employee health and wellbeing
13 March, 2024
How to design an office for employee health and wellbeing
We talk a lot about wellbeing at work, but what does it really mean, why is it important and how can employers make a difference?

Health and wellbeing in the workplace are an increasingly important focus both for employers and employees. As many of us expect to work to much later in our lives, and as we have greater reverence for our own wellbeing, we no longer exist in a space where we expect people to burn themselves out and view it as a badge of honour.

Employers know that to attract and retain top talent as well as optimise productivity, they need their team to feel happy and healthy in the workplace, while employees are mindful of the personal value of wellbeing at work and beyond, both in the short- and long-term.

However, saying wellbeing at work is important and knowing what to do about are two very different things. It begins with asking three questions:

  • What does wellbeing at work really mean?
  • What is the state of wellbeing (collectively, within specific workplaces and for individuals)?
  • What are the options for addressing such a wide reaching, evolving and personal sphere?

The state of wellbeing in the workplace

In 2023 Deloitte Insights reported: “Workforce wellbeing will remain firmly on the agenda of the C-suite—and for good reason. Deloitte’s second Well-Being at Work Survey uncovered that many employees are still struggling with unacceptably low levels of well-being. What’s more, most reported that their health worsened or stayed the same last year.”

Notably, amongst the stats, the report said: “Employees’ self-reported well-being remains suboptimal and has slightly declined across all dimensions since last year. Less than two-thirds of workers say their physical and mental well-being are “excellent” or “good” (63% and 58%, respectively), and an even lower percentage rate their social (45%) and financial (35%) well-being positively.” Soberingly, “60% of employees and 75% of the C-suite say they’re seriously considering quitting.”

Corroborating those numbers, the Office of National Statistics reported that in 2022/3 an estimated 185.6 million working days were lost because of sickness or injury. Of these, musculoskeletal problems accounted for 10.5% and mental health conditions accounted for 7.9%. 

Additionally, a Royal College of Psychiatrists report said: “At any one time, one­ sixth of the working age population of Great Britain experience symptoms associated with mental ill health such as sleep problems, fatigue, irritability and worry that do not meet criteria for a diagnosis of a mental disorder but which can affect a person’s ability to function adequately.”

The Deloitte report noted that despite a focus on wellbeing, most workplaces haven’t made much progress in this space in the United States, the United Kingdom, Canada, and Australia.

Key areas of failing included:

  • A lack of insight into employee wellbeing and a lack of awareness when employees are struggling
  • A lack of personal empowerment of people in a position to improve workplace wellbeing (i.e., managers)
  • A lack of visibility around employer efforts to improve wellbeing

Interestingly, and perhaps a crucial indicator of where help can be implemented: “Nearly three-quarters (74%) say they struggle to take time off or disconnect from work, with only around half (or less) reporting that they “always” or “often” use all of their vacation time each year (52%), move/exercise each day (48%), take micro breaks during the workday (47%), get at least seven hours of sleep (45%), and have enough time for friends and family (42%).”

The report also noted that: “the survey uncovered a bigger shift that’s taking place as the concept of workforce well-being grows beyond an organization’s current employees and prioritizes human sustainability (defined as the long-term, collective well-being of individuals, organizations, climate, and society).”

What do we mean by health and wellbeing?

The CIPD describes health and wellbeing as relating to seven inter-related ‘domains’:

  • Health: physical health, physical safety and mental health
  • Good work: working environment, good line management, autonomy, change management, payment and reward
  • Values: leadership, ethics, inclusion and diversity
  • Personal growth: career development, emotional wellbeing, lifelong learning, creativity
  • Lifestyle choices: physical activity, healthy eating
  • Financial wellbeing: fair pay and benefits, retirement planning, financial support and advice

Considering this, the Deloitte report and our own work experience and research-based work in the development of healthy workplaces, wellbeing seems to cover all manner of things. Areas of consideration highlighted across the board range from clear and tangible elements such as good lighting for concentration, quiet spaces, prayer rooms, gyms and good food prep spaces, through to broader elements such as a sense of purpose and connectivity with nature.

