Blog - Including health in workplace design

Three storey glass office building on city street cornerLast week I attended a Health & Safety by Design event put on by The Canterbury Safety Charter. This organisation has been influential in improving safety standards throughout the construction industry since the 2011 Christchurch earthquakes, resulting in significantly increased awareness and action taken to avoid accidents in an industry which previously did not have a great track record.

The seminar was extremely well attended and it was so encouraging to see many people from architectural and engineering businesses as well as construction and H&S staff, site maintenance people and designers. What was a little disappointing though was that the emphasis of the discussion was so much more on ‘safety’ than ‘health’. Designing workplaces to improve and support health is massively important in any workplace. With a noticeable focus on this in the last couple of years (including WorkSafe which has been more proactive in recent years in changing the focus from being mainly ‘safety’ onto ‘health’) and the related impacts that work has on us. Unfortunately within the building industry – from design to completion – it seems that the emphasis remains more on how ‘safe’ the building is, rather than on how healthy it is for the end users. From my perspective, it would certainly be more impactful if as well as looking at safety, the sector also took into account the health aspects of a building from design to completion.

As Dr. Maria Neira, Director, Department of Public Health and Environment, World Health Organization (WHO) says “The wealth of business depends on the health of workers.”

“A healthy workplace is one in which workers and managers collaborate to use a continual improvement process to protect and promote the health, safety and wellbeing of all workers and the sustainability of the workplace. There is more information to be found on this from a global perspective in WHO’s Healthy workplaces: a model for action report.

But, back to a more local level and looking at my area of interest, office workers – my question is how can we encourage designers and architects to look at ways to create a healthy workplace?

Vine like plants growing in an orange planter box, ceiling to floor in an office settingIn a recent article by Libby Sander, Assistant Professor of Organisational Behaviour at Bond Business School, Bond University, Australia publication, The Conversation, she reported that “Companies spend tens of billions of dollars each year on wellness programs – on gyms, health funds, yoga classes, and the like. But research shows only mixed success, with low take-up rates among employees and a poor return on investment for companies.

People attending work while sick costs the Australian economy about A$34.1 billion each year through lost productivity.

Rather than promoting these wellness programs, companies should instead design the workplace itself to support wellness. Sleep pods, air filtered by green walls, and selectively placed healthy food are already realities in some workplaces.

Through this kind of design, employees are “opted-in” to an environment that supports their health and well-being during the day. They don’t have to choose to take a walk at lunchtime or think about taking the stairs. The design of the workplace is engineered around creating these positive choices.”

An example given is the Headquarters of the American Society of Interior Designers – a workspace that has many computer based staff, small and large meetings and presentations.

When moving into their new association headquarters in downtown Washington, D.C. in May 2016, their primary goal was to create a space that supported health, wellness, and the well-being of employees, which would improve the organization’s productivity, engagement, and retention.

So what impact did this have on their workplace?

  • Collaborative work increased 9%
  • Physical health and mental health scores improved
  • Productivity increased 16%, yielding an estimated increase of $694,000 financial impact to the Society’s bottom line during the first year of occupancy (expected to yield a $7M increase in financial impact during the total 10-year lease agreement, given a consistent improvement rate)
  • Energy savings amount to $7,636, 38.2 ton= of coal not burned, and 72.9 ton of CO2 not= emitted, during first 15 months of occupancy

You can find out more about this study on the American Society of Interior Designers website

Photograph of the central outside courtyard of the Geyser Building, AucklandLibby Sander concludes that “Investing in office design has been seen as a ‘nice to have‘, but the research shows it can also be seen as an investment. The costs of employee illness and lost productivity are high and even simple changes can have huge impact.

And while employees may be concerned about companies designing environments to engineer behavioural choices, this inclusion of behavioural insights is widespread, and can be seen in areas as diverse as city planning and retail.

By providing environments that support and encourage employee well-being organisations can ensure that well-being is not something that people have to make a choice to opt-in on.”

Based on what I encounter daily in terms of helping people manage their work-related aches and stresses, I would love to see this approach – with all the evidence – being taught in design architectural schools. As can be seen from the work described above, good design not only affects health of the individual, it also affects the business and population health. This needs to be an integral part of design in the future if we are to move beyond paying lip service to talk of creating healthy workplaces.

Interestingly on a local level, I had also been at a follow up seminar on Business for Good, put on by the Canterbury Employers Chamber of Commerce. With Business for Good, a lot of focus is on sustainability as well as creating healthy businesses for both employees and consumers. Recognising that looking after employees is good for business, forward-thinking employers have an increasing awareness that healthy workers are more productive workers, and they appear to be committed to supporting their employees by looking after their well being in the workplace. Implementing initiatives such as gym memberships, in-house fitness programmes, on-site yoga and community volunteers days does make a difference, but to set the culture from the ground up, what better way than starting with healthy design?