Designing a better workforce: how workplace design can impact employee wellbeing

In a recent survey, 95 percent of office workers said their physical work environment is important for their wellbeing and mental health. However, half believe their current working environment does not have a positive effect on their mental health, wellbeing, mood and productivity. The issue of employee wellbeing has risen up business’ agendas in recent years, and, as part of the drive for better mental health support for workers, companies are looking at ways in which the physical workplace can improve the mental health of their employees.

There is significant psychological evidence of the benefits of a mixed working environment and agile working is set to become even more popular; a recent study found that flexible working spaces could grow by up to 30% annually for the next five years across Europe. It is clear, then, that there is a growing awareness of the impact of workplace design on employee performance, and firms can capitalise on this trend to sell their services or products by putting the mental health of the end user at the forefront of their designs.

 

The cost of poor employee wellbeing

 It is now more important than ever for companies to address the issue of employee mental health. You just have to look at the figures to see why – the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) revealed that 15.4 million working days were lost in 2017/8 due to stress while the Thriving at Work report found that mental ill-health costs employers up to £42 billion per year. What’s more, the overall cost to the British economy amounts to a staggering £99 billion. Therefore, it is in the employer’s best interests to take employee mental health seriously, not only to improve workers’ wellbeing but also the bottom line.

The high costs of poor employee mental health can be attributed to a number of factors, the most significant of which being staff retention, productivity, sickness and absenteeism. Findings from Wrike revealed that work stress has led to nearly half of UK workers to look for a new job, while it’s estimated that 300,000 people lose their job each year as a direct consequence of mental health problems. Furthermore, absence due to mental health reasons has risen by around 5% in the last ten years. It is fast becoming a nationwide problem and employers need to address the problem now. Those that fail to promote employee wellbeing will inevitably face the economic consequences in the long-term, as these statistics show.

 

Risk assessment as a tool for improving employee wellbeing

 There are also the legal considerations that organisations must address. Employers have a duty to ensure the health of employees is protected and this is an issue that regulatory authorities and HSE have at the top of their agenda. For example, in 2016 HSE launched Helping Great Britain Work Well, a new health and safety system strategy to tackle workplace ill-health that includes resources and guides for organisations.

One vital element of a business health and safety policy that many firms lack is a comprehensive risk assessment. This is best practice for all businesses with more than five employees and should address factors such as buildings and technology, including working space and screen usage for example, both of which can have negative and positive impact on mental health as well as physical health. Once the risks have been assessed, companies must identify the controls needed to manage such risks. In many cases, this is where workplace design is overlooked, but it must be considered by all businesses when considering how to minimise risks to employee wellbeing.

 

Using workplace design to target mental health needs

A useful way to think about how workplace design can impact wellbeing is to consider the health triangle, a widely acknowledged measure of the three different pillars of health: physical, social and mental. In today’s working environment, it is increasingly important for firms to consider all three pillars when contemplating workplace design. Agile working presents a solution that can target all three needs in the triangle by providing autonomy, privacy, purpose, community and collaboration. The benefits of agile working are clear, as one third of respondents in the Multi-generational workforce report listed agile or flexible working as the top source of workplace happiness other than salary. Furthermore, a mixed working space – with quiet areas, social areas, spaces with and without technology – could be the key to workplace happiness. It is widely considered to be the optimum environment for the majority of employees, as it enhances productivity and prevents isolation and loneliness.

Mental health is no longer an issue that employers can afford to ignore – it is in their best interests to promptly rectify any inadequacies in their policies. Workplace design and agile working can have a significant positive impact on employee mental health and must be considered by all employers as a way to improve the overall performance of their workforce.

When it comes to your workplace, are you thinking about the impact that design has on mental well-being? Are you engaging with psychologists to ensure you are getting the best out of your employees? Are you using health and safety in your favour to sell your product/service? These questions are a great set of guidelines for any businesses looking to improve their employees’ wellbeing.

Mary Lawrence, partner and health and safety practice lead at international law firm Osborne Clarke

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