Designing spaces that promote healthy physical and mental wellbeing

3rd November 2015

Helen Berresford discusses wellness in the workplace in this week's Property Week. Helen was asked to write about ID:SR’s experiences of designing spaces that promote healthy physical and mental wellbeing for Property Week magazine.

Working with a broad range of clients, from blue-chip professional service companies (such as KPMG) and banks (Commonwealth Bank of Australia) to retail brands (Arcadia) and technology firms (Rackspace), we see patterns – irrespective of sector – emerge across workplace culture. Wellbeing and wellness – terms that have been used in Australian workplace culture for some time – are now top of the agenda for workplace designers and clients in the UK.

Numerous principles that underpin wellness are already being implemented throughout modern workplaces, with closer attention paid to issues such as creating a variety of work settings, improving cycling facilities and getting people physically moving within offices. However, there is now real momentum in formalising how we create, monitor and rate wellbeing. BREEAM and SKA ratings have become part of the built environment vocabulary; these benchmarks have allowed the industry to push forward the environmental agenda.

In the same way, the Well Building Standard is set to formalise how we improve spaces for people, creating a standardised criteria – covering the quality of air, water and comfort, nourishment, light - that can be used as a foundation upon which the principles can be built on further. This process of standardising and quantifying the health of employees will also be a much more prominent part of company’s Corporate Social Responsibility charters.

These changes are manifesting themselves through-out office space, including:

Work settings

We are now specifying more adjustable furniture solutions that give people the choice to work standing up or seated. Numerous reports have shown that sitting in a fixed position all day has consequences for people’s health and facilitating a less sedentary working environment is one that has huge potential benefits to both employer and employee.

The connection between health and productivity is clear: research by the National Health Service UK found about 7.6 million working days were lost due to work-related back pain and other musculoskeletal disorders from 2010 to 2011. This is not about making everyone stand to create a healthier workplace; instead it’s important to give people choice, allowing people to stand between the recommended 5 and 20 minutes an hour.

Lighting

The starting point is to optimise daylight; natural light is always in the top five necessities in the staff interviews we carry out at the start of a project. We are also now thinking more strategically than ever about artificial lighting, allowing staff to choose the right lux level for the activity they are doing. Instead of having a general 300-500 lux condition for all work spaces, people will have the choice to select the right lighting for their task by controls that illuminate their specific work station. This is particularly important for those who switch between screen and paper-based activities.

Cycling culture

The numbers of staff cycling to work, from junior staff to CEOs, have increased hugely. Cycling facilities are no longer been seen as an afterthought, positioned down in the basement. Workplaces, through design, are actively encouraging cycling: some developments welcome cyclists through the front door meaning they don’t have to enter the building through secondary entrances to the rear of the building. Other developments are making their facilities resemble a gym, with a higher number of better equipped showers, locker and towel services and vented cupboards; this removes some of the practical barriers to cycling to work.

Food

Google is well known for using food and drink as workplace culture currency. However, across the industry there is a move to design-out the traditional notion of the office canteen, replacing it with catering facilities that place an emphasis on healthy, locally-sourced and organic food. It is now felt that providing food is not enough; it has to be the right type of ‘brain food’, along with the right social spaces to consume it in to get the best out of the workforce.

What links the points above is choice: studies have proved that people who select their work setting feel more engaged and productive. This agility in the workplace also adds encouragement for people to physically move around the office – one of the key premises of wellness.

Furniture, lighting, cycling and food are just a few examples of how human health and wellbeing are catching up with ecological awareness. Perhaps it is not the individual elements of the building that are most interesting, but how the industry has formalised its perception of wellness. Wellbeing is among the key categories that structure the SKA Rating system, with over 15 measures relating directly to wellness, but the Well Building Standard will encourage an unprecedented degree of focus on human health.

Our clients are now employing specialists in wellness to ensure quality throughout the workplace. By moving to a more evidence-based system for measuring, certifying and monitoring the performance of building in terms of wellbeing, it allows us to advance as an industry much faster, with across the board changes in how we engage and retain staff.

Helen Berresford RIBA

Partner, Head of ID:SR