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Cultivating wellbeing in the built environment

Home / Cultivating wellbeing in the built environment

New studies point to wellbeing as directly related to design considerations

Mental health, including depression, is the leading cause of short-term disability in the global workplace. In Canada, 50 per cent of short-term disability claims are mental health-related and represent 70 per cent of costs.

The Canadian Mental Health Association says workplaces are filled with people who experience mental illness and lack employer assistance. This group extends to individuals suffering from stress, resulting from a number of factors like poor air quality and lighting, loud, distracting work environments or contrarily, working in isolation. In the United States alone, stress accounts for 60 per cent of lost workdays, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

As a result, declining productivity has been enough to prompt some organizations to become cognizant of how the wealth of businesses are dependent on worker health, a concept given notable thought at a recent Toronto-based workshop on wellbeing in the workplace.

“What if you could escape to work, rather than escape from work?” proposed Kathy Smythe, workplace consultant at Steelcase Canada, an idea far from fantastical when considering new global research Smythe and Jane Sleeth, managing director of Optimal Performance Consultants, introduced at the seminar.

As published in Steelcase’s 360 magazine last year, Wellbeing: A Bottom Line Issue, outlines global, team-led research that aimed to better understand positive drivers of wellbeing. The team found that wellbeing is holistic, systemic and multi-dimensional, and the places where people come together to work can be designed to have a positive impact on a variety of dimensions of worker wellbeing.

According to Beatriz Arantes, a Steelcase researcher who co-led the exploration, science is proving that mind, body and environment are interwoven, a view Eastern cultures have upheld for years, as opposed to Western culture which sees them as separate. “This means that wellbeing is more than ‘wellness,’ which is just concerned with physical health,” she notes in the study. “Wellbeing is also not the same thing as happiness, which is a transitory emotion that comes and goes. As a result of our work, we define wellbeing as sustaining a healthy physical and mental state over time, in a supportive material and social environment.”

The popular discussion around ergonomics––the science of making things comfortable––is therefore about more than posture and a good chair, added Sleeth, who also noted that worker wellbeing is also related to an organization’s ability to “innovate and thrive.”

However, an estimated 45 per cent of workers say their leaders show interest in their overall wellbeing, a small, but growing number. Companies, including building owners and managers, are realizing that wellbeing extends to the built environment as a means to cultivate productivity, even if they are gradually rallying for the cause.

According to John Smiciklas, director of energy and environment at BOMA Canada, there is “minor interest” among building owners and managers regarding wellbeing. Although BOMA BESt does focus on elements of wellness, like air quality, for instance, there is no real industry initiative in Canada regarding the concept.

One platform based out of the United States has been gaining traction though. The Delos WELL Building Standard, which ensures that human wellness is a focus of building, is grounded in six years of research from a crop of leading scientists, architects and wellness thought leaders from Dr. Deepak Chopra to Rick Fedrizzi, president and chief executive officer of the U.S. Green Building Council.

Towards mid-2014, Collett Manor, a Kelowna-based mixed-use development, announced it was set to become Canada’s first WELL certified project once on-site post-occupancy assessments confirmed its performance requirements.

Inclusive to these requirements are seven categories relevant to occupant heath, such as air, water, fitness, comfort and mind. The standard has already been applied to the built environment across America, from CBRE’s office headquarters in Los Angeles to Akron Children’s Hospital in Akron, Ohio.

The Delos mission is straightforward. The built environment is an “asset to maximize human potential” for employees irrespective of ability and disability. Environments that proactively help humans live better and healthier will, perhaps, prevent issues, such as stress, before they begin.

But will such standards similar to WELL advance in Canada? Smythe seems to think so, especially as companies recognize the changing needs of employees. She points to a recent Steelcase roundtable discussion regarding the future of the workplace where 95 per cent of people said they need quiet spots for confidential conversations, 91 per cent need casual spaces to reenergize, while 50 per cent work with unpleasant views.

Those are only a few statistics pulled from the discussion.“Employees are now requesting these elements,” says Smythe. “And as companies try to attain top talent, they’re going to have to make changes.” In turn, she adds, building owners will have to invest in the user experience to attract and retain tenants who need to properly serve these changing needs of employees.

To help spark this cause, the Steelcase research team identified six dimensions of wellbeing that can impact the design of an environment: optimism, mindfulness, authenticity, belonging, meaning and vitality.

Since optimism is critical to creativity and innovation, two factors modern organizations need, the behaviours which stem from it are important to note—seeing the big picture and exploring ideas, for example. “Workers need to feel a sense of individual influence and control over their environment, versus feeling quashed by standardization and rigidity,” advises Nicolas de Benoist, senior design researcher in the WorkSpace Futures group.

These feelings translate to the built environment through design considerations, like transparent offices so people can see and be seen, or offering inspiring settings. Mindfulness, another dimension, means balancing the fast pace of life by being fully present in the moment. Creating areas where people can connect with others without distractions or areas that are calming through materials, textures, views and colours are ways the built environment can respond to mindfulness.

Yet another dimension, meaning, which relates to employees’ sense of purpose, ignites what Benoist calls “yes power” throughout an organization. Extending a company’s brand beyond the lobby with spaces that reinforce company culture, purpose and history are ways to physically respond to the idea of meaning.

Since such carefully studied dimensions are directly related to the built environment, wellbeing as a vital factor among organizations should also be a concern of building owners and managers grappling with the issue of attracting and retaining tenants.

With the ongoing flight to quality in new and existing buildings in cities like Toronto where vacancy rates in surrounding areas, rose to the highest level in 12 years, wellbeing could perhaps serve as a means to engage new occupants with supportive office spaces and shared building areas and concepts.

Settings with access to nature, fitness centres for daily movement to help counteract statistics that show office workers have twice the rate of cardiovascular disease, concierge services to create a better work-life balance, an array of posture options and more accessible buildings are only a few ways to address wellbeing.

Such strategies are symbiotic. Greg McCourt, general manager at Lend Lease, an international property and infrastructure group, says individual strategies for improving wellbeing are difficult to prove on their own. “If someone says you add more natural light and productivity will go up a certain percentage, it doesn’t work that way,” he says in the report. To McCourt, wellbeing strategies work best collectively, and for building owners and managers, listening to the individual needs of different companies and maximize this approach.