Why Healthy Workplaces Are Critical to Business Success

By Leigh Stringer
As a workplace consultant, I have always been aware of the influence of the built environment on health. But it was not until I met with a long list of physiologists, neurologists, anthropologists, physicians, ergonomists, nutritionists and sleep experts while researching my book The Healthy Workplace that I realized the full impact of design, not only on our health but also on our well-being and performance.

The truth is, I have most often considered employee health as one item on a long list of project goals, along with saving money, being environmentally responsible and meeting my client’s business needs.

After digging deeply, however, I have come to believe that human health should be the foundation of both workplace design and business as well. Why? Companies thrive on the innovation and abilities of their employees. And if workers are sick, overweight, stressed, sleep deprived or disengaged, the employer is prevented from maintaining a competitive advantage in the marketplace.

The business case for employee health grows stronger every day. A well-respected 2010 study led by Katherine Baicker, PhD, a professor in the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, evaluated the return on investment for 22 companies with wellness programs.

The study revealed that medical costs fell by about $3.27 for every dollar spent on these programs and absenteeism costs fell by about $2.73 for every dollar spent!

In separate studies completed by Ray Fabius and Ron Goetzel over the past three years, the authors compared the stock performance of companies that won awards for their health initiatives with the Standard & Poor’s 500 index. No matter how the researchers sliced the data, companies with a focus on health significantly outperformed the S&P 500.

Clearly, human health is a driving force for business growth. But how can the built environment play a more meaningful role?

Besides the obvious solutions, such as providing sit-stand desks and access to natural light, how can workplace design positively impact health and, ultimately, human performance? Here are three particularly compelling strategies.

1. Provide workers with a choice on how, when, and where they work.
Studies by industrial engineers Robert Karasek and Töres Theorell, published in their book Healthy Work: Stress, Productivity, and the Reconstruction of the Working Life (Basic Books, April 1990), showed that regardless of job function, workers who feel more in control of their work and work environment are less likely to suffer from heart disease and stress.
One suggestion to reduce this stress: Find ways to integrate flexibility and choice into the work environment, including where, when, and how employees work. This may result in multiple options, including reconfiguring the workplace to contain a variety of settings that better suit individual work preferences.
It may also result in allowing for tailored furnishing or technology solutions, such as a treadmill desk or a second computer monitor for some employees or call for policy changes, such as offering work-at-home or flexible schedules.

2. Nurture biophilia.
Humans have a strong desire to be among nature, which is to be expected—after all, for most of human history we spent all of our time outdoors. This human preference for the natural world, often referred to as biophilia, was introduced by biologist E.O. Wilson. He suggests that there is an instinctive bond between human beings and other living systems.
As Terrapin Bright Green noted in its 2012 report “The Economics of Biophilia,” evidence exists that biophilic environments can improve stress recovery rates, lower blood pressure, improve cognitive functions, enhance mental stamina and focus, decrease violence and criminal activity, elevate moods and increase learning rates.
Biophilia-based design can manifest in many ways. The most obvious approach is to incorporate real plants, water features and views to nature into the workplace. But another, more subtle way is to create analogs that are only one degree of separation away, such as materials and patterns that evoke nature, including artwork, ornamentation, biomorphic forms or the use of natural materials.

3. Leverage choice architecture.
The phrase “choice architecture” in retail refers to how products are presented and its impact on consumer decision-making. In a workplace, many companies are using this strategy by reducing the availability of unhealthy foods.
Employers can also subconsciously encourage healthy eating habits in the workplace by creating an inviting, convenient place for workers to eat with attractive lighting and outdoor views, by providing a space for people to store their own meals and snacks (to deter the use of vending machines or going to restaurants) or by installing refrigerators with glass doors to encourage all to see—and more likely grab—healthy foods that often need refrigeration.

So how do we make strategies like these really effective?

From my discussions with hundreds of people on the topic of health and well-being at work, I have learned that a large amount of data is available but not all of it resides in our industry. To truly advance our thinking and the sophistication of our buildings, design industry professionals need to leverage and connect with the breadth of health data from other fields as it relates to wellness programs, environmental health and safety, engagement and human performance.

It is in our own best interest as dealers and designers to look across industries for integrated solutions when it comes to health because we are all working toward the same goal and human health issues are impossible to solve in silos.

The good news is that our industry is well positioned to lead the way. We may not be health professionals but we know how to implement a vision and our collective impact can be profound.

About Leigh Stringer
Leigh Stringer will be among the speakers at WPF’s 2017 Annual Conference in San Antonio, April 2-5. She is the author of two best-selling books, The Green Workplace: Sustainable Strategies that Benefit Employees, the Environment and the Bottom Line and The Healthy Workplace: How to Improve the Well-Being of Your Employees – and Boost Your Company’s Bottom Line. She is currently collaborating with Harvard University’s School of Public Health, the Center for Active Design in New York, the International Facility Management Association and the AIA DC Chapter on Health and Well-being to create new tools to help improve our well-being at work. For more information, visit www.leighstringer.com/



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