Workplace wellbeing: a bottom line concern

Posted by Gary Duguid on 18/05/2016

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How can the workplace impact the happiness or wellbeing of its employees? 

Poor mental health costs UK employers a staggering £30 billion each year through lost production, recruitment costs and absence, according to the Advisory, Conciliation and Arbitration Service (ACAS). It follows that helping to ensure workers are comfortable, happy and healthy is good for business. 

But what constitutes workplace happiness or wellbeing? And how can the office environment impact its occupants in such a fundamental way?

Workplace and employee wellbeing

Wellbeing defined

Philosophers have debated the definition of wellbeing for millennia with good reason, the subject concerns the very essence of human existence. In recent years, wellbeing has moved from the realm of philosophy to that of science, and a growing body of research suggests there are certain factors that together create a sense of wellness. 

Wellbeing is a versatile term that can encompass a variety of meanings in psychology and in everyday life. It can be portrayed in both mental and physical states, which can be affected by the workplace. Consultant and specialist Work and Wellbeing describe,

“That part of an employee’s overall wellbeing that they perceive to be determined primarily by work and can be influenced by workplace interventions.” 

However wellbeing should be deliberated beyond just the workplace, as many factors outside of the office can affect employees psychologically and physically. 

Workplace and employee wellbeing

Influencing factors

Autonomy and meaningfulness are key. Individuals need to take part in processes that are meaningful, engaging and involve decision-making and learning. Social experiences are likewise vital. A feeling of connection to, and recognition from, others help to boost confidence, while supportive relationships help people cope with challenge and change. Physical activity has been proven to keep the mind alert, and promote creativity.

By accommodating these factors, the workplace can function, as it should; a tool for workers that allows them to perform to their full potential. 

Passive office design elements

Some design features by virtue of their existence help to promote wellness. 

Filtered air, adequate heating and good natural light levels have obvious health benefits. The presence of plants – and we don’t just mean the odd pot-bound spider plant – can have a range of mental health benefits, in addition to further improving air quality. In fact, biophilia is a whole school of thought that argues there is a bond between humans and other living things that we are hardwired to thrive on.

Other passive design features include good acoustics to effectively manage noise, attractive décor, temperature, lighting, ergonomic furniture and a variety of spaces that accommodate individual or collaborative work tasks. This means people have the choice to access the type of space that best meets their needs. 

Active office design elements

Fitness suites or gyms are clearly aimed at encouraging activity, while the provision of showers and cycle parks are endorsements of active travel to work. The choice of office furniture can also promote activity with the use, for example, of sit/stand desks becoming increasingly encouraged to avoid back problems and other posture issues. Walking or standing meetings likewise help to get workers up and about.

Workplace and employee wellbeing

Office culture

The other measures employers can take to boost wellness in the workplace are largely cultural and revolve around empowering the individual to make choices. Some tasks are dependent on place, however if not remote working should be considered. The trend amongst progressive employers is towards an agile working approach. 

Agile working recognises that work is a process not a desk in a specific place in a building. This style of work uses technology to mobilise workers, who can move freely around their workplace depending on the needs of their tasks - be that a need for informal, creative space or a buzzy collaborative hub. 

Complete breaks from work also need to be encouraged. The World Green Building Council’s 2014 report Health, Wellbeing and Productivity in the Offices, underlined the importance of time out when it revealed that workers who take regular breaks – that’s 10 minutes for every 90 worked resulted in 30% more focus, 46% more overall wellbeing and 50% more creativity. 

Having a culture that is trustworthy also enhances employee wellbeing. Many companies such as LinkedIn, Netflix and Virgin trust their employees to have unlimited holiday. This open and honest policy is a clear indication of promoting wellbeing by giving staff the freedom of choice. As the Telegraph report,

“when we design systems that assume bad faith from the participants, and whose main purpose is to defend against that nasty behaviour, we often foster the very behaviour we're trying to deter.”

Such polices may have an impact on productivity, wellbeing and employee satisfaction.

A final thought (before we take a break)

Most businesses think carefully about their office and how to minimise property costs and other overheads. Given that employee costs generally account for around 90% of business operating costs, any improvement in employee productivity will have a hugely beneficial impact on the costs of workplace wellbeing.

This is not to say that wellbeing revolves around costs, as it can have detrimental and beneficial effects on many aspects of a business. This is why this topic is one of the most discussed and prevalent issues in the modern workplace.