If you have a full-time job in an office, chances are, you spend more hours there than you do at home. Despite the seemingly never-ending quest for work-life balance, the reality is that burnout rates are increasing around the world in almost every sector.
And companies are taking notice. According to a CBRE Research report on Wellness in the Workplace, 79 percent of employee respondents said balancing private and professional commitments was a cause of stress, while 80 percent of employees said wellness programs would be crucial to attracting and keeping them at their jobs for the next 10 years.
With employee health being a hot topic, there is still much work to be done.
With employee health being a hot topic, there is still much work to be done. In 2013, a World Health Organization report reiterated that most countries had minimum standards for workplace safety and health features, and few are focused on the mental health aspects of working conditions. The office has always been looked at from a health risk perspective, but never as a rewarding place that can help to enhance performance by focusing on the well-being of employees.
At the CBRE office in Amsterdam, Elizabeth Nelson, a researcher from the University of Twente, and Wouter Oosting, senior director of workplace strategies and design at CBRE Nederland, explored opportunities for boosting worker potential by focusing on a holistic approach to health in the workspace.
During this seven-month-long research project, Nelson and Oosting essentially created a healthier office environment for employees by adapting to their needs from a body and mind perspective. They also tested mental effort and energy levels from employees on a daily basis, comparing them with a control group whose environment remained the same.
The results? “People did so much better in healthy situations than in their typical situations,” says Nelson. “We’re all playing with energy levels. If we’re tired, we go to caffeine and chocolate instead of fresh air and sunshine, and good, nutritious food and water. The positive effects of these simple changes were really kind of shocking.”
From Office to Health Spa
The experiment worked like this: After a two-month baseline measurement from Nelson, Oosting began changing employees’ environments, with a different focus each month, including adding plants to workspaces, changing the office lighting, offering nutritious snacks instead of sugar and caffeine, as well as encouraging walking, yoga, meditation and massage.
A Greener, More Active Workspace
Adding plants to environments, for example, has been shown to improve headaches, depression, concentration, self-discipline and physiological stress, according to Nelson’s research.
During a focus period on active workspaces, employees were given treadmill desks, medicine balls and recommended routes for walking meetings.
Avoiding the Afternoon Slump
But perhaps the most tangible results came from altering employees’ afternoon snack choices, Nelson says.
During a 3 p.m. energy lull, a test group was given sugar-filled treats(cream filled donuts), while another group was offered green smoothies. When both were tested immediately afterwards, the group that ate vegetables was found to have much more focus, with a 91 percent accuracy rate, vs. the other group’s 46 percent.
Working Smarter With Less Stress
Nelson also tested a control group’s response to high-pressure situations by placing them in uncomfortable positions (asking people to promote themselves in front of their colleagues or sing in public). Those who were placed in high-stress situations performed 30 percent worse in task accuracy, compared to employees who were less stressed before taking the test.
All of the changes were designed to enhance employees’ quality of life, which ultimately helped them become more engaged, focused and better at their jobs, according to Nelson and Oosting.
“After seven months of simple studies, we were able to enhance the quality of life and unlock human potential,” Oosting says.
“We’re trying to create an environment where employees can do a better job in less time.”
A Cultural Shift
While the research yielded positive results, both Nelson and Oosting agree that these changes can’t be made in a vacuum. A holistic approach is best, and in many workplaces, a cultural shift is necessary for these features to become part of a daily routine.
“You need to have a proper change management program in place that is tailored to your office, or else it won’t work,” says Oosting.
“If we’re asking people to change their behavior, we need to help them.”
Ultimately, Oosting sees a healthy office as a win-win for employees and companies.
“On a practical scale, you lose fewer people, see less burnout and more effective output coming out of your employees.”