Wednesday 1 April 2015

The Healthy Workplace

The attendance and depth of engagement at the Workplace Trends Spring Summit (26th March) on the Healthy Workplace showed the high level of interest in the subject. As is common now, debate spilled out across social media, with 141 contributors posting over 1,000 tweets.

 AMA’s Alexi Marmot set the scene in her opening presentation by reminding the audience not to think about workplace health in the narrow sense of the absence of discomfort or pain but in the broader sense of wellbeing. Indeed, the World Health Organisation’s definition of health as far back as 1948 was "a state of complete physical, mental, and social well-being and not merely the absence of disease or infirmity.”

It’s important to remember that the “office” is not the typical workplace for many people and many occupations, she said. In some parts of the world the workplace is hazardous and can severely limit life expectancy. Over 1,000 workers died when a Bangladesh garment factory collapsed in 2013.

Alexi described how wellbeing has been adopted as a goal by many companies, agencies and governments and is now the subject of academic study, including attempts to link it with productivity. She suggested keeping in mind the three dimensions of wellbeing – individual, organisation and planet.

From an individual perspective, the New Economics Foundation has proposed five ways to achieve wellbeing: Connect; Be Active; Take Notice; Keep Learning and Give. At an organisational level, many of the schemes to promote or recognise good workplaces put much more emphasis on factors such as stress, autonomy, pride and trust than on the physical environment.

However, said Marmot, when trying to improve wellbeing you should think about the physical workplace as well as individual behaviour, job design and the organisation.

Addressing the current interest in standing at work, Marmot says: ““Too many offices make it clear that the norm is sitting. They don’t provide places to stand, walk or just to work differently. Prioritising short term efficiency over productivity is part of the problem. Clients, designers and managers should think about the longer-term implications for both individuals and organisations. As well as being healthier, activity and movement in the workplace can stimulate innovation, creativity and communication.” 

There may be a lot of interest in workplace wellbeing, said Bridget Juniper (occupational psychologist and founder of employee health and performance advisers Work and Well-Being Ltd.) but there’s a very small evidence base.

She is very critical of employee surveys - the popular Gallup Q12 employee engagement  survey, for example,  does not reference the workplace. Employee well-being is subjective and dynamic, said Juniper: “It’s employees’ interpretation of an event rather than the event itself.” Therefore, it’s essential to rank what is important to each employee, rather than dealing in averages and generalities.

Picking up on a common FM theme, she said: “We rarely see HR and workplace come together at the outset of a project. Why is workplace so neglected in discussions on leveraging staff costs and performance?”

Call centres typically have high sickness and attrition rates.  Juniper presented a case study that used impact analysis to identify how employees’ work affected their well-being. The assessment used 33 questions across eight “domains” including facilities. Five of the top ten issues were workplace related.

Picking up Juniper’s point about the paucity of evidence, Tom Helliwell of architects and designers Pringle Brandon Perkins + Will, said that few companies measure the results of changes to the workplace, leading to a vicious circle of lack of data on which to base future decisions.

Helliwell explained how “big data” could help. He ran through the multiple sources of information on individual behaviours and building performance that could be combined to create a picture of what’s happening in the workplace. These include network log-ins, access control data, restaurant use, and online diaries. Some metrics, such as tracking what food people buy and how frequently, have Big Brother connotations . Would people accept such "surveillance" even in their own interests?

Sound in the workplace receives less attention than aesthetics, ergonomics or technology. Paige Hodsman, a “concept developer” with acoustic ceiling supplier Ecophon, said that there’s a 20 year history of dissatisfaction with acoustics. It was somewhat ironic that she was speaking in a space where the acoustic treatment has been stripped out to create an industrial aesthetic!

Research shows that noise affects performance. The Leesman Index found that noise levels are a top ten factor in the “effective workplace” and over a quarter of respondents were dissatisfied with them. Lack of control and privacy are key acoustics issues for workers, said Hodsman: “Overheard conversation is a particular problem as we don't habituate to people talking as we might to other background sounds.”

Hodsman offered some practical advice on workplace design to improve acoustics. Locate collaboration spaces away from other workspaces rather than placing them centrally. Provide visual cues to guide behaviour. For example spaces may be labelled or designed as “cafes” or “libraries”. Map noisy and quiet individuals and teams and control workplace density. Promote “acoustic etiquette” to manage loud talking, interruptions and ring tones and to provide do not disturb signals.

Australian private health insurer Medibank set out to embed the values implied by its ‘For Better Health’ slogan in the new 46,000 sq m headquarters it was building in Melbourne’s docklands. Anthony Dickens of architects Hassell described how the design of the new workplace was part of a major cultural change plan for Medibank, transforming it from a traditional health insurance business to a healthcare provider focused on preventative health and wellbeing.

The result is an evolution of activity based working that places the mental and physical health of people at its heart. According to Dickens, the aim was “a living and green building inside and out; that encourages movement, supports social connection and provides spaces that allow for rejuvenation of the mind.”

The astonishing atrium at the heart of the building, with its sinuous staircases, encourages movement and communication. Across the building, staff can choose from 22 different types of work setting to match their task and perhaps their mood. On the non-dedicated “plaza” floor, Hassell collaborated with four other designers to bring variety to zones designated: Healthy, Collaboration, Innovation and Inspiration.

The results? 79% of staff surveyed say they feel more collaborative; 71% say they feel more connected to Medibank’s “for better health” mission; 70% say they are healthier; 66% of staff feel more productive; and there’s been a 5% reduction in absenteeism in the call centre.

It’s encouraging that we’re seeing renewed interest in the way work affects health, not just from the narrow perspective of absence and productivity but with a broader view of wellbeing. What’s needed now is more solid research to build the evidence base and a commitment from workplace professionals to incorporate findings in design and management.

More information on this event and the next in the series at