Does your facility help or hinder its occupants’ health? Surprisingly, even green buildings can neglect human wellness in favor of environmental sustainability.
“For a long time, we’ve been so focused on making our buildings sustainable that we’ve forgotten we’re ultimately designing for people,” says Kay Sargent, director of workplace strategies for Lend Lease, an infrastructure solutions provider. “Sitting stagnant in a chair all day is killing us faster than what any wall is offgassing.” A study in the Journal of Physical Activity and Health supports this, observing a significantly increased risk of disability linked to sedentary behavior in people 60 and older, even when the study subjects also exercised regularly.
Because people spend so many hours a day at work, an unhealthy workplace can impact more than just individual wellness. The repercussions are far-reaching and include absenteeism, presenteeism (in which employees come to work but are unable, unwilling, or unmotivated to work at their full potential), higher healthcare costs, and more.
“People have realized that employee costs are 10 to 15 times the cost of corporate real estate and IT combined,” explains Sargent. “When statistics are saying 60% or more of the workforce is disengaged and 85% of your corporate money is going toward people costs, that’s a huge hit. You have to focus on engaging and empowering people.”
Luckily, your building can help with that. The facilities department can (and should) play an important role in supporting wellness through the built environment.
Follow these five tips to make sure your building is contributing to occupant health.
1) Build the Business Case for Well-Being Initiatives
Start by obtaining trackable baseline information that will both demonstrate a need for a comprehensive well-being program and allow you to compare your progress later. An employee survey can work wonders, recommends Kate Lister, president of Global Workplace Analytics, which conducts research and consults on workplace issues.
You can outsource the survey work to a third party or conduct your own study internally. However, outside organizations that specialize in employee wellness may have more up-to-date screening technology. Make sure they’re examining a wide spectrum of issues that can affect employee health and productivity, such as how many days employees came to work while sick.
“If you do a study of an organization and find out they have a low level of obesity and a high level of stress, you should be dealing with stress instead of obesity,” says Lister. “However, because there are so many off-the-shelf programs for things like smoking cessation, people tend to use those vs. what their organization needs the most.”
Combine the survey data with existing studies demonstrating the most useful workplace interventions. For example, multiple complaints of back pain might indicate that you need to start ordering ergonomic chairs from your furniture vendor. High levels of stress might prompt a small renovation to create a collaborative area where employees can gather, relax, and rejuvenate.
“The other piece of the puzzle is chronic disease,” says Sue Schmidt, vice president and portfolio manager for Regions Bank. “Any health problem impacts the bottom line. If you can do something as simple as getting people standing and walking more, that improves each individual’s health and lessens their risk of chronic disease, which costs organizations significant amounts of money. It’s the end result of symptoms like obesity and stress.”
2) Make Friends in High Places
To get your initiatives off the ground, consider engaging these five stakeholders.
HR: Your organization’s human resources department can offer a unique perspective on workplace design that may not be intuitive to facilities professionals, Schmidt says. “Many times when planning a renovation or a new facility, HR is late to the table because people don’t think about bringing them in,” she adds. “They’re a key contributor.”
IT: Creating opportunities to move around the office means IT is a crucial partner to make sure people’s work can move with them – otherwise, no one will take advantage of the new flexibility. “If I don’t have access to the tools, technology, and files I need to get my work done, I’m stuck down there on the bottom rung,” says Lister. “I can’t move forward on getting to the right level of engagement because I simply can’t get my work done.”
Sustainability: Particularly in larger companies, green teams play important roles in occupant satisfaction, Lister says. Enlist your organization’s sustainability department for insight on green strategies, materials, and products that can contribute to a healthy workplace.
Marketing: This department can help you craft a consistent message and brand your efforts to increase buy-in among employees, Lister suggests. Bring a marketing rep on board to handle communications for your well-being initiatives, such as making employees aware of important resources and promoting wellness events.
Legal/risk management: If you plan to offer incentives, such as discounts on health insurance premiums for people who improve their health, it’s important to run your plans by a legal professional first to make sure you’re in the clear. Risk management will take a certain interest in initiatives that can lower healthcare costs, reduce accidents, and improve safety, and may be able to contribute some funding to projects fitting those descriptions.
3) Target Your Efforts
Revisit the employee data you incorporated into your business case in #1. Which problem is costing your organization the most money? The answer may surprise you. A three-year study of healthcare spending at seven corporations with a total of 92,000 employees revealed that obesity is the highest-cost risk factor per capita – not surprising, as it affects so many people. However, depression carries the highest treatment cost per person. (See “The Real Cost of Unhealthy Workplaces” at right.)
“When you’re looking at your own company, what really matters is how prevalent your main problems are,” Lister says. “If depression happens to be the biggest issue in your company, then that’s the thing you have to treat. Multiply prevalence by cost to determine what each problem is costing you in sick days, healthcare, and other resources.”
Chronic stress is another major contributor to presenteeism and can also play a role in physical health complaints. A healthy building must tackle workplace-related stress alongside other risk factors.
“Several German companies have started to self-regulate by refusing to push emails through to employees after 5 p.m. and on weekends,” says Sargent. “They shut the servers down to give people a mental break so they can regenerate instead of being constantly stressed. The question in this country is ‘If you want to be paid on the weekend for reading a work-related email, should I dock you for when you’re on Facebook in the middle of the day?’ Where do you draw the line? Because of our ability to access technology and be reachable 24/7, the boundaries are blurred almost to the point where there are none, leading people to feel like they're on call constantly and making it hard for most to feel like they're in control.”