How workplaces can affect employee health

Office design and set-up can directly affect employees’ health and wellbeing.

How workplaces can affect employee health and wellbeing

If you read nothing else, read this…

  • Good office design can boost employee health and wellbeing .
  • But corporate culture is just as important and must be driven from chief executives down through organisations.
  • Offices that encourage physical activity can help combat disorders such as obesity .

For example, the design features of Long Barn Studio, the Bedfordshire home of Nicolas Tye Architects, help new recruit Katie Wilson to remain calm at work. 

The office is essentially a glass box with larch-clad casing at each end, which means it is flooded with natural daylight through most of employees’ working day (see box). 

“It’s a really nice office to work in, purely because it’s so open,” says Wilson, who joined the organisation as head of business development at the end of 2013.

“It’s a very open-plan office and everyone can talk to each other and work as a team, and because it has so much glass, it never feels like a normal, constricted office, which, with our long working hours, makes me feel a lot more relaxed.”

Similarly, at Great Ormond Street Hospital’s new Morgan Stanley Clinical Building in London, staff have welcomed design features such as floor-to-ceiling windows and art, which they say have reduced their stress levels (see box).

Lindsey Dugdill, professor in public health at the University of Salford, says employers should try to replicate hospital design features, particularly those in children’s hospitals, because of the positive impact they can have on staff health and wellbeing. And such features need not be expensive.

“Natural light and coloured walls, from a wellbeing perspective, can make staff feel better,” says Dugdill. “Certain colours, like green and blue, are seen to be less stressful, so even quite simple things, such as the colour an employer paints a wall, can have quite a pronounced effect on the way staff feel.”

Dugdill also advocates greenery, be it in the form of plants in and around a building or, where possible, a garden, because of its calming effects on staff.

Maintaining office air quality is one of a range of legal requirements for employers (see box), and plants can help to improve air quality by absorbing toxins and emitting oxygen, enabling staff to breathe more easily and reducing the side-effects of humidity, such as headaches.

Health risks

Other workplace health risks that employers need to manage include obesity, which is an increasingly pressing issue affecting sickness absence levels.

Dugdill says: “There is a big body of evidence coming out now showing how risky a sedentary lifestyle is. The way an office is designed can stimulate, or mitigate against, staff moving about and not being sat down for too long.”

Offices that facilitate physical activity can help employers to tackle staff health issues such as obesity, she says.

In her book Enhancing building performance , published in 2012, Dugdill proposed the concept of ‘physical activity-friendly ‘ buildings that encourage employees to make ‘involuntary actions’ around the office during their working day, rather than ‘voluntary’ movements, such as structured gym attendance.

For example, a workplace with a central staircase can encourage staff to use the stairs to access other parts of the building, rather than take the lift.

Standing desks, which allow employees to adjust the height of their desk depending on whether they want to sit or stand to work, and treadmill desks can also encourage staff to be active.

Dugdill questions the need for staff to remain seated while working. “When we think about technology, more and more employees are moving around on their tablets and phones,” she says. “Employees work from all kinds of spaces now, and this offers a real opportunity to move away from sitting down at desks all the time.”

More cost-effective tweaks to a workplace include the strategic positioning of recycling bins and kitchen areas to encourage staff to walk to use them.

Workspace ownership

But Craig Knight, chartered occupational psychologist and honorary research fellow at the University of Exeter, says giving employees ownership of their workspace is more important than any quirky design feature when it comes to boosting health and wellbeing.

“The most important thing we’ve found is not a treadmill desk or a particular kind of feature, but employees having the ability to recognise their own identity and the space in which they work,” he says. “Employees need some say in how their workspace looks; that’s most important.”

Executives and senior managers can encourage workspace ownership by involving staff in the design and set-up of the space. For employers in established buildings, this may simply involve giving employees input into the design of their workstation furniture or office facilities such as the staff kitchen or restaurant.

