Workplace wellbeing is becoming a critical focus for organizations across every industry.

The more we understand how our environment and habits are affecting our well-being (generally speaking our mental and physical health) and the more we realize that wealth and technology don’t necessarily make things better, the more we need to find creative solutions. Corporate well-being programs are one ubiquitous approach, but they almost always depend on voluntary participation, which can be modest. An alternative strategy involves taking a more holistic approach: using the design of the workplace to make work itself healthier.

The media today is filled with grim news about our well-being. The average body mass index in the US is alarmingly high, while diabetes and other chronic health conditions continue to rise. Stress at work (and outside of it) is also high, while friendships at work are declining. In addition to eroding our well-being, these trends are impacting the performance of organizations. One extensive study recently found that US employers lost $1,685 per employee per year due to health-related productivity losses, or $226 billion nationally.  On the plus side, research has also shown that healthy habits can make better workers. Adults who regularly exercise, for example, have more neural regeneration, better memory function, and faster focused responses than their less-fit counterparts. People who are less stressed and more socially connected, likewise, have stronger immune systems and collaborate better.

If you want to improve your employee’s well-being – and your organization’s performance – you don’t have to create a program and beg your employees to join it. Instead, you can make work healthier by shaping three natural aspects of it: physical activity, mental restoration and social interaction. These aspects of work are always present to some degree, but they may be inhibited by your current work environment and culture. A smarter workplace, though, can improve well-being by enhancing them.

Below are three ideas and examples for improving well-being through better workplace design.

Learn about more key design strategies and supporting research in our white paper report, “The Three Dimensions of Improving Well-Being.”

Challenge the Convenience Principle

Clorox Clorox

Project: Clorox Open Stairway

Not surprisingly, given our decades-long focus on making sitting more comfortable at work, most workplaces today don’t promote activity. One way workplaces can increase movement is by challenging the convenience principle – the idea that no one should have to go far for a printout or a cup of coffee. The goal shouldn’t, of course, be to make things inconvenient, but to centralize within reason. In CannonDesign’s Chicago office, for example, we’ve created one centrally located social hub and kitchen for over 200 people. While it’s a hundred or more steps from where most people work, it’s an attractive destination. And because we occupy almost 60,000 square feet on one level, you can walk to everything. In our analysis, if the average person takes seven roundtrips to meetings, seven more for short breaks, and seven more for visiting colleagues, they’ll walk 1.8 miles a day, roughly what the CDC recommends for average adults.

An added benefit to centralizing resources is that it can increase social interaction, which has been found to reduce stress and improve the way people collaborate. In our Chicago office, for example, we measured behaviors before and after the creation of our central social hub and other new features and found that time spent in face-to-face interactions increased 15% per person while delays in interactions across teams dropped 18%.

Incorporate Open Stairs

For organizations with multi-level offices, visible open stairs also encourage activity. People use them 9 times the rate they use enclosed fire stairs. Visibility between work settings will also encourage people to get up and move to talk to people, as in most organizations we’ve found that people want less email and more face-to-face interaction but are often stymied by not knowing if people are present and available to talk.

Increase Spatial Diversity

To reduce stress and restore cognitive functioning, people don’t necessarily need to stop working. They just need to temporarily escape top-down stimulation. The best way to do that, we’ve found, is to give people places to escape to. Psychologists have found that something as simple as a walk in the park can restore cognitive focus. In our work with organizations like Zurich North America, we’ve also found that providing ad hoc private enclaves adjacent to desk areas correlated with an increase in enjoyment at work and decrease in time lost to distractions. The more alternatives people have – and the more freedom they have to use them – the better.

New Call-to-action