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As workers increasingly spend a third of the day or more in the workplace, it makes sense that wellness programmes should begin there. Promoting employee health is proving beneficial for organisations that are actively embracing it, says Nick Martindale.

Image: iStock
Image: iStock

11 April 2017 | Nick Martindale

In recent years, a major focus for many organisations has been on employee well-being. 

There are good reasons for this; not only are employees who feel happy and healthy more likely to work harder and be more productive, they are also more likely to stick around, helping organisations retain key talent. 

This trend is particularly prominent among younger generations of workers, says Nicola Gillen, global practice lead for workplace strategy for AECOM. 

“Well-being has become fashionable due to the continued increase in the pace of work and life leading to people feeling increasingly stressed, and a different attitude to work among millennials, who see well-being as more important than previous generations,” she says. “This is seen most clearly in tech companies, where the leadership is often of a younger generation than most companies.” 

The success of such initiatives can be measured in several ways, she adds, including sickness levels, absenteeism, attrition and staff engagement scores.

As most people still spend a significant amount of time in an office environment, the design of workspaces can have a big impact on well-being. According to research by Leesman of more than 220,000 workers, 55.2 per cent of people believe the design of their workplace enables them to work productively. Yet it seems there is still much for improvement. Research by office furniture business Steelcase suggests that only 56 per cent believe their work environment enables them to feel relaxed and calm.

Legislation, too, is placing pressure on employers to create healthy workplaces. The Well-being of Future Generations (Wales) Act already obliges public sector bodies in Wales to put in place measures designed to help improve the health of the nation, while the WELL Building Standard, developed by Delos, is also helping organisations to focus on the need for commercial buildings to integrate elements that will boost employee well-being. 

“When legislation starts being introduced, it is a strong indication that organisations need to start taking something seriously,” says Gillen. “If they’re not doing so already, those who own and manage buildings need to start considering wellness seriously, because sooner or later they will be forced to. Wellness will increasingly be seen in the same light as the Equality Act – as a basic human right.”

Home comforts

Those working in FM have a vital role in helping to make sure workplaces meet the needs of employees and actively promote a healthier environment, working closely with internal HR departments and external design or furniture providers. 

“We are increasingly asked to consider issues that provide a more comfortable environment for employees,” says Guy Crabb, managing director at workplace design-and-build firm ODB Group. “For example, we have worked with several game developers. Their employees are creatives whose work patterns aren’t a typical nine-to-five. They might not start until 10 in the morning and it’s not unusual for them to be working all night. 

“Because of this, they want home comforts in the workplace. Our workspace designs have included showers and a full kitchen, complete with ovens and hobs, and breakout area so they can cook a meal and put their feet up or continue to test games with a bite to eat. It’s about helping staff to unwind.” 

Other projects have seen the use of cocoon-shaped chairs, high-backed sofas and even geometric meeting pods to help provide facilities that will enable staff to work productively and in a manner that will also help their well-being. 

Lillian Antonio, a senior ergonomist at HermanMiller, says clients are increasingly aware of the need to factor in well-being when looking to redesign space. “The conversations I tend to get involved in are around providing different areas for people to work in,” she says. “Choice is key, so giving people the opportunity to choose how they work. There may be certain activities that are better to do on a sofa rather than sitting up at a workstation.” 

From an ergonomic perspective, having adjustable workstations and chairs can make a big difference to how employees sit and their general posture, she adds, although she also stresses the need for employers to train them how to use such furniture.

Other elements can also have a big impact. Lighting is particularly important, says Kevin Cox, managing director of Energys Group, as it can help employees focus and prevent some medical conditions such as headaches and migraines. 

“Less glare, better lighting controls and more considered zoning and spacing should all be achieved within a lighting retrofit,” he says. “The human benefits of this are numerous: better concentration, happier, more productive staff and variable light levels to suit the seasons.” 

Giving employees control over lighting levels in their own area will allow people to choose a setting that works for them, he adds. 

Agile working is also very much in vogue, both in enabling employees to work from outside the office and also in different places within it. 

“There is a huge amount of anecdotal evidence to suggest that happy people are much more productive,” says Gillen. “We have conducted research with National Grid, where we undertook cognitive testing of engineers in an open-plan versus agile working environment. Those who were based in the agile working environment performed 8 per cent better than those in a traditional open-plan environment. National Grid equate this figure to £20 million of released productivity at its HQ.” 

AECOM’s own office in Aldgate now has around half the space dedicated to collaborative working, she adds. 

The broader environmental setting is also important in helping employees work effectively. This is something Chiswick Park has focused on in its design and management, which features a lake, waterfall and landscaped gardens. (see 'Simply the guest', FM World, July 2015

“When deciding where and whom to work for, environmental initiatives such as recycling, energy efficiency, wildlife management and even tree planting are front of mind,” says Helen Eyley, head of brand at Chiswick Park Enjoy-Work. “Likewise, the inclusion of showers and cycle storage, as well as amenities such as an on-site gym and other social aspects such as workplace events, are an increasing expectation.”

Emma Potter
Image: Shutterstock
Image: Shutterstock

Outside commitment

But FM should also be looking to influence wider discussions on workplace strategy, believes Ziona Strelitz, founder and director of ZZA Responsive User Environments. “The well-being agenda is missing some really big pieces which are not to do with the design of the workplace,” she says. “The number one issue is to do with the location, and that’s often left out. It’s the ease of getting to and back from work, so you can live your life more easily.”

Only once this is decided should decisions be made about other facilities, she says. “If you are in a richly provided urban area where there are lots of goodies out of the building then what people like is getting out of the building and having some fresh air and choosing a sandwich from the supplier of their choice. It’s unnecessary to have internalised overkill if you have good external provision.” 

Along with HR, FM needs to make sure employees’ views are taken into account when making alterations or moving to new premises. “Companies design space on the basis of well-being but also other criteria, such as cost and control,” says Thierry Nadisic, professor of organisational behaviour at Emlyon Business School in France. “And they do it often without asking people their opinion before the change, which is paradoxical, since it is a source of well-being. Open space, for example, may have advantages but also drawbacks. When it’s negotiated and takes individual and collective working needs into account, it can become a win-win.”

This strategy could even save organisations from incurring unnecessary expense, as well as making sure staff are well. Strelitz gives an example of one business that moved away from an award-winning office into much simpler premises, largely to save money. 

“The old building had a gym, a shop and even a music room where people could go and jam themselves,” she says. “The new buildings were seriously plain but the first floor had been fitted out by a team that actually understood what people needed to function, so it was all in place.” Staff rated the building the same as the previous one, she adds, and valued the fact it was smaller so they could get to know people in it, and get out at lunchtime without any issues with security.  

Image: Shutterstock
Image: Shutterstock

Such a case calls into question the extent to which organisations really need to invest in high-profile facilities within buildings. 

“There was the odd guy who missed the gym, but not everybody is 22,” she says. “There are an increasing number of people staying on in the workforce and a lot of people with families and if they’re going to go to the gym they might want to do it at the weekend or at a place of their convenience.”

Ultimately, any workplace well-being initiative will only be as successful as the commitment of the employees to take responsibility to improve their own health. 

“On-site gyms, yoga classes and salad bars are common features that organisations have introduced to appear fashionable,” says David Kentish, founder and director of Kentish and Co. “But I am often in buildings where they have all these things and I am still amazed at the amount of people I see bringing back a McDonald’s for lunch, or queuing round the block for a pre-packaged sandwich full of salt.