Getting the most out of workplace wellness.
Companies that want to improve health in the workplace are going to need more than blood tests, fun runs and doughnut police. Businesses are taking a 360-degree approach to achieve a healthy working environment that promotes employee wellness and increases productivity. This includes making drastic changes to organizational culture and employee engagement, and results in the improved performance of all company vitals.
“A well workplace is one that you want to come to work to every day, that supports mental and physical well-being,” says Brian Malarkey, executive vice president of Kirksey EcoServices, a Houston-based architecture firm.
Productivity is the single biggest source of value in a knowledge-based working environment, Malarkey says. As a result, companies spend far greater amounts on salaries and benefits than they do on technology, energy, and the mortgage or lease.
Experts in corporate work environments recommend protecting the valuable asset of productivity by helping workers reduce stress, improve morale and prevent workplace injury.
Inspiring healthy lifestyles
Most companies have started a wellness program in some form or another, as an attempt to reduce insurance premiums, prevent stress-related illness or promote team-building through group activities. But often, wellness programs are short-lived or they become less effective over time, says Rosie Ward, Ph.D., health management consultant for RJF Agencies, a business insurance and corporate risk management firm based in Minneapolis.
“Activities are great, but they can lose their sticking factor,” Ward says. “We look at wellness as an all-encompassing benefit to how we take care of employees. Under the benefit we have various activities, programs and resources that inspire good health by focusing on ergonomics and safety as well as wellness.”
Among the wellness initiatives implemented at RJF are: two treadmill workstations with computer and phone access in a conference room that allows employees to walk while working; a healthy foods policy that stipulates that any food purchased by the company must meet basic health guidelines and includes a list of suggested foods; adding healthy food to vending machines; and holding a self-care workshop series for employees.
RJF encourages employees to participate and take ownership in ways to cultivate what it calls a culture of caring. A common way to start is by involving employees in initial evaluations of the current state of the company and areas in which they see a need for improvement — from furniture to healthcare plans. After the company commits and follows through on some change, employees can remain involved in continuous improvement efforts, providing the momentum needed for long-term success.
Employees have responded well to the changes made at RJF, which are welcome in a sales culture that typically includes a lot of food, a lot of celebratory events and a lot of long hours. Inspiring healthy lifestyles and improving levels of employee engagement do not stop at the wellness initiative. Each is also an important part of office ergonomics and design.
“Physical ergonomics dominates the public view of ergonomics because it is commonly used by furniture manufacturers,” says Eric Holton, a corporate and industrial ergonomic specialist at Indiana University. “When considering ergonomics, however, we should be looking at the entire system and process, not just a single component, such as furniture.”
This perspective focuses on two types of ergonomics: physical, which reduces awkward postures and unnecessary tasks; and cognitive, which improves the fit between one’s cognitive abilities and his/her limitations. An example of cognitive ergonomics is the myth that people can multitask. Sure, employees can run, listen to music and watch TV, or check e-mails during a conference call, but they are not truly paying attention to all tasks when doing this.
“The goal of an ergonomics program is to adapt the workplace to a specific worker, dependent on the required tasks to be performed, and the physical and cognitive capacities of the employee,” says John Shea, professor and director of the Ergonomics Laboratory at Indiana University. “This results in improved productivity, job satisfaction, employee retention, and the reduction of accidents and injuries.”
The holistic approach also helps companies work with individual employees, whether it is addressing the needs of older workers; or supporting change for employees who might be overweight and/or highly stressed so they are more capable of performing their jobs.
Finding productivity in green design
Mental and physical well-being in the workplace extends to the amount of daylight a worker receives while working, the indoor air quality and temperature control. These factors are also principles of sustainable design.
“Countless research shows a connection with learning, well-being and productivity with daylight and views,” says Malarkey of Kirksey EcoServices. “People no longer want the corner office because of status, but because it is a cool place to be where you are able to look outside.”
In addition to daylight, the ability to control temperature and lighting in the workstation helps employees work in conditions they are most comfortable in — which may be different than the person next to them. This can be accomplished through underfloor air delivery systems and task lighting at each desk.
Environmentally friendly design provides multiple solutions to improve the health of employees and the overall health of a building, from indoor air quality down to the chemicals used for cleaning and landscaping.
“We spend so much more on employees than anything else,” Malarkey says. “Companies could save all the energy and all the water in the world, but if employees are not happy, then they will not be productive. A healthy, happy employee is worth a whole lot more than any of the other things companies spend their money on, and leveraging that is so much more important.”