Workplace design and employee wellbeing

Workers doing tai chi during a break – great for stress, posture and relaxation

Don’t know if you’ve noticed it too but there seems to be a lot of chatter currently around desk design.  Denmark has just made it mandatory for employers to offer their staff sit-stand desks. In the UK, Grove House Primary School in Bradford has just introduced sit-stand desks for its students.   The trial is designed to assess the impact sitting for long periods of time has on health.  Early results suggest the students have more focus, energy and sense of freedom.

The introduction of these desks is a response to the increasing health concerns around sedentary lifestyles where people sitting at computers for long periods of time during the working day can increase risk of muscular-skeletal problems, diabetes and cardiovascular issues. It may be surprising to know that Britain takes twice as many sick days as the US (PWC research); some of this is due to these workplace strains.

Often, businesses can unintentionally treat workplace design as a cost rather than an investment in the workforce. If your workplace wellbeing is lacing, you may well be seeing the obvious signs of absenteeism or stress. however you may also see a slower less tangible drop in productivity, lack of direction or loss of reputation which can all take longer to recover from.

Bard, a pharmaceutical business in Cambridge, has implemented a lifestyle training programme for people doing shift-work.  This programme provides advice around  how best to use time on shift as well as healthy eating, managing sleep patterns and there is an on-site occupational health team to provide regular health checks and advice about work health related issues. Everyone can join a private medical healthcare scheme, while the sports and social club regularly organises subsidised football matches, cricket matches, theatre trips, and exercise classes for all.

What are the quick wins?

The following are examples that other businesses have introduced to help their people and may give you some good ideas if you are looking to improve wellbeing in your workplace (however big it is).
1.  Health related benefits.  The benefits package that you offer employees can include a range of wellbeing related benefits. These might include private health care, employee assistance programmes, free fresh fruit, gym membership, health checks.  Some of these could form flexible benefits options if you feel that not all benefits would be suitable to all employees.  For example, not all employees will have access to the gym chain that you arrange a corporate discount with and so may prefer alternative options.
2. Workshops.  You may want to consider running wellbeing workshops or webinars with employees on specific topics.  Examples might include food and nutrition, time management.  You could also arrange regular classes in your workplace which anyone can join regardless of their fitness level – such as Tai Chi.
3. ‘Wellbeing week’.  Why not have a blitz week of workshops to really kick-start action around people’s wellbeing. Sessions could include at-the-desk head and neck massages, flu jabs, free breakfasts, exercise classes, smoking advice,  acupuncture, hypnotherapy.  Distribute some fit bugs or encourage people to use online apps such as My Fitness Pal to monitor their nutrition and fitness levels via their mobile phones. You could arrange for teams to go to the local gym on trial days or hold a sports day with teams competing against each other.
“The best way to get the biggest returns is to get those people who currently do no exercise to do some exercise. Even 10 minutes a day having elevated your heartbeat will see the biggest financial returns to the economy as well as the emotional and social returns for the individual” 

Fred Turok founder of LA Fitness

Wanting to make more fundamental changes?

Of course, wellbeing at work is more than getting people moving or thinking about their activity levels.  The culture of the organisation or the job design itself can have an impact on people’s health. Here are some things to consider.
1. Physical workspace. Natural light and physical layout of the workplace all affect how employees spend their time and how they interact with each other.  Introducing colourful, fun, relaxing spaces where people can get together to hold their meeting over a coffee or smoothie can boost their energy and creativity.  95% of people can’t see a piece of art work from their main workspace yet this has been shown to boost employee engagement and productivity Plants can help to improve air quality by absorbing toxins and emitting oxygen.  At the desk itself, some people may value access to a natural light box which can help with Seasonal Affective Disorder.  And of course there is an option for a sit-stand desk. Research by the University of Exeter has found that ownership of the workspace is important to employee health – they need to feel involved in how their workplace is designed and looks.

2. Flexible working practices.  These should always align with the organisation’s operation needs and so its important to consider the best one(s) for you.  This could be term time only contracts, flexitime, mobile working, staff rotas that map several weeks ahead etc.  Zero hours contracts have had a lot of bad press recently.  They can certainly allow some unscrupulous employers to bypass the legal protection offered to workers on other contracts; but in many industries they can offer a beneficial type of contract for some workers where work can involve time off sandwiched between intensive work projects.

3. Work Culture. Even with bean bags, cafes and pool tables scattered across the workplace, an unhealthy culture may prevail that demands presenteeism or work that demands people to engage with people in the Far East in the early morning and the ‘Far West’ in the late evening.  Presenteeism  costs the UK twice as much as absenteeism – at £15 million per year (Nuffield Health, 2012). There may be occasions when working odd hours is required in a workplace – but happen too often and the morale of the workforce may quickly drop as people are simply too exhausted to enjoy life beyond work.  If a workplace is suffering from presenteeism, leaders and managers need to ensure that they are seen as role models by leaving on time or spending time away from the office.  Notice the number of people in the office when you leave – if it’s often the same people, it may be time to start questioning workloads.