Corporate culture

But Monica Parker, workplace director at office designer Morgan Lovell, says such an inclusive approach can only work in organisations with the right corporate culture.

“Office design is an output of an office culture and it’s only as good as the behaviour that is embedded within that space, so culture trumps design,” she says.

“I think it can be a bit misleading for people to say employers need to build more active offices. Employers need to build more active cultures, so it’s really about changing behaviour, and that takes more effort than moving the furniture around.”

For example, organisations need to create a culture in which staff are encouraged to move around the workplace and use breakout areas, as opposed to a culture that assumes staff taking time away from their desks are avoiding work.

Great Ormond Street Hospital staff are encouraged to make use of their new staff room, which has been created away from the wards to help reduce stress levels (see box).

Employers can also offer health and wellbeing incentives to encourage desk-based staff to take breaks from their work, such as on-site massages. For example, Mitie Group hosts monthly on-site massages for employees at its 24-hour call centres to help ensure they take breaks to keep them relaxed.

Staff chill-out areas, often furnished with beanbags, drink and snack vending machines as well as pool tables, also feature in some workplaces to enable employees to switch off from their work during their breaks.

Healthy food

Wellbeing initiatives, such as offering healthy food, can also support staff in the workplace. For example, financial recruiter Goodman Masson offered staff a breakfast bar featuring granola, yoghurt and orange juice as part of its third annual Winter Wellbeing Week in November 2013.

Employers often use their staff rooms and breakout areas to stage such health and wellbeing initiatives, and some host benefits fairs, which promote workplace health and wellbeing to staff and encourage them to leave their desks.

Morgan Lovell’s Parker adds: “There are workplaces with this space that never gets used because the corporate culture doesn’t encourage and facilitate that. It’s about employers creating an office design that’s aligned with their culture of wellbeing.” 

Staff wellbeing underpins new building design at Great Ormond Street Hospital

Great Ormond Street Hospital workplace wellbeing

Left: The Lagoon hospital café art installation, The Singing Forest

Staff health and wellbeing was a key aim in the design of the Morgan Stanley Clinical Building, one of two new buildings that will form the Mittal Children’s Medical Centre at Great Ormond Street Hospital (GOSH) in London.

The building, which opened in 2012, has seven floors, one of which is the staff restaurant, which has wall-to-ceiling glazed windows and runs along the entire length of the building.

Unlike the traditional hospital set-up, there is a staff room away from the ward area, with views over Coram’s Fields, an urban park, and separate stairs and lifts to prevent staff having to walk through the hospital to enter and leave the building.

Joanne Trussler, clinical director at GOSH, says: “The thinking behind it was that we allow staff to get away from their work, because they’re often working 12-hour shifts. It is important for them to feel they’ve got some privacy and some quality time whenever they take their break, because working with sick children and families can be very tiring and very demanding emotionally.”

Trussler says research was conducted on the impact of art on staff wellbeing and morale, which resulted in selected pieces being displayed in staff areas.

Staff were engaged in the building’s design process an early stage, and worked closely with the architects to achieve their desired workplace.

“We’ve tried to get staff, from an early stage, to think about how they were going to work differently in the building, and also how they were going to use the amount of space they were going to get,” says Trussler.

“Some of them had come from very small, cramped wards, and that meant quite a change for them, psychologically as well as physically.”

Two-dimensional plans of the building’s design were used to encourage a new way of thinking about it ahead of its completion. After staff moved in, team games, such as treasure hunts, were used to help them get to know the new space.

Trussler adds: “So it wasn’t just the redevelopment team telling staff [how to use the space]; they needed to feel they owned their space. Part of the transformation was about staff understanding that they wouldn’t just move in and do exactly what they did before; they have to feel that they own that area.”

GOSH is now working on a post-project evaluation to assess the new building’s impact on staff health and wellbeing , but anecdotal feedback suggests employees particularly like the space and the light.

“There’s much more space at bedsides to provide care, and more privacy for staff to speak with patients and parents, so that’s helped their wellbeing because they’re not as stressed ,” says Trussler.

