- In the U.S. a staggering 400 million work days are lost each year as a consequence of employees experiencing mental health problems.
- Office designs that incorporate wellbeing elements will not only raise morale but also save companies lost earnings due to absenteeism.
- With mental health issues on the rise globally, failure to prioritize employee wellbeing within office design is not only unethical, but it is also a huge risk to the profitability of a company.
Globally, $1 trillion is lost in productivity each year as a consequence of depression and anxiety. In the U.S. it is estimated that one in five adults (18.5% of the population) experiences a mental health issue, and depression is the cause of a staggering 400 million lost work days annually.
In the U.K. an average of 91 million workdays are lost each year due to poor mental health — costing the economy £70 billion annually.
The current situation is alarming but, fortunately, prominent business leaders from a cross-section of industries are now championing the need to support and protect the mental health of all employees. Investment in staff wellbeing is not only essential; it’s also a win-win solution for employees and employers. A workforce whose mental wellbeing is prioritized will be happier and healthier — leading to increased productivity, less absenteeism, and improved staff retention.
Mood-boosting offices for today’s workforce
In the past, most companies focused on functionality over staff wellbeing. An open-plan office signified modernity and was perceived to be beneficial for fostering collaboration between employees. However, according to a Fortune article, this type of office design is no longer fit-for-purpose and could even be detrimental to staff wellbeing (in terms of unwanted noise, a lack of quiet rooms, and the inflexibility of open-plan designs).
Hybrid working means that people want more from a workplace on their days in the office. They might want to collaborate and work closely with others, but this does not mean that they want constant noise and activity around them. People have become more aware of their wellbeing needs since the COVID-19 pandemic. One aspect of this awareness is an increased understanding of how the physical environment can exacerbate or minimize the risk of mental health challenges. Whether working from home, the office or a combination of both (hybrid working), the environment needs to be conducive to enable employees to be productive and maintain wellbeing.
According to Tori Shepherd, manager at the International WELL Building Institute (IWBI), mental health has become a key element of workplace design. In an Allwork.Space Future of Work podcast, Tori Shepherd discusses the many ways in which offices and buildings can be designed to support and boost the wellbeing of employees. IWBI provides solutions to the growing demand for workplaces that aim to promote the health and wellbeing of the communities they serve.
Several elements can contribute to a healthy workplace — such as biophilia, thermal comfort, acoustics, and access to spaces for restoration and relief from immediate stress. These elements are also beneficial for individuals who experience hyposensitivity (including neurodivergent employees).
In terms of sociability, a workplace that provides spaces for people to engage with each other is desirable; but, so too is a flexible workplace design that allows its employees space and time to retreat from unwanted noises and other people when required.
Sociability and flexibility complement each other in that a well-designed office will provide appropriate spaces based on employee requirements at different times of the day — for example, a conference room for formal meetings, a restorative room for relaxation (and even meditation), spaces for informal gatherings over lunch, and individual hubs for focused work.
Flexible office designs are already proving to be extremely popular in 2023 as companies become more mindful of their employees’ varying requirements across the day. Providing employees with what they need from the work environment promotes a sense of inclusion and belonging — ensuring that staff look forward to and enjoy their time at the office.
Biophilia is based on the concept that humans have an innate need to be connected to the natural world. It is certainly not a novel phenomenon, but, as with flexible office design, biophilic design is another huge trend in 2023. The benefits of biophilic elements within the workplace were highlighted in a recent Allwork.Space interview with Mellissa Cooksey, Senior Interior Project Manager at Perkins & Will.
Melissa Cooksey emphasizes how office designs that incorporate natural elements such as skylights, indoor plants, and living walls are known to be beneficial to wellbeing. Biophilic office designs were trending before the pandemic, but the phenomenon has recently focused more on the health benefits of multisensory biophilic design rather than the aesthetic qualities of indoor plants. Biophilia and sustainability also complement one another as companies seek out practical and cost-effective solutions to create more environmentally-friendly workplaces with added wellbeing benefits.
A multisensory biophilic design incorporates elements of the natural environment through multisensory features such as circadian lighting (using our natural sleep patterns), natural scents and sounds, and indoor furniture and spaces that mimic natural landscapes. Scientific research indicates that these designs can have real health and wellbeing benefits for employees, including improved mood, relief from stress, and improved cognitive performance (which results in better productivity).
Why it pays for employers to design offices with wellness elements
“Addressing mental health at work effectively will help prepare for the future of work and a changing world,” said Soumya Swaminathan, WHO Chief Scientist.
According to the World Health Organization (WHO), an estimated 15% of adults experience a mental health condition at any given time. In light of this statistic, the WHO has published guidelines on mental health at work for employers. The WHO recognizes the complexity of managing mental wellbeing in the workplace but at the same time, they advocate for it to be seen as a positive challenge that can have lasting, sustainable benefits for organizations (in terms of growth, productivity, and less absenteeism for example).
In support of this argument, the WHO estimates that $1 towards the support of employee wellbeing and mental health can result in a $4 return in terms of productivity and improved workforce wellbeing.
A Fortune article highlights a shift in corporate mentality where commercial real estate is concerned. According to the article, employers are now more focused on the role that buildings (both internal and external) can play in the health of their employees. Many businesses are now considering wellness design elements that include the ability to counteract noise, improve acoustics and lead to the creation of quiet spaces. The provision of these elements in a workplace should not be considered cumbersome or costly to an organization. The WHO and the article by Fortune both emphasize that they are a means to boost productivity, improve morale and encourage business growth.
One of the world’s most influential modern design companies, MillerKnoll, is helping to transform the way we look at indoor spaces. Rebecca Greier Horton, Senior Strategist (Workplace Experience Group) at MillerKnoll refers to the impact that design can have on workplace wellbeing in the following terms:
“We have known for a long time that humans are affected by our natural surroundings, but the influence our indoor spaces have on our wellbeing has never been more evident than within the past several years. We understand more about the relationship between the built environment and well-being than ever before. At MillerKnoll we design our indoor spaces to enhance wellbeing by embracing health-positive elements from the natural outdoor environment. For example, we measure and enhance the indoor quality of our water, light, air, and acoustics and design environments and settings that encourage movement throughout the day, keep us connected, refresh our minds, and inspire us to innovate and create. The best design recognizes each person’s strengths and talents and provides purposeful variety to support their differences and needs.”
The standout takeaway in these recent discussions on workplace design is the fact that superior designs recognize individual needs. This seems to stand in contrast to open-plan offices that were designed with the collective in mind (viewing employees as a single body rather than individuals with varying requirements).
A more individualistic and multifunctional approach is the future of office workspace design. When individuals feel valued at work it is inevitable that employers will enjoy productivity and growth and employees will have fewer mental and physical health issues.
The best wellbeing design features currently trending include:
- Quiet rooms for meditation and relaxation (aka a Zen room)
- Multisensory biophilic designs (such as green walls)
- Structures designed to enable thermal comfort (such as roof ventilation)
- Acoustically-balanced spaces
- Office hubs designed for focused work, free from distractions
- Circadian lighting that changes in accordance with the body’s internal clock
- Natural scents and sound masking within the workspace
- Office features and furniture that closely resembles the natural environment
- Games rooms and chill-out zones for social downtime and informal networking