For the architectural and design community, the idea that indoor spaces influence people’s health, wellbeing and productivity is not new. Yet the business case for improving workplace wellbeing has lagged behind – until now. Progressive companies like Whole Foods, Philips and Unilever are combining health and environmental concerns in workplace designs, as the human, environmental and business benefits of a healthy workplace become clear.

Workplace wellbeing: What’s at stake?

People spend an average of 90,000 hours at work in their lifetime, approximately a third of their lives. But 70% of office workers in the US and 45% in Europe remain disengaged at work , while in the UK alone, 85% of lost working days are due to work-related illness. The knock-on effects of this profound lack of wellbeing include lost productivity, high staff turnover and increased recruitment and training costs. This offers poor return on investment, when you consider the high level of investment made by many businesses in salaries and benefits. Staff costs typically account for 90% of business operating costs.

Companies that take action to improve employee wellbeing are already seeing positive results. Businesses with satisfied, engaged workers experience up to 65% lower employee turnover, while a Warwick University study reveals a 12% increase in productivity among happy employees.

The driving force seems to be that happier workers use the time they have more effectively, increasing the pace at which they can work without sacrificing quality.
Dr. Daniel Sgroi, Warwick University Tweet this

What makes a healthy workplace?

Here are five of the key ingredients of a happy, healthy and productive workplace:

  • Clean air - Good indoor air quality is directly linked to improved cognitive function.
  • Access to daylight - Exposure to natural daylight has been connected with health benefits, with neuroscientists suggesting that it helps to improve sleep.
  • Good acoustics - Quieter environments help to improve concentration, reduce stress levels, and prevent health problems occurring.
  • Comfortable temperatures – Maintaining a good temperature and humidity balance in the office is key to staying comfortable and performing well at work.
  • Connection to nature – Employees working in spaces that incorporate natural materials, plants and views of natures are likely to be more productive. 

Employees call for change

The drive to improve workplace wellbeing isn’t just a ‘top down’ push to improve efficiency and costs. There’s also a push ‘up’ for wellbeing from the grassroots, as employees seek a more satisfying worklife. In fact, employees in Europe see wellbeing as the biggest priority for office-based organisations, according to 44% of respondents to a survey of 2,500 office workers, commissioned by Tarkett. Noise levels (27%) and indoor air quality (22%) top their list of workplace wellbeing concerns, the survey reveals. Indeed, studies show that indoor air can be up to five times as polluted as outdoor air.

44% of office workers in Europe consider wellbeing as the biggest priority for office-based organisations.
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Putting people at the heart of office design

So how are today’s companies putting people at the heart of workspace design?

Firstly, the creation of a sustainable building standard entirely dedicated to workplace wellbeing – the WELL Building Standard – has emerged as a framework to help employers create healthier, more human-centric working environments. WELL recommends a holistic approach, with criteria spanning air, water, nourishment, light, fitness, comfort and mental wellbeing. In 2017, there were 502 WELL projects in 30 countries worldwide, covering 10 mio m2.

Businesses are pushing for innovation, too. In Pittsburgh, United States, financial services company PNC has risen to the challenge of improving indoor air quality by creating a ‘building that breathes’. In designing the 33-storey tower block, designers created a breathable ‘outer skin’ of panels. On days when the weather is favourable, large air gates open automatically on the outside of the tower, allowing air to fill a vented cavity. Employees can then open sliding panels to access fresh air, which flows into the building with the help of a ‘solar chimney’, a passive solar heating and cooling system that promotes good ventilation, helping to pull cool air through the office space. While improving employee satisfaction, this passive ventilation is also set to contribute to a 50% reduction in energy use, compared to similar buildings.

Elsewhere, Tarkett participated in a major renovation of the UK Green Building Council’s (GBC) London headquarters, helping to achieve the lowest ever embodied carbon footprint for an office refurbishment in the UK. To help improve the building’s health and environmental credentials, Tarkett provided products designed to promote health and wellbeing, such as carpets that help to ‘clear the air’ of fine dust. It also supported the GBC’s aim to conserve natural resources by recycling the building’s old carpet, and providing a carpet made from a 100% regenerated nylon. Neutral shades of grey helped to promote a sense of tranquillity and complement the building’s newly installed living wall, while vibrant yellows in the meeting rooms were chosen to inspire creativity and discussion.

Continuing the journey

While employee wellbeing is undoubtedly an important focus for corporate responsibility, more progress is needed to shift mindsets at the most senior level, and ultimately, bring this commitment to life through workplace design. Continuing the journey will require collaboration across organisations, with everyone working together towards a workplace that improves employees’ health, boosts productivity and creates positive impacts for the planet.

Download ‘Rethinking Workplace - Part I’ to uncover valuable insights to design healthier, people-friendly workspaces, based on the experiences of more than 2,500 office workers in Europe.

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Katharine Earley Sustainability writer Full bio and articles

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