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Improving employee mental health through workplace design

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With recent studies finding employee wellbeing is become a crucial issue in todays world of work, Mary Lawrence, partner and health and safety practice lead at Osborne Clarke discusses ways in which design can impact employee wellbeing.

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Mary Lawrence, partner and health and safety practice lead at international law firm Osborne Clarke

A 2017 survey found that mental ill-health costs employers up to £42 billion per year, as well as costing the British economy an astounding £99 billion. This is due to the huge impact of mental health on staff retention, productivity, sickness and absenteeism; the ‘Thriving at Work’ report found that absence due to mental health reasons has risen by around 5% and that 300,000 people lose their job each year as a direct consequence of mental health problems. The consequences of poor employee wellbeing on business performance is clear, leading an increasing number of organisations to question how they can tackle the issue which has gathered momentum in recent years.

One solution that is often overlooked is workplace design. Despite the findings that 95% of office workers see their physical workplace as important for their wellbeing and mental health, half believe their current working environment does not have a positive effect on their mental health, wellbeing, mood and productivity. This suggests that employers are not doing enough when it comes to adapting the working environment to suit employees’ needs. If organisations want to avoid the immense costs of poor employee mental health, workplace design is a great place to start.

How does workplace design affect employee wellbeing?

There are a number of ways to think about employees’ health needs, but one widely acknowledged measure of wellbeing is the health triangle. This model proposes that there are three pillars of health that must be targeted in equal measure: social, physical and mental. Social health refers to a person’s need for positive relationships and a sense of community, physical health is the body’s ability to function and mental health deals with how a person thinks, feels and copes with daily life. In order for employees to maintain good health, it is vital that all three of these needs are considered in workplace design. Agile working is a solution that can target the three pillars by providing autonomy, privacy, purpose, community and collaboration. It is clear that employees are keen to see more of this in their workplace, with one third of respondents in a recent survey listing agile or flexible working as the top source of workplace happiness other than salary. There is also substantial psychological evidence in favour of a mixed working environment – a trend which is seeing increased popularity. A study found that flexible working spaces could grow by up to 30% annually for the next five years across Europe. A mixed working space comprises of quiet areas, social areas and spaces with and without technology. This enhances productivity and prevents isolation and loneliness, making it the best way to boost both performance and happiness for the majority of employees.

How can organisations factor in workplace design?

As organisations start to recognise the impact of workplace design on wellbeing, there are a number of legal considerations that it must consider for best practice. Companies with more than five employees must have a comprehensive risk assessment that addresses the impact of the physical

workplace on staff health and wellbeing (as well as safety). Factors such as buildings and technology must be considered, with, for example, working space and screen usage highlighted as possible risks to employees. The next step for employers is to identify the controls needed to minimise the risks; this is when workplace design must be factored in. For example, companies can implement a mixed working environment that has areas without computer screens to alleviate any potential problems with excessive screen use.

In order to reduce costs to the business, boost employee performance and improve mental health, employers must ensure that workplace design is used to target the three pillars of health. This can be achieved through comprehensive risk assessments and a mixed working environment, which has been proven to enhance employee mental health. Furthermore, the growing awareness of workplace design represents an opportunity for businesses to sell their services or products by putting the mental health of the end user at the forefront of their designs.

If you’re an employer, are you doing enough to improve and maintain your workers’ mental health? Are you using workplace design to target the three pillars of health? Have you engaged with psychologists to ensure you are getting the best out of your employees? These questions can be used as a guideline to help your organisation better care for its workforce.

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