Workplace Environments – The importance of investing in them
Blog written in partnership with Beverley Bayliss, Healthy Places Specialist in Public Health & Planning at East Sussex County Council
Health is described as ‘a state of complete physical, mental, and social wellbeing and not merely the absence of disease or infirmity1. Health and wellbeing can be seen as the result of complex interactions between the physiological, psychological, behavioural, personal, and organisational resources available to individuals and the stress placed upon them by their physical and social environment at home and at work2. What this means is that health and wellbeing issues we face cannot be addressed in isolation, we need to consider the wider environment too.
In relation to this there is an increased effort to protect people and the planet through the adoption of healthy workplace initiatives, for example, plastic free, refill, grow your own, rooftop gardens, bike schemes, active travel, and so on. This has helped to support the delivery of not only good health and wellbeing outcomes, but also works alongside the priorities of local governments and communities, regarding planetary health and ecological public health3.
The concept of planetary health is based on the understanding that human health and human civilisation depend on flourishing natural systems and the wise stewardship of those natural systems. It is well documented that natural systems are being degraded to an extent unprecedented in human history4.
Many of the important actions to address the environmental threats to the planet’s ecosystems and human civilisation are the same that are needed to enhance human health. Studies have consistently shown that environments that mimic or allow access to the natural world lower blood pressure and cortisol levels and improve concentration. There is increasing realisation in research and policy circles of the synergistic links between a flourishing planet and good human health. Workforce health and planetary health considerations are intrinsically interlinked.
What is the economic impact of the environment on health in the workplace?
Our working environments have the capacity to influence on how we feel about where we work and what we do, also having the capacity to influence our sense of identity, self and self-worth. Well-designed and healthy working environments help to make employees feel valued, safe, respected, empowered and to take pride in themselves, what they do and for whom.
Too often buildings are seen as cost rather than as an investment, which if they are healthy and sustainable, they can add value. This meaning of ‘value’ can be seen as economic benefits when employees are healthier, quantified by less sickness absence. Staff are the most valuable resource in most organisations, typically accounting for 90% of business operating costs, so even a 1% improvement in productivity can have a major impact on the bottom line and competitiveness of any business5.
Safe, healthy, and inclusive workplaces not only enhance mental and physical health but likely also reduce absenteeism, improve work performance and productivity, boost staff morale and motivation, and minimize conflict between colleagues. When people have good mental health, they are better able to cope with the stresses of life, realize their own abilities, learn and work well and contribute actively to their communities. And when people have good working conditions, their mental health is protected6.
Employers who take action to improve the quality of the workplace, are likely to be rewarded by improved employee productivity and loyalty, which can be worth many times more than the investment in workplace improvements. This is especially true when we calculate the amount of time people spend in their working environments.
What factors contribute to a healthy workplace?
Before the pandemic, the average person spent 1/3 (90,000 hours) of their time at paid work over their lifetime7. Even though this trend has shifted to hybrid working becoming the norm, the principles that our working time shapes our health remains current, making workplaces one of the most important settings for actively promoting health and wellbeing.
Workplaces now include both home and work, as hybrid working has evolved into the norm.
In terms of our workplaces and their design for health, we can think of factors such as fresh air and the presence of daylight, contributing to improving our health. Ergonomic furniture is also important since computer work increases musculoskeletal issues, for example neck, shoulder, and lower back pain. ‘Sick building syndrome’ is a term we are familiar with, it includes poor indoor air quality, due to inadequate ventilation which can lead to lower levels of health and wellbeing for office workers. Biophilic elements, for example plants, and water, are known to give rise to increased worker productivity and learning, emotional wellbeing and healing, stress reduction and can act to reduce costs from absenteeism. By incorporating biophilic design into the workplace, this can encourage an appreciation of nature.
Therefore, if we contribute to the creation and maintenance of ‘salutogenic environments’ meaning environments that focus on ‘wellness’ then we can strive to achieve healthier workplaces.
Elements of a healthy workplace
- Indoor air quality and ventilation
- Thermal comfort
- Daylighting and lighting
- Noise and acoustics
- Interior layout and active design
- Biophilia and views
- Look and feel
- Location and access to amenities
- Employee engagement
- Welcoming and promoting belonging
- The use of plants and colours to ensure as nonsterile as possible
- Accessible with good signage
- Be calming (noise, colours, ventilation, spaces for privacy, access to necessities such as water)
Employers can take practical steps to implement these elements in their workplaces.
For example, biophilic design can be incorporated into workspaces at different scales and costs. Plants in view outside can provide a visual connection to nature, while inside potted plants on desks and shelves to landscaped gardens and living green walls provide this link with natural elements. To improve indoor air quality and ventilation, ensure there is a supply of fresh, clean air drawn in from the outside, or from a ventilation system. Windows to provide natural light, and that can open allow breezes in that has the added benefit from creating movements in plant leaves, helping to create a productive and healthy workplace.
Future healthy workplaces
To conclude, our health is shaped by the world around us, from the jobs that we do, to our homes, and our education. The physical and social environments in which we work, live and play can define the types of lives we lead, our behaviours and their impacts on our society as well as the wider environment.
Workplaces, work practices, and cultures all have a major role to play beyond the fulfilment of traditional ‘health and safety’ considerations in achieving totally healthy workplaces. Workplace environments are central to our daily lives and communities and are ‘perfectly placed’ to take the lead on both improving population health and planetary health, while including raising awareness, providing education and practice in which to protect our people and planet.
The pandemic presents a unique opportunity to take stock and shape a new future for work, where health and wellbeing is embedded throughout an organisation’s practices to build a resilient, productive workforce8.
Working and living well helps us all to function properly in the present, while helping to protect our health for the future, therefore the environment in which we spend this time working is an environment of great significance.