Putting wellness in the walls

Investing in a WELL Building can have positive impacts on employees
By David Hoffman
|Canadian HR Reporter|Last Updated: 07/05/2018
Office Worker
Seeking out landlords with proven commitments to their tenants and their workplaces is a great step towards a happier, and healthier, workforce. Credit: marvent (Shutterstock)

Wellness is a key consideration for many organizations looking to further engage their workforce, reduce turnover and improve retention.

And while much of the attention on workplace wellness has rightly focused on the disruptive and innovative — such as meditation classes, yoga sessions and gamified health apps — equal attention must be paid to one of the fundamentals of health: The environment where people spend their time.

The modern office worker spends eight hours per day — at a minimum — at work. That adds up to one-third of every day. These offices are sealed off from the outside, with climate control, noise control and artificial lighting.

Offices are their own miniature material environments, with real impacts on the minds, bodies and spirits of people who work there.

This means the quality of the office environment will have a significant impact on workers’ wellness — and employers that are looking for a competitive edge when it comes to recruitment and retention would do well to consider the impact.

Air quality

While significant progress has been made in improving outdoor air quality through investments in greener transportation — 2014 was the first smog alert-free year the City of Toronto had in decades — more work remains to be done.

That is why offices built to the new WELL Building Standard — the first certification program to measure and certify buildings with a commitment to a healthy interior environment — invest in HVAC systems and operational protocols that work to optimize air quality delivered to tenant spaces.

For example, when Toronto-Dominion Centre’s tower at 222 Bay St. in Toronto was certified WELL Gold — the first existing building in North America to achieve that distinction — it enhanced the air filtration systems with higher-grade carbon filters, helping to clean both the outdoor and indoor air supply.

Indoor building materials must also be considered, as certain materials can emit pollutants that can lower air quality and damage employees’ health.

Built environment

Too often, modern office workers are sitting at their desks. A sedentary lifestyle not only creates the risk of obesity and heart disease, but also leads to decreased flexibility, damaged posture (“computer back”) and an increased risk of osteoporosis.

Employers looking to combat these risks often provide exercise incentives, such as paid gym memberships. But the office environment can also be built to encourage daily activity and healthy choices:

Promote stairwell use: Stairwells are often an afterthought in interior design. With harsh lighting, concrete and unpleasant off-white paint, it is no surprise many people opt for the much more comfortable elevators. But different design choices — such as paint colours, lighting and motivational nature scenes — can help make the stairwell environment more inviting and pleasant.

Provide readily accessible healthy food: Office food courts can often be comparable to “mall food” — high in fat and simple carbohydrates, but tasty and easily accessible. These create obvious health risks. But effective tenant programming and effective building design can make healthy food more accessible while encouraging healthier dietary choices among workers.

Mental health

Cities are noisy places. Outside the TD Centre, commuters must not only contend with the noise of cars, but also the wail of sirens, clatter of streetcars, rumble of subways, and voices of thousands of people in the neighbourhood.

In this environment, isolating workers from external noise is critical to help them concentrate and remain productive. That is why the International WELL Building Institute’s core and shell certification for healthy buildings includes a measurement of interior noise levels, and the level of investment in noise-reducing features such as sound-masking systems, proper ceiling height, and echo-reducing materials on vertical surfaces.

But mental health is about more than productivity. It’s about people existing and working in a space that is designed to optimize their comfort and reduce their stress. That’s about investments in effective way-finding systems, distinctive artwork, and natural lighting.

Bottom line

In the modern knowledge economy, the vast majority of money spent is on salary, benefits and other related staffing costs. In some organizations, this can be upwards of nine times the real estate occupancy costs (rent).

This makes a compelling case for greater investments in workplace productivity. And research proves the point: Studies show that improved air quality can boost employee productivity, while the Public Health Agency of Canada has found that physically active employees take 27 per cent fewer sick days.

Further, employees value their employers’ commitment to their health and well-being — meaning that a commitment to wellness can be a very effective tool to improve recruitment and employee retention.

This means that control of the interior environment isn’t just the right thing to do — it’s the smart thing to do.

So, how can employers make that investment?

Invest in design: The physical construction of your office may not be within your control — but the design can be. Effective design can help reduce noise, increase comfort and combat stress — all resulting in increased productivity.

Invest in awareness: Employees may have access to healthy food, but employers looking to boost workplace health can also work to empower them with appropriate knowledge.

Find a partner who will invest in you: Not every element of an interior environment is under an organization’s control. That’s why it’s important to find a partner that is as committed as you are to the health and wellness of your workplace.

Seeking out landlords with proven commitments to their tenants and their workplaces is a great step towards a happier, and healthier, workforce.

David Hoffman is general manager of the Toronto-Dominion Centre. For more information, visit www.tdcentre.com.

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