to cognition and memory. Stress negatively impacts our memory, while exercise affects neurons that form memory, so it’s possible to change our brain function with exercise." Dr. Edelsien believes designing toward healthier bodies can be justified with financial or productivity incentives.
The well-know phrase, "sitting is the new smoking,” serves as an attention grabber and has successfully engaged workers in the workplace wellness discussion. Prolonged sitting has been associated with a number of adverse health conditions, including an increased risk of cancer, weight gain, and greater fatigue and back discomfort. According to research within the WELL Building Standard, “sitting burns 50 fewer calories per hour than standing, and sitting for more than 3 hours per day is associated with a 2-year lower life expectancy.” If those stats aren't alarming enough, there is also research that shows regular exercise does not appear to negate the health consequences of long periods of sitting. So even if you do hit the gym after your long work day, if you spent it seated, the treadmill time isn't going to cancel it out.
Currently, the industry's best product solution is the sit-stand desk. Incorporating them into the work environment mitigates prolonged sitting, sustains work productivity, and has also been found to support mental cognition.
Another negative physical effect of office life is the constant exposure to light through computer screens and unnatural lighting. Both change our levels of cortisol, which directly affect our ability to relax and sleep. As if bringing work home with you wasn't bad enough.
There are even invisible effects that contribute to the problem. Take this study created by the Harvard School of Health for example. Participants worked in a controlled environment and were asked to perform their normal tasks. The levels of CO2, VOCs, and ventilation were varied. All three variables had significant impact on participants ability to think clearly. Scores increased up to 101 percent higher when the optimum environmental conditions were provided.
It's very clear that physical health is crucial to workplace wellness. Currently, health care is expensive for both employees and employers, and since the average "full-time U.S. worker spends 8.9 hours per day working", it’s natural that many businesses are evaluating new options to improve well-being in their workplaces.
How do we measure productivity? Is it time to disassociate productivity with things like billable hours and revenue and rather creating happiness?
"Measuring productivity is slowly evolving in terms of happiness and it’s a lot more qualitative than quantitative." You will see evidence of it. For example, differences in employee retention, burnout, and efficiency. You'll notice employees are sick less and show up for work. The value in good design is easy to see. It boosts self-actualization for the employees. In a holistic environment, they will have a sense of achieving their full potential which directly leads to high productivity levels.
The industry is taking steps (or leaps) in the right direction. The two new wellness rating systems, WELL and Fitwel, use research-based strategies to evaluate buildings not by how much energy they save, but by how they can directly contribute to occupant health. WELL uses evidence-based health and wellness interventions to support human health, well-being, and comfort, and similar framework and documentation process to LEED.
Fitwel, developed by U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and the General Services Administration (GSA), and administered by the Center for Active Design, aims to identify the most impactful strategies for space and does not require a technical design background to administer.
Architects and designers that utilize these research-based strategies will have a better idea of how space planning, amenities, and workplace policies can have a positive influence on health. This impact on employee health is just as important to companies as environmental designs. With LEED, the challenge is to ask how the built environment can mimic nature. Now, with WELL, the challenge is to ask how a work environment can mimic biology.
Not ready for a luxury remodel of your workplace? Here is one quick fix straight from the design professionals.
Create a communal space.
Clear out an area in the office, put up a whiteboard, and throw down some funky furniture. A simple and easy-to-execute change that gives people an opportunity to come together and solve problems as a collective.
Interested in learning more?
Read the latest white paper created by Colliers International on Workplace wellness here.