Key aspects include, but are not limited to:

  • A sense of purpose and belonging (communication, consultation, involvement, corporate governance, clear missions and values)
  • Inclusion (cultural engagement, training for employees and managers)
  • Ethics (supporting local suppliers and communities, corporate social responsibility, community investment, volunteering)
  • Sustainability
  • Connectivity with nature
  • Work/life balance
  • Emotional wellbeing
  • Personal development (mentoring, coaching, performance management, technology training, vocational learning, career progression)
  • Exercise (walking clubs, lunchtime yoga, charity walks, gyms)
  • Good nutrition (recipe clubs, healthy menu choices in the canteen)
  • Supportive working environments for different tasks (quiet spaces, collaborative spaces)
  • Facilities that support concentration and mental wellbeing (colours, stimuli, lighting, noise)

Summing it up well, the McKinsey Health Institute (MHI), a non-profit-generating entity within the firm, writes: “Wellbeing, more broadly, is about how we feel our lives are going—and both physical and mental health are important drivers of this,” continuing: “We know that the science of wellbeing can shape business and policy. That’s where wellbeing belongs—at the heart of decision-making.”

workplace acoustics

How to improve employee wellbeing

One of the primary aspects noted in an MIH study was the need to recognise a broad definition of the term ‘health’, encompassing physical, mental, social, and spiritual health – the latter referring to a sense of belonging, purpose and identity, rather than strictly adhering to religious belief.

This reflects a 1948 definition of health from the World Health Organisation (WHO), which defined health as “a state of complete physical, mental, and social well-being and not merely the absence of disease or infirmity.” 

McKinsey said: “Employers neglect these at their own peril because they can contribute to rising rates of employee burnout.” They then went on to note that toxic workplace culture is by far the biggest driver of burnout.

In essence, there’s a vast range of ways in which employee wellbeing can be addressed and improved, much of which is specific to the individual organisation, their culture, the tasks involved in the workplace and the location.

This is a combination of leadership style, systems and processes, emotional intelligence, infrastructure, environment, work-life balance, and perhaps most importantly of all, it’s an evolving ideal rather than a static one.  

This can all be distilled into one key starting point – a clear definition that can then be transformed into cultural and physical representations of company values and vision.  Furthermore, two things can significantly move the dial when it comes to wellbeing in the workplace – leadership and environment.

Leadership accountability has been considered a pivotal part of embracing and improving employee wellbeing long-term. In the Deloitte report, “76% of the C-suite agree that workforce well-being should be measured and monitored and 83% say it should be discussed at the board level.”

Publicly reporting metrics, sharing information and a more transparent approach to all areas of wellbeing in the workplace, from mental health to sustainability have all been floated as positive ways to improve workplace wellness as well as showing transparency, awareness, willingness and accountability. Organisations should also set goals for these metrics and, for maximum impact, make public wellbeing commitments.

The development of the working environment is a fundamental part of creating wellness at work, providing the infrastructure and literal framework in which all layers of workplace behaviours and values are embodied and encouraged. We have written before about how office design is crucial for driving desired behaviours, and that includes how we support different aspects of health, from socialisation to inclusion. In addition, few things could be more of a public statement of commitment to wellbeing than the office itself.

How office design impacts wellbeing in the workplace

In the workplaces we design, how space is used and styled is fundamental to health and wellbeing.

Aspects range from air quality to temperature, noise levels, biophilic details, dedicated meditation rooms, coffee bars, outside space and more, ergonomically designed working areas and furniture, and signage and wayfinding that make it easy for new employees to settle in and feel.

This all accounts for a wide variety of health and wellbeing needs, from general to specific, contributing to better productivity, better staff retention and increased brand reputation amongst top talent and clientele.  

Key examples include:

Clean air at Investindustrial

Investindustrial is a technology leading private equity firm in London, and when it came to designing their new HQ, a key part was the installation of a game-changing air filtration system. Ensuring clean air throughout the workplace, we installed a PNAT Air Factory to filter the air using the power of plants and technology. Air returns purified after pollutants have been absorbed by the roots and leaves, converting them to their own nutrients. Bringing tech in harmony with nature’s wonders, there is also a system of sensors, which sends information in real time to a monitor that can verify the quality of incoming and outgoing air and the volume of pollutants removed by the Air Factory.  

A call-centre focused on staff wellbeing

employee health and wellbeing

Mindful of the pressures of working in a call centre specialising in debt management, Lowell UK Shared Services placed employee wellbeing at the forefront of all design considerations at their dedicated purpose-built, 120,000 sq ft space. Key features include lots of natural light and ergonomic seating, but the pivotal element was the top floor, dedicated entirely to wellness. It has floor-to-ceiling windows to maximise the natural light, a large circular coffee bar with an impressive cherry blossom installation overhead, and a range of seating from hammocks to modular sofas. This is a space where team members can spend a moment on their own or to come together with colleagues and relax.

A neurodiverse HQ for gaming juggernaut Sharkmob

employee health and wellbeing

Sharkmob has made waves as a leader in gaming since 2017, and when they came to designing their 36,000 sq ft London office, neurodiversity was a key consideration for supporting their team. Key features included minimising visual and audio noise from individual desks where possible. The overall ambition was to embody a people-centric ethos which enabled team members to create ambitious new IP whilst feeling real ownership over their work and enabling them to enjoy being in the workplace at the same time.

Want to create a workplace that proactively supports employee wellbeing?

Speak to the team at Maris