“It’s not that we’re bad people, or that we aren’t working hard,” Leigh Stringer, author of “The Healthy Workplace,” said. “The problem is that what our minds and bodies need at a basic level is in conflict with our work style. We are so focused on work, on getting things done, that we’ve changed the way we eat, move and sleep in a way that is actually counter-productive.”
It turns out that taking care of worker health and wellbeing is the most effective way to increase engagement and performance. Putting yourself and your health first isn’t selfish, it’s exactly what we all need to do to make our businesses thrive. It’s baseline stakes.
So how can we improve the health of our work place? Stringer offers up a comprehensive list:
- Build flexibility into how, when and where you work. Studies show that people who feel more “in control” of their work and work environment are less likely to suffer from stress and illness and see increases in productivity. Talk to your manager or team about ways you can build more flexibility and choice into your workplace. For example:
- Change where you work. Many people can work effectively and efficiently at home, in a satellite office, co-working facility, a park or a coffee shop. Working this way requires good mobile technology and the right protocols to pull off (so everyone knows how to reach you), but can be incredibly empowering.
- Adopt a more flexible work schedule. Flexible work schedules are an alternative to the traditional 9 to 5, 40-hour work week. They allow you to vary your arrival and/or departure times and include programs like job sharing or a compressed work week.
- Move more. Take a look at how you work and explore alternatives to sitting in one position all day. Change your position often and move around frequently, e.g., stand at a table in the break room, walk during conference calls.
- Adjust your work environment. Even if your organization does not provide desks that move up and down, making small adjustments, like moving or adding a computer monitor, turning on a task light or re-orienting furniture can make a major difference in your posture and your productivity.
- Nurture “biophilia.” We have a strong desire to be in and among nature. It’s only natural – for most of human history we spent all of our time outdoors. This preference, often referred to biophilia, was introduced and popularized by E.O. Wilson, who suggests that there is an instinctive bond between human beings and other living systems. To take advantage of the nature-lover in all of us:
- Add natural elements into the workplace by putting small plants or a water feature on your desk or nearby. These elements are soothing psychologically and reduce stress.
- Move your desk or any workspaces occupied by people next to a window if possible. More natural light will decrease eye strain, improve well-being and if you sit close enough to a window, it can help reset your circadian rhythm and sleep cycle.
- Use features in the workplace that mimic nature, such as pictures of trees and water, building elements that mimic shells or leaves, furniture with organic rather than geometric shapes, and wood with a visible wood grain. These features, referred to as “natural analogues” can have the same biophilic impact as the real thing.
- Leverage choice architecture to improve eating habits. You know how you walk into a grocery store and find yourself buying food at the end of the isle? Or have you noticed how candy is located at child-eye level by the checkout counter? Foods that are easy to spot and presented well are not put there by accident, and food companies pay for the privilege. The secret is “choice architecture,” a term for different ways in which choices can be presented to consumers, and the impact of that presentation on consumer decision making. Here are some ways to do this in the workplace:
- Reduce the number of unhealthy foods that are available. Work with your local food service provider or local restaurants to provide healthy options for meetings and events.
- “Hide” unhealthy foods in the kitchenette or break room by putting them in opaque or translucent containers (versus healthy food like fruit or nuts in glass containers). Companies who provide subsidized snacks are starting to opt for refrigerators with glass doors to encourage employees to grab healthy foods with a shorter shelf life (boiled eggs, salad, fruit) versus processed foods that can be left on the counter.
- Provide your kitchenette with colorful plates. Why? Because people tend to subconsciously pile carbohydrates (pasta, potatoes, bread) onto white plates. It’s harder to tell how much you have on your plate if the food blends in with the plate color. Plates that are red or blue make food portions more obvious and we tend to eat fewer carbs that way.
- Make getting healthy a team sport. Social influence, also known as peer pressure, has a positive impact on exercise behavior and our attitudes towards exercise. There are many ways to tap into this at work. For example:
- Create competitions between teams or different office locations to encourage more walking, biking or participating in team sports over the course of a work week.
