Food for Thought

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We’ve come a long way in a relatively short time when it comes to approaching physical health and nutrition in the workplace. HLW’s Sustainability and Wellness Team explain just how far we’ve come – and how we can still go much, much further.

Over recent years we’ve all heard the catchphrase ‘Sitting is the new smoking’, and we have all become far more aware that our workplaces need to become healthier, happier places – not just for employee health and motivation, but for the health and productivity of the companies and businesses we are designing for. Over the years, the workplace has migrated to a sedentary lifestyle that requires designers and owners to rethink the work environment – we call this Active Design.

Active Design promotes the physical activity of building users. In many cases, this is reflected as an interconnecting staircase that can become the focal point of your space. These staircases should be able to stand on their own as a showpiece that entices curiosity, connectivity and circulation. Interconnecting staircases should be visible before an occupant encounters any form of vertical transportation, such as elevators. In addition, furniture selection can create opportunities for daily physical activity. Providing sit/stand desks for employees is becoming normal practice and some companies also now provide under-desk stepper machines or under-desk bike pedal equipment.

But Active Design is not enough to truly address health and wellness within the workplace. We are seeing rising costs and a growing concern, globally, regarding public health and healthcare costs. This translates to employee absenteeism and a reduction in productivity in the workplace. In addition to addressing the physical spaces, businesses are having to address health and wellness goals within their HR policies.

As designers, we are now designing with the understanding that it is imperative our surrounding environment supports healthy working patterns and promotes physical activities. As building owners and designers, we need to find unique strategies that make the healthy choice the default option. All these decisions should be made with the policies and operations in mind to ensure successful integration and execution.

Previously, many companies supported ‘health and wellness’ through subsidised gym memberships and cycle to work schemes. Whilst these are still valued, companies are now having to integrate these goals into the physical space – not just supporting them outside the work environment. Some of the trends we are now seeing include companies investing in on-site wellness facilities – from the more traditional exercise and yoga rooms, to onsite treatment rooms, and even hydration stations with kombucha taps built in. We are seeing a level of flexibility expected from workplaces unseen before – space is of course expensive and at a premium, so traditional areas that are able to readily flex and adapt are very important to companies supporting health and wellness; cellular spaces can act as meeting rooms, yoga lunch session spaces, or host onsite programmes aimed at stress management.

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New technologies, available to us all, are also changing the way we approach health and wellness. Thanks to many digital technology start-ups, we are seeing the effect of this in the corporate wellness landscape. These platforms pool together a variety of fitness and wellness companies that employees can select. All these approaches empower employees by providing them with the tools they need to live a healthy life.

Physical activity is only half the battle when dealing with the health and wellbeing of employees. It must be paired with easily accessible healthy food and drink. Many office spaces have an on-site cafeteria or pantry area and companies can choose what to offer their staff, collaborating with local vendors to provide fruit and healthy snacks, as well as a variety of vegan options. If take-away options are available, then ensuring that the disposable utensils and plateware are compostable is essential, as is clear direction on how to recycle them. We are also seeing an increase in companies offering healthy drinks on-tap, such as kombucha or fruit infused water. These are all great perks that have a big impact on employee satisfaction.

There are great strategies that are challenging what health and wellness programmes in the workplace looks like – but being able to measure their success is also important. Many companies are using third party rating systems, such as the WELL Building Standard and Fitwel, to demonstrate their commitment to health and wellness. Both standards identify nutritional transparency as a key component to help individuals make informed decisions about what they are consuming and restrict companies from offering artificial ingredients, such as sweeteners and preservatives. Measuring physical health requires self-monitoring tools such as smart watches that count the number of steps you take. Some companies utilise these to encourage friendly competition amongst employees to promote a healthier lifestyle.

While we have made great strides to design around the health and wellbeing of occupants, there are still many opportunities to progress. At HLW, we are now tackling many initiatives from monitoring and improving air quality through design and product specification, to initiatives based around CSR, helping companies to integrate with the surrounding community in positive ways that benefit both their employees and the local community. In dense environments, supporting urban agriculture is one strategy that can provide employees with access to fruits and vegetables, while providing an opportunity for companies to financially support their local community garden.

Physical health and nutrition are just two components of a successfully executed sustainable space, which requires thoughtful design and policies. In all strategies that support this goal, occupant education is key to ignite a conscious behavioural change. For the professional design community, finding ways for employees to continue their healthy lifestyle into the workplace is an opportunity for growth and reinvention.

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Fact File

The UK has a weight problem – two thirds of adults are either overweight or obese, while obesity worldwide has nearly tripled in the last 40 years

Adults working full time spend around 60% of their waking hours in their place of work and consume at least a third of their daily calorie allowance during their working day.

Source: Public Health England/NHS, 2019

Average annual cost of sickness absence per employee: £600

Source: CIPD, 2019