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How to design a workplace that promotes wellbeing

05 Oct 2017  |  Well-being  |  Design

Picking the right pieces of furniture can do wonders for employees’ physical and mental health, writes Jon Odey.

A report from the University of Edinburgh has revealed that middle-aged office workers are less active than pensioners, because of the amount of time they spend sitting down while at the office. In an analysis of 14,000 adults, researchers found that, of those in work, men aged 45 to 54 spend an average of 7.8 hours per weekday sitting down, with women spending seven hours a day sedentary. By comparison, the over-75s spend only 6.5 hours of the day sitting down. While these statistics have once again highlighted the importance of staying active for those in desk-based roles, there is much employers can do to create a culture and environment that facilitates and encourages a more active way of working.

Space invaders

One of the reasons many people are not getting enough exercise in the workplace is because the space they are working in does not facilitate much activity. Space – or rather the lack of it – is actually moving many organisations away from thriving urban work areas, leaving perfectly good properties empty. A report by retail estate advisor CBRE shows that rents for the 100 largest law firms in London rose by seven per cent to an average of £43 per sq ft in 2015, forcing many to move away from the capital.

Instead of moving location, which incurs downtime and costs, organisations can maximise their building spend and create an environment more conducive to exercise and collaboration simply by optimising existing spaces.

For example, installing height adjustable furniture can create a sit/stand environment, as well encouraging employees to move around more. Typically this type of furniture does not encroach on too much office space and can be installed in more cellular areas for optimal effect.

The key to improved worker wellbeing

Some organisations might prefer to take bigger, more profound steps. The WELL Building Standard™ (WELL), established in 1994, promotes good practices in pro-wellbeing design and construction, backed by evidence-based medical and scientific research. There are various strands to this, but perhaps the most notable are the WELL Building Standards for fitness and comfort.

The WELL Building Standard for fitness allows for the seamless integration of exercise and fitness into everyday life by providing the physical features and components to support an active lifestyle. It suggests that space – such as a canteen, coffee bar, or kitchen area – is provided to employees for them to take time away from their desk to support movement. It recommends that employees stand for 15 minutes every hour to invigorate both the mind and the body, which will enable workers to each burn an extra 1,875 calories per month.

Paying careful attention paid to individual workstations can aid greater employee wellbeing, and the type of furniture installed can have a big influence on this. For example, treadmill desks are drawing more attention as a means of facilitating exercise at work. It is estimated that working from a treadmill desk at 1mph for two hours a day will burn more than 1,000 calories throughout the working week – the equivalent to two bottles of wine. Sketch has long advocated for improved worker wellbeing, and has been presenting seminars on wellbeing to RIBA members for nearly two years.

Healthy mind, healthy body

Exercise alone is not the only contributing factor to improved worker wellbeing, and employees can be encouraged to take their own action against sedentary working if they are inspired to do so. The WELL Building standard covers this with its ‘mind ‘standard, which encourages design, technology, and treatment strategies to provide a physical environment that optimises cognitive and emotional health.

For example, simply providing workers with ample natural daylight can improve their mental state and aid sleep. A worker who sleeps for eight hours or more a day will feel less stressed than one who does not, and therefore more empowered to undertake their own physical activities away from the office.

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