Designing for Workplace Wellbeing

As sitting has become the new smoking in the past few years, researchers have identified the workplace as one of the primary environments for sedentary behavior. In a typical workweek, Americans spend an average of five hours and forty-one minutes per day sitting at a desk. Research shows that even small bouts of exercise do not counteract the physical dangers of sitting. This type of sedentary behavior not only diminishes productivity levels, but also increases the risk of developing diseases such as depression, obesity, heart disease, and diabetes. Given the amount of time that most of us spend at work, the promotion of health and wellbeing in the office environment is an urgent task. While some larger companies have offered programs that promote health, studies have shown that broader strategies used in the design of the workspace itself can have a large and sustained impact on the wellbeing and productivity of employees.

For many companies, adapting to the workplace wellbeing trend is simply a good business strategy, given the link between improved health and reduced absenteeism, health insurance premiums, and increased productivity.

According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control, U.S. employers lose about $225.8 billion annually due to employee health issues such as chronic diseases.

Historically, companies have approached this issue by implementing social programs, now a $6 billion-a-year industry, to improve health. Wellness programs are also a pillar in the Affordable Care Act, which allows employers to reward or penalize workers based on participation, with discounts or increases of as much as 30 percent of their insurance costs.

Limitations of using programs to improve health

Despite their popularity to date, wide skepticism has grown around wellness programming, with claims that the programs are ineffective and costly. Earlier this year, PepsiCo’s seven year-long “Healthy Living” program was reported to not significantly reduce healthcare costs, even though there were health improvements among some employees. While health promotion and cost-cutting has been successful in other businesses, a similar dissatisfaction with programming was found in a RAND study on workplace wellness. The study determined that only around 20 percent of eligible employees nationwide participate in company-sponsored fitness programs and just 10 percent join weight-loss programs. It also found that most employees gained weight back by the fourth year of participation, indicating unsustainability in weight management programs. Jonathan Webb, Vice President of Business Markets at KI Furniture, explains,

“[…] Only those employees already subscribing to healthy practices and leading healthy lifestyles take advantage of such programs. It is paramount that we work proactively with our clients to plan spaces that inherently promote more active work environments."

Thus, if programs are integrated into the workspace itself, as seen with Boston’s Museum of Science staff, it becomes much easier to encourage wellbeing.

The new sustainability

When the infrastructure of a workplace is shaped to encourage more movement and interaction, the possible increase in activity becomes easier for employees to sustain on a long-term basis. Designing an office space that has access to daylight and good ventilation and includes features such as, standing desks, communal working lounges, outdoor circulation paths, and interconnecting stairs, gives employees options for where and how they want to work. This kind of flexibility “really fosters a sense of creativity of how people can actively define their setting”, says Mark Hirons, Principal and Design Director of Interiors at Cannon Design. Offering a variety of non-sedentary options helps employees alter their daily routines, while also highlighting how time spent at work and personal health can be interrelated.

Unfortunately, most office spaces today are not designed to allow for movement, leaving much work and research to be completed in this arena. Designers, developers, researchers, and management teams all have a critical role to play in ensuring that healthy work environments become a standard in office culture.

  • User Side Images Image 449
    Gensler's Newport Beach headquarters is designed to emphasize multiple places and modes for working, which enhances activity and collaboration. Photo: Nick Merrick/Hedrick Blessing Photography.
  • User Side Images Image 450
    BlueCross BlueShield of Tennessee created circulation paths that helped to promote walking and overall connectivity throughout their suburban campus. Photo courtesy of DudaPaine Architects.
  • User Side Images Image 447
    RAND's study shows how weight loss from wellness programming becomes much less effective by the 4th year of participation.