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Workforce Health: Is Your Workplace Helping or Hurting?

Sitting is the new smoking: sit-stand office
workstations improve wellness

Ian Morely

By Ian Morley

Why are companies making workforce health a priority?

A decade ago, “workforce health” was not a term that was on the radar for most corporations. Today, that’s changing rapidly. The fact is, a company’s employees are its most important asset, and more and more companies are recognizing that it pays to invest in taking care of them.

Beyond the human benefits of supporting and nurturing people and workforce health, it just makes good business sense to do everything you can to keep employees healthy. That’s because studies show time and time again that happy, healthy employees are more productive and innovative in their job performance. On the other hand, the costs of employees with poor health can be significant. These numbers were reported by the World Green Building Council:

  • In the US, the cost of missing work due to illness approaches $2500 per employee each year.
  • In Australia, absenteeism due to poor health costs companies $7 billion each year, while lost productivity due to illness (sometimes termed “presenteeism” or not functioning at full capacity at work) is estimated as high as $26 billion.

For the majority of companies, staffing is by far the largest business operating expense. In fact, according to a report by the World Green Building Council, staffing accounts for as much as 90 percent of operating costs. Since staffing is such a big ticket item, even a modest gain in productivity can have a large financial payoff for a company.

Here’s another reason companies are increasingly investing in workforce health and well-being initiatives: these programs help attract and retain talent. In many industries and parts of the world, there’s a critical shortage of labor and companies need to do everything they can to attract top job candidates. Millennials in particular are drawn to companies that demonstrate an interest in and commitment to their overall well-being.

How the workplace affects workforce health

It’s no secret that buildings and work environments can have a huge impact on workforce health. Those impacts come from a wide range of sources, including both the physical environment as well as working conditions. Here are a few notable examples.

ACTIVITY LEVEL

It’s well established that sitting for prolonged periods increases the risk for many chronic health problems. There’s been a lot of buzz in the media about the phrase “sitting is the new smoking,” a phrased coined by Mark Hamilton, a leading researcher on inactivity physiology, to describe the detrimental affects of too much sitting. According to the Mayo Clinic, sitting too much at work is just as harmful as couch-potato behavior at home.

Global health and care company BUPA studied the impact of sedentary activities on both employee attitudes and health, by having people wear pedometer devices that could measure the amount of time sitting, standing or walking. Employees reported feeling happier and were also healthier (shown by blood pressure levels and other measurements) when they spent less time sitting. One way to reduce sitting is to provide sit-stand workstations.

NOISE LEVEL

The stress of working in a noisy environment can cause employee dissatisfaction at a minimum and even aggravate mental health conditions. Separating quiet areas and group workspaces can increase productivity as well as improve attitudes and health.

OFFICE CONFIGURATION

Many factors about the layout of an office can impact workforce health and well-being. For example, the density of workers packed into an office space, the availability of (or lack of) space to collaborate with others, social space and break areas all affect people’s ability to concentrate and be productive.

LIGHT and DAYLIGHT

There’s a reason why everyone wants the office space with a window! Good lighting, and especially daylight, enhances mood and improves productivity. Experts are also saying that the positive impact from proximity to windows is even further enhanced by exposure to nature—when those windows provide a view of green space.

AIR QUALITY

Good indoor air quality (IAQ) in a workplace means providing well designed and maintained ventilation that ensures low levels of carbon dioxide and pollutants. There is a great body of evidence linking poor IAQ to illness, even systemic problems such as Sick Building Syndrome. However, according to research published by the National Center for Biotechnology Information, there is also evidence to suggest that improving IAQ can also lead to work performance and productivity gains in the range of 6 to 9 percent.

How modern workplaces can improve workforce health and productivity

With so many companies building modern workplaces featuring activity-based working environments, it’s the perfect opportunity to make changes to the workplace that can improve workforce health and well-being.

Encourage movement

Modern workplaces not only encourage collaboration, they also increase movement. Some companies, such as international property and infrastructure company Lendlease (a firm that has led the way in workforce health improvement and awareness), are providing alternative work spaces such as sit-to-stand desks and treadmill desks that cut down the time people spend sitting while doing office work. Lendlease estimates that their personal device initiative has reduced blood pressures by 20 percent, reduced waist measurements by 10 percent, and even increased sleep quality in their employees.

However, it’s important to think beyond the type of furniture to promote activity and workforce health. Emily Fielding of office furniture design firm Markant explains:

Encouraging movement throughout the day is about creating a dynamic working environment and educating employees on why this is important. When we sit for prolonged periods, our heart rate slows, inevitably slowing the rate at which we can provide required nutrients to our brain for optimal productivity.

To understand the brain’s need for activity, consider ‘three-thirty-itis’ (yes, it’s a thing). Our body’s energy at this time of the day is focused on digesting our lunch. We become tired, and immediately reach out for our afternoon coffee. What I find funny about this is that it’s not the coffee itself that wakes you up (in fact, caffeine restricts blood vessels in the brain and can decrease productivity), it’s really the action of standing and walking over to the office kitchen or local cafe. Think of sitting as a battery drainer and the movement as a generator; a couple of minutes of movement have effectively rebooted your brain and woken you up.

Here’s how open plan office spaces can encourage movement to improve workforce health:

  • Physically seeing your co-worker across the room can encourage you to walk over to talk instead of sending an email.
  • Centrally located bins, printers and copiers encourage getting up.
  • Allowing enough space around workstations helps people feel comfortable moving around.

Give staff control over their environment

An activity-based work environment allows employees to choose the type of workspace they will use each day, so they can choose a space that’s suited to the work they need to do. For example, they can choose a private, quiet space for tasks that require intense concentration, or an open and comfortable space for a team brainstorming session. This type of control improves well-being as well as increasing productivity and performance.

Related article: What Does the Agile Work Environment Look Like?

Offer healthier food options

According to the US Bureau of Labor and Statistics, employees spend an average of 8.9 hours working each day, and many spend a great deal more. Being trapped in an office where the only sustenance comes from coffee and vending machines can negatively impact workforce health. Lendlease studied the affect of healthy food options by replacing sweets with fresh fruit. Their employees reported feeling better about coming to work as well as improved mental health and anxiety levels.

Taking steps to improve workforce health, including making a move to an activity based work environment, is an investment that brings significant returns in the form of healthier bodies, minds, workplaces and even a healthier company culture. And ultimately, a healthier bottom line and long-term success for the company.

Technology enables the move to activity based working

If you’re considering moving to an activity based work environment, the first step in the planning process is to collect data about your current space utilization. Many companies don’t have a true picture of how much space sits empty every day, and that number can be 50 percent or more. Start with workplace management software that helps right-size office space and get occupancy levels under control.

Next, implement the right mix of sensors and other technology to track not just desks that aren’t assigned to anyone, but overall utilization of all your workspace. That data allows you to plan for the right ratios of seats-to-people and mix of space types in a non-assigned seating model.

Here are a couple of helpful resources to get you started:

5 Critical Comparison Points for Workplace Management Software
Measuring Workplace Utilization

5 Critical Comparison Points for Workplace Management Software

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