“Also, anecdotally, stress levels in our intensive care space have reduced because the new layout is very different to the previous one, which was very open-plan and had a lot of noise because of the machinery.”

Nicolas Tye Architects uses environmentally-friendly office design to support staff 

Nicholas Tye Architects

The environmentally-friendly design specifications of Nicolas Tye Architects’ Bedfordshire headquarters, Long Barn Studio, make it an enviably healthy office space in which to work.

The glass box-shaped building’s stone flooring and the employer’s footwear-free office policy (staff wear slippers) helps to minimise allergies.

The office optimises its air quality with a mechanical cooling system, which provides comfort cooling in summer and pre-heats cool air coming from outside in the winter. The air is filtered, providing a healthy fresh air balance in the studio.

Non-toxic lacquers and organic white paint are used throughout the building, and workstations feature ergonomic chairs with lumbar support.

Nicolas Tye, owner of the business, says it is easy to achieve an office that promotes staff health and wellbeing . “Employers should start by looking at the key aspects of design by zooming in and zooming out [on details]. Zoom-in detail is the keyboards staff will use; zoom out is the air they breathe.

“Employers should make sure all aspects provide the right holistic goal, which will pay dividends to the working environment in any office.”

Doctor Noeleen Doherty: Employers must work with staff to create a healthy workplace

Doctor Noeleen Doherty

Physical, mental and social health and wellbeing in the workplace are key considerations for both employers and employees.The creation and maintenance of safe physical and positive work environments are mutually dependent: one supports the other.

Physical high-hazard contexts, such as in the construction and engineering industries, tend to attract high-profile publicity because the outcomes of poor practices can be potentially fatal; think Chernobyl or Piper Alpha. But in situations where the physical risks could be perceived as less serious, such as office or retail environments, the consequences may not seem so significant. 

However, it is critical to avoid complacency. In such low-hazard environments, slips, trips, falls and ‘near misses’ are actually quite common and can be costly to staff in terms of personal injury, and to employers and society in terms of financial costs.

There are regulations in place to address environmental issues , such as noise or air pollution, but there is a need to move away from a mindset of compliance and cost to one of mindfulness of the factors that create and maintain a safe, healthy working environment.

Shared responsibility

Shared responsibility and shared leadership help to create a healthy work environment. All employees have a role to play in ensuring good practice is part of everyday organisational life. This involves keeping staff aware of risks , helping them to develop skills in risk assessment and risk management, but importantly enabling employees to prioritise and not become risk-bound.

Employers must enable and support staff to take responsibility for health and safety, facilitating problem-solving to address issues when they arise and encouraging employee involvement in maintaining a safe working environment. Only then can they successfully create a workplace that supports staff health and wellbeing.

Doctor Noeleen Doherty is a senior research fellow at Cranfield School of Management

Employers’ legal requirements for workplace management

Legal requirements for workplaces

Welfare provisions

  • Toilets.
  • Hand basins with soap and towels or a hand-drier.
  • Drinking water.
  • A place to store clothing and somewhere for employees to change/lockers.
  • Somewhere for employees to rest/eat food, which could be their desk.

Health provisions

  • A supply of fresh, clean air from outside, either from open windows or via a mechanical ventilation system, such as air conditioning.
  • A minimum temperature of 16°C, or 13°C for physical environments, such as a fitness studio in a gym.
  • Lighting that suits the work being carried out.
  • Enough room and space for each employee; a rule of thumb is a minimum of 11 cubic metres per employee.
  • Clean workplaces with bins and a cleaner. 

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Safety provisions

  • A properly maintained work area, particularly with regard to work equipment, such as machinery, which must be serviced and maintained properly.
  • Floors and exit roots that are clean and clear from obstruction.
  • Windows that can be opened and cleaned safely, with any glass or transparent areas protected or made of safety materials, depending on where they are.

Source: Institution of Occupational Safety and Health