Wendy de Silva: Positive Working Environments – can we thrive by design?

As health is not merely the absence of disease or infirmity but a positive state of complete physical, mental and social wellbeing (WHO, 1986), a healthy working environment is one in which there is not only an absence of harmful conditions but an abundance of health‐promoting ones.

Stress, anxiety and depression account for 57% of working days lost to ill health. In fact, The Chartered Institute of Professional Development reported that workplace stress alone, accounted for a 37% increase in absenteeism last year; a worrying statistic if you are a company manager or owner.

Unfortunately, there can be a very small step between workplace stress and distress, which can lead to mental illness at huge cost to individuals, their families and society. It is therefore our responsibility to act and take a holistic approach to mental wellbeing by focusing on people, place and policy.

Fostering employee wellbeing and positive mental health through strategies, programmes, initiatives and training, such as those promoted by Mates in Mind, can help to support and reduce workplace stress.

The benefits of good employee health are clear, from reduced absenteeism and employee satisfaction through to enhanced creativity and improved organisational performance. However, how much are people influenced by their work environment, whether that be a construction site, home or a traditional office space?

Research has proven that the design of buildings and places can directly influence healthy behaviours. Therefore, Architects have a significant role to play in shaping the fast‐evolving workplace. As designers, we’ve always put people at the heart of our solutions, but now the interwoven complexity of ‘people and place’ means we must think laterally.

A ‘healthy building’ movement that started in America is gaining ground this side of the Atlantic. Some holistically considered standards have been developed specifically to look at how wellness can be prioritised within the design, development and operation of a building.

However, when considering these standards, it is important to remember that not every workplace is the same, nor are its users. Consider a construction site, the UK government’s Health and Safety Executive (HSE) is a very successful campaigner and enforcer of Site Safety and Wellbeing issues. The regulations and guidance are there in black and white, but construction sites add an extra layer of complexity to ‘people and place’ – so what does a designer or employer need to consider to further support mental wellbeing?

This is where evidence‐based design comes into play; an approach that has had significant benefits in other areas of specialist design such as healthcare, schools and universities. Positive outcomes such as improved performance, collaboration, learning and concentration, could all be translated and applied to the workplace, whether it is in an office building, a business incubator or even a construction site.

Do we have enough evidence‐based design research to truly help people to thrive in the evolving workplace?

We believe there is – but for us, it is about considering ‘people, place and policy’ as a whole, not in isolation. To make a real difference, we need to dismantle the ‘workplace jigsaw’, analyse every piece and re‐assemble it from a totally diverse perspective.

In the future, this holistic approach may help to enrich the policies and guidance that influence our industry’s employers today. To find out more about designing for mental wellbeing, contact wendy.desilva@ibigroup.com