- Consider creating a community garden (if you have the real estate available). Studies show that people are more likely to eat more healthy foods if they have a hand in growing their food as a community, even more so than if they grow it on their own!
- Create healthy “nudges” to take the stairs. Taking the stairs is good for cholesterol levels, for burning calories, and for increasing collaboration at work. Unfortunately, in many buildings, the elevator is front and center and stairways are often hidden, dark, locked or generally scary places to hang out. To encourage more stair use, try the following:
- Paint the stairwell a lighter color so that it appears brighter and less foreboding.
- Add artwork to give it a personal touch and add visual interest.
- Pipe in pleasant music. Some buildings are actually taking music out of elevators and putting them in the stairs to make the stair experience more desirable.
- If your local building code will allow, install a magnetic “hold open” on the stair door (which will release in the case of a fire). Psychologically, having a staircase that is more open feels safer, which increases use.
- Want a really simple trick to nudge stair use? Studies show that by just by putting up signs that explain the health benefits of taking the stairs (such as a sign in the elevator lobby that shows how many calories you can burn), stair usage increases by 54 percent!
- And if you can’t take the stairs, take a walk instead.
- Remove distracting behaviors in the workplace. In today’s open work environments, unwanted noise is often a negative side effect. To reduce noise distractions, try the following:
- Separate energetic spaces from quiet areas. This is easiest to do when a space is first being designed, but in general, it’s important to put in a “buffer” between conference spaces or kitchenettes (where people are likely to mill around and talk) and individual workspaces.
- Define policies for space use (i.e. only use speaker phones in enclosed rooms or designate some rooms as “quiet” spaces).
- Agree on a “do not disturb” policy so that colleagues have cues about when they can approach each other.
- Use noise-cancelling headphones or earbuds, or try one of the “white, brown or pink noise” phone apps on your phone with a set of earbuds.
- Consider the interruptions caused by technology and make it common practice to turn off the sounds on phones or devices that beep, chirp or buzz when they receive texts, email or messages from social media.
- Stay home when you are sick. When people come into the workplace sick, they are very likely spreading their diseases to colleagues, which reduces organizational productivity. As tempting as it is for you to “power through” and minimize sick days, the overall health risk is not worth it. Researchers from the University of Arizona in Tucson, placed a tracer virus on commonly touched objects such as a doorknob or tabletop in workplaces. At multiple time intervals, the researchers sampled a range of surfaces including light switches, countertops, sink tap handles, and push buttons. They found that between 40 and 60 percent of the surfaces were contaminated within two to four hours. This may be a reason to adopt a “work from home” policy, if you are looking for one. Beyond that, everyone should frequently wash their hands.
- Install “circadian” lighting. Our internal circadian rhythm or biological clock regulates the timing of periods of sleepiness and wakefulness throughout the day. This rhythm is controlled by a part of the brain at the back of the eye, which is triggered by changes in natural daylight. Unfortunately for most of us, we spend 90% of our day indoors, which plays havoc with our sleep cycle. To combat this, try the following:
- Consider installing a circadian lighting system designed to trigger wakefulness.
- If you’re on a budget, try screwing a “daylight” LED bulb into your office task light. You will be shocked by how much better you feel after just a few minutes of use, and you will likely sleep better at night!
- Bring your pet to work. A growing body of evidence suggests that pets in the office can have health benefits, improve morale, and even increase collaboration among workers. In some cases, pet owners may work longer hours if they don’t feel they have to rush home to let their dogs out at the end of the day. Randolph Barker, professor of management in the Virginia Commonwealth University School of Business has studied dogs in the workplace, and found that bringing them to work resulted in a measurable decline in stress among workers over the course of a day. Even if it’s too difficult to work through the politics of letting employees bring in pets every day, consider some alternatives:
- Bring in puppies or kittens to work for a few hours. Sam Whiteside, the Chief Wellness Officer at The Motley Fool will bring in puppies when she knows a team is working hard on a deadline, to lighten things up.
- Create a “bring your pet to work day.”
- Allow pets to come to family picnics or events.
