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How to make wellness work

Wellness at work is a big focus for employers (and for marketing departments looking for a modish sales angle), but what does it actually entail? Last month, construction consultancy Bruceshaw invited five experts to its new offices to discuss ‘How to make wellness work’

Bruceshaw’s new office

With research from mental health charity Mind showing that FTSE 100 companies that prioritise employee engagement and wellbeing outperform the rest of the FTSE 100 by 10%, incorporating wellbeing into the workplace seems to make good business sense.

It was certainly a big consideration for construction consultancy Bruceshaw when it recently replaced an office design based on individual desks and private meeting rooms with one that offers a mix of hot desking and breakout spaces where staff can hold informal meetings, socialise and relax.

These new offices designed by BDG architecture + design provided a fitting backdrop for a discussion on the topic of wellness at work chaired by Andy Swann, author of The Human Workplace, with contributions from BDG architecture + design strategy director Phil Hutchinson, journalist and design expert Aidan Walker, nutrition consultant Sophie Higgins and Humanscale ergonomist Sukhneet Assee.

Culture change

There was broad consensus amongst the panellists that too many companies have yet to embrace wellness, with Higgins blaming ‘old school’ management teams that persist in the belief that employees aren’t working unless they are at their desk staring at a screen.

Hutchinson said that employers and designers should seek to understand the needs of employees and create an environment that supports them and their work. This should be comfortable, incorporate different spaces for different tasks, include sensory elements and support social interaction. In the case of Bruceshaw’s new offices, he said that BDG concentrated on getting the simple things right, like lighting levels, planting and de-cluttering.

He emphasised the importance of co-operation, pointing out that if management simply imposes a new culture on its employees, the changes are unlikely to stick, and added that he was wary of wellness becoming a ‘fad’, a ‘product’ or simply a ‘tickbox exercise’.

In this, he was supported by Humanscale ergonomist Sukhneet Assee, who argued that there’s more to wellness than simply buying the right chair or putting a screen in the right position. Employers should also encourage office workers to fidget more and take regular breaks through education and training.

All for profit?

When the floor was opened to questions, it became clear that there is a degree of scepticism about the current wellness trend, with many audience members regarding it as a tactic to keep employees at work longer or to boost the bottom line.

The panellists rejoined that while an increase in profit is likely to be one of its consequences, improving wellness should ultimately be about helping staff to work well.

In this context, nutritionist Sophie Higgins argued that because cognitive ability (and productivity) is compromised if employees only snack on biscuits, employers should consider providing fruit, vegetables, nuts and other healthy snacks as part of any wellness initiative.

Journalist Aidan Walker equated wellbeing to ‘holistic happiness’ and suggested that the relationship between a person and their work is likely to have the greatest impact on how happy they are. He said it’s important for managers to show staff respect and appreciation, adding that if employees find their work enjoyable then the environment in which they do it is of secondary importance.

In the end, in their different ways, all panellists agreed that wellness and wellbeing means putting people first.