How do you really go about creating a great place to work?

The topic of workplace wellbeing is becoming increasingly prevalent. And for good reason. In the UK, 45 million working days are lost due to stress, anxiety and depression and the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development (CIPD) Absence Management survey reveals that over two fifths of organisations have seen an increase in reported mental health problems over the last year. What’s more, a recent government report found that up to 300,000 people leave their jobs each year due to mental health-related issues. Last month, Symposium hosted the “Workplace Wellness & Stress Forum 2017”, back for its twelfth year, to help employers step up and tackle the greatest inhibitor of growth, innovation and creativity – stress. Medical professionals have their definition of “stress”, health and safety execs have theirs, and the academic community promulgate another. Forum host Neil Shah, chief de-stressing officer of The Stress Management Society, offered a definition that resonated with the entire audience: “where demand placed on an individual exceeds their resources”.

Think of a bridge. A bridge can only hold so much weight before it buckles and breaks. You have to either take stuff off the bridge and alleviate the load – or reinforce the structure of that bridge so it doesn’t collapse. In the workplace sphere, that bridge can bend, buckle and break if an individual isn’t able to cope with the demand of their role, or if the space doesn’t support them in the job they’re being paid to do.

During a panel discussion involving wellbeing representatives from Google, Vodafone, Treatwell and Jaguar Land Rover, delegates learned how these organisations have managed to overcome the challenges associated with building a wellbeing strategy that is inclusive to all, while designing and managing an environment that supports every facet of an employee’s mental, financial and physical wellbeing. In Google’s eyes, a workplace should provide [what they call] “psychological safety”. In other words; a safe place for people to explore ideas. In order to allow for innovation, Google believes in driving a culture of asking for forgiveness rather than permission. For Melanie Huke, wellbeing programme manager at the tech giant, “wellbeing means something different to everyone” but “empowering people and giving them the opportunity to thrive is probably one of the most important things you can do”.

Following that session, Shah chucked seven E’s at the crowd (seven key behaviours that should underpin a wellbeing strategy):

  1. Engage: Creating a work environment that is an inspiring place to be.
  2. Exemplify: “Be the change you want to see in your organisation.”
  3. Empathy: Offering a workplace that supports people.
  4. Empower: Can people take responsibility for their experience; can they choose a work setting that supports their needs?
  5. Encourage: non-financial benefits tend to carry more weight. Do they think their workplace is an enjoyable place to be?
  6. Embed: Maintaining the M25 is an ongoing venture. The workplace is no different.
  7. Evaluate: What are the measurable that will help us prove the workplace is a factor in improving engagement, morale and productivity?

Research by workplace consultancy Advanced Workplace Associates (AWA) certainly supports these E’s; its recent study on knowledge worker productivity reveals that to work effectively people need a shared liking or team attraction, and a firm belief in the reliability, truth and ability of others. A space that has been designed and managed to support social interaction, collaboration and information sharing has more scope to improve working relationships and build trust amongst teams, which can impact overall engagement, performance and, of course, wellbeing.

The Forum focused on the management strategies and initiatives that could make the most of the seven E’s, but the physical workspace can also drastically affect health and wellbeing, let alone engagement and performance. Place an employee in a dark, uninspiring and dull space, and their work ethic and enthusiasm will mirror it. Leesman, the world’s largest assessor of workplace effectiveness, reveals that only 57 per cent of 250,000 employees surveyed agree their workspace enables them to work productively. What’s more, only half agree that their office is a place they’re proud to bring visitors to. Imagine the impact that would have on one’s wellbeing; knowing that you’re about to commute to a place of work that doesn’t support you in your day-to-day role, or inspire any sense of pride.

If you create a compassionate, caring and inspiring environment, you’re more likely to experience fewer absences, higher engagement and less burnout. To understand how workplace designers can achieve this, Workplace Insight spoke to Adrian Powell, director of fit out firm Active. He suggests designers need to firstly “understand the needs of an organisation and the needs of its employees when designing a new workspace.” For Powell, “offering people choice over where they work and providing spaces that suit their different working styles” is an important aspect that supports wellbeing.

Paul Edward from Staverton, manufacturer of contemporary office furniture, agrees; he believes a successful office is one that offers variety and agility, and supports collaboration:“Furniture like the electronic mobile sit-stand desk enables employees to vary the way in which they work, and where. Having the option to stand to complete tasks keeps energy levels constant and the blood flowing to the brain. Standing up not only gives employees the opportunity to stretch their body, but also provides them with a change of scenery and that all-important variation.”

One thing’s clear; regardless of the sector, time is our most valuable resource and it’s our job to optimise it. As Shah says; “when you’re swimming in a fast-moving river, the hardest thing you can do is get out of the river, stand on the bank, and consider another course – a better way to navigate that river.” Life won’t get less stressful – it’ll just get more demanding. The trick is learning how to manage it. Organisations have a moral obligation to ensure the environments they provide support people in the job’s they’ve been employed to do. So before going mad with sleep pods, swings, games rooms, ping pong tables, beer taps and padded rooms, perhaps we should try and get the basics right?

Image: Staverton