- Get a mascot. Maybe it doesn’t make sense for every employee to bring in their dog or cat, but having just one pet might be just the ticket. If you’ve ever been to the Hotel Algonquin in New York (or read The Algonquin Cat), you know this can be a competitive advantage.
- Lead by example. One of the most influential tools to encourage healthy behavior in your organization is you. Consider doing the following:
- Adopt healthy changes into your own life that will give you the knowledge you need as a leader to convince others to change.
- Eat better and bring in good, healthy foods to share with your team when appropriate.
- Integrate movement into your day by organizing a stand-up meeting, walking while you take a conference call, or trying out an “exercise desk.”
- Pay attention to your sleep cycle and stop sending your team texts at 10:00pm.
- Teach a meditation, yoga or exercise class. One leader I met took the furniture out of one of the conference rooms in his office and put in a bunch of spin bikes. He led a spin class once a week which he claims totally changed the way his team collaborated (for the better).
- Bring in speakers to share best practices on mindfulness, nutrition, physiology, sleep or positive psychology over lunch.
By working these changes into your own life, you are more likely to not only have more energy, but also to understand the changes required to behave and work in a different way. You are more likely to be listened to by the people you are trying to convince. After all, it’s really hard to take advice from someone who hasn’t drank the Kool-aid themselves.
Bonus Points for managers and leaders! So you’ve tried everything mentioned before, but looking for something more? Here are a few extra healthy strategies to mull over.
- If you are looking to relocate the office, consider having it by a park or public transportation. The proximity of your home or office to parks and other recreational facilities is consistently associated with higher levels of physical activity and healthier weight status. The same goes for proximity to public transit — there is a link between access to public transportation and physical activity, since transit use typically involves walking to a bus or subway stop. In one study, train commuters walked an average of 30 percent more steps per day and were four times more likely to walk 10,000 steps per day than were car commuters. You might not be able to control the location of your home or office, but keep this in mind when planning you commute or travel for work. Less time in the car translates to more time on your feet.
- Give your workplace a healthy stamp of approval. There are a number of healthy building standards emerging, many of which are drawing on excellent research. Applying them to your building is a meaningful way to measure whether your physical workplace and health programs are on the right track. Two tools that have received a great deal of buzz lately are the WELL Building Standard® by Delos, and the FITWEL Standard developed by the Centers for Disease Control and U.S. General Services Administration, and administered by the Center for Active Design. Just like the Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) certification, using tools like these send a strong message to the marketplace that healthy buildings are good for business.
- Get rid of email. Email has become a tool for communicating all things to all people, and many complain that it is highly disruptive to getting work done. Often we are “copied” in emails what are not relevant for our work, and spend time answering messages late at night, even when those message aren’t urgent. It’s a stressful addiction. Some companies are looking for better tools to help their teams communicate more effectively and reduce the overtime spent answering emails constantly. I spoke with a leader that adopted Slack and Asana for internal communications. He claims to have recaptured at least five hours a week and saved “a day” of his team’s time a week due to more efficient communication and streamlined meetings. He still uses email for external communication, but inter-office email was dramatically reduced.
Taking these tips to heart can really change the health of the workplace and the employees in it. Studies show that unhealthy work habits, like staring at computer screens and rushing through fast-food lunches are taking their toll in the form of increased absenteeism, lost productivity, and higher insurance costs–but it doesn’t have to be that way. Companies such as Google, Apple, Aetna, and Johnson & Johnson have used innovative techniques to incorporate healthy habits and practices into the workday and into their culture–with impressive ROI.
Leigh Stringer, LEED AP, is a workplace strategy expert and researcher. Her work has been covered by national media, including CNN, USA Today, the Wall Street Journal and Good Morning America. She works for EYP, an architecture, engineering and building technology firm. She is the author of the bestselling book, The Green Workplace: Sustainable Strategies that Benefit Employees, the Environment and the Bottom Line (Palgrave MacMillan) and The Healthy Workplace: How to Improve the Well-Being of Your Employees—and Boost Your Company’s Bottom Line (AMACOM).