Health and wellbeing: Employees need a comfort zone

26/09/2011

If you read nothing else, read this . . .

  • Many factors in the working environment can affect employees’ health and wellbeing.
  • Air temperature and quality, and lighting can affect a person’s mood and productivity levels.
  • Including artwork or plants in a working environment can improve staff wellbeing.
  • Involving employees in choosing the make-up of a workspace can improve wellbeing.

Case study: Wellbeing day is launchpad for Inmarsat

Mobile satellite operator Inmarsat recognises the importance of promoting its health and wellbeing initiatives for employees to increase take-up.

The organisation gives its 400 UK staff the chance to take part in health initiatives throughout the year. It has a musculoskeletal programme that offers information on back care and ergonomics.

Inmarsat has found an annual wellbeing day to be effective in engaging staff with the benefits.

The wellbeing day, which it has staged for the past six years, sees health professionals such as the company doctor and occupational health nurses spend the whole day onsite.

At the event, employees can also take advantage of free fresh fruit and vegetables.

Lloydeth Newell, health and safety manager, says: "In order to have a wealthy company, we must first have a healthy workforce."

Case study: D&G staff answer wellness call

Warranty services call centre Domestic and General (D&G) recognises the link between wellness and employee engagement, and ensures its staff can take part in onsite initiatives.

Its wellbeing initiatives for its 700 employees range from supplying fresh fruit each week to utilising the services of its occupational health service provider and enabling it to come on site to learn more about how D&G operates as a business.

The firm also holds wellness Wednesday events each month, which include Nintendo Wii sports activities,pedometer challenges, healthy-eating promotions and smoking cessation.

Last month, it held a wellness fete, where it supplied healthy breakfasts and ran wellness activities.

Tracy Burrell, HR manager, says: "Engagement is key. Employees recognise that we care about them and their health and wellbeing."

Many components of the workplace environment can have a tangible effect on employees' mood, wellbeing and productivity, says Tynan Barton

There is no such thing as a typical working environment. It can be as varied as a car production line, an office-based call-centre or turkey pluckers working on a farm, but each environment can have an impact on employees' health and wellbeing. Under the Health and Safety at Work Act 1974, employers have a duty to ensure, so far as is reasonably practicable, the health, safety and welfare of their staff at work. Employers must meet an approved code of practice for matters such as the minimum space per member of staff and the minimum air temperature.

Dr Mark Simpson, medical director at Axa Icas, says a number of factors, particularly concerning temperature, can affect staff at work. "That includes the air temperature, the radiant temperature from a heat source, the air flow or air speed within a building and the humidity," he says. "The regulations suggest employers have to maintain a minimum temperature of 16C, so not particularly hot."

The temperature and air quality of a workplace can be hard to get right. In air-conditioned buildings, what may be just right for some workers can feel like sitting in an igloo for others. Fresh air may be the ideal for some, but if a workplace does not have windows that open, the climate control has to be at the right setting to ensure comfort. Dr Peter Mills, managing director at Glasslyn Health Solutions, says: "We tend to hermetically seal office buildings these days, so you cannot open the windows, and often you find people get symptoms of fatigue at the end of the day. So the actual air quality is important. Some big buildings reduce cost by not humidifying the air as much as they should, which can have an impact on people. We know hermetically sealing buildings is not good if you have an allergy because you end up recycling allergens in the air."

But it can be hard to find a balance that will achieve the ideal environment and will benefit employees' health. "Diseases such as legionella are associated with air conditioning, and even humidifiers can [cause] humidifier fever," says Simpson.

Regular breaks are key

If an organisation is looking at its physical environment to help improve employees' health and wellbeing, some orderly thinking is needed, says Wayne Campbell, managing director at Healthy Performance. "Every individual workplace has to be assessed. If someone is standing up all day, the key thing is to have regular breaks, and to ensure that when they have breaks, they have access to water and, if possible, food that is good for them. The main thing is for employers to understand the difference between various types of job, and that not everybody is the same and people react differently to things."

Dr Katherine Tryon, head of clinical vitality at PruHealth, says employers should ensure any health and wellbeing initiative will bring a step-change in attitudes. "We help employers think it through," she says. "Yes, they can change the environment around someone, but it has got to be something that will trigger some behaviour change in people."

Services such as occupational health can help to ensure a workplace meets its legal requirements, but are also conducive to good health and wellbeing among staff, says Simpson. "Occupational health should be acting at two key levels," he says. "One is the organisational level which goes back to the approved code of practice, ensuring all equipment is maintained properly, and that the employer has a reasonable system of workstation assessments put in place.

"The second level is to help individuals, perhaps those with health problems that cause them to feel the office environment more acutely. One example is thyroid disease. If their thyroid is over-active, their metabolism is turned up and, until it is under control, they will prefer a cooler environment. Whereas if their thyroid is under-active, until treatment is optimised, they will feel the cold more acutely and will want to be in a warmer place."

Another benefit of better air quality is the effect it can have on employees' productivity, says Campbell. "The more air you get into your lungs relates to the amount of oxygen going to your brain. The more oxygen that is getting to your brain, the more you can concentrate, the more energy you will have, and the less tired you feel. Air conditioning can have a major dehydrating effect."

The amount and type of light in a workplace can also affect people's wellbeing. Glasslyn's Mills says: "Lighting is an area that requires more attention in terms of optimising the working environment. We know sunlight has an impact on your mood. There are receptors at the back of the eye that not only deal with vision, but are directly connected to our internal body clock. It is curious we do not pay more attention to indoor lighting."

Employers are not only responsible for providing correct lighting, they should also heed the fact that it can have a big impact on an employee's disposition. Matt Davis, research fellow at the University of Leeds, says: "The thing that can really make a difference in people's mood and sense of wellbeing and contentment when in a work environment is natural daylight.

"Having access to a window or some kind of view can have positive effects in mood, feeling calmer, and to do with creativity. People feeling more stimulated as well. If they have a view out to a natural environment, to a piece of parkland or some trees, it will have a better effect on people than if the view is to a car park or another building."

Primeval instincts for nature

Plants can also bring health benefits to a work environment. Leeds University's Davis refers to the biophilia hypothesis, which says that if employers can make people feel more connected to the natural environment, it will have a positive effect. "Right back to our primeval instincts, we have this affiliation with nature, so when we are close to it we feel more comfortable, relaxed and at home," he says. "Introducing plants into the office or having pictures of nature themes helps people relax and feel calmer."

Kenneth Freeman, technical director at office plant and commercial landscaping services supplier Ambius, says if a workspace is enriched with plants and art, it can improve productivity, engagement and wellbeing. "If [employers] involve staff in those decisions, they get an even greater effect. If a line manager thinks plants and pictures will make a difference and gives workers a say in which plants and art, [employers] get huge benefits. It is to do with a perception of empowerment over their workspace, rather than the rigid, lean, psychologically impoverished workspace they might have otherwise."

Sometimes small changes can have a big impact on a workplace's healthy aspects, says PruHealth's Tryon. "There is a huge amount employers can do in terms of changing the physical environment to make the healthy choice the easy choice for staff. It makes it easier for them to get up and get moving."

For example, making sure stairwells are well lit and clearly marked, that there are showers, changing rooms and bike racks to support physical activity, and healthy food in vending machines and canteens can encourage employees to choose the healthy option over the unhealthy.

Music in the workplace

Music playing in the workplace may not be for everyone, but it can make a difference to employees’ mood, productivity levels and sense of wellbeing.

The value of music, a survey published by copyright collection society PRS for Music in September 2010, found that 69% of organisations believe music can positively influence the behaviour of staff and customers. The research also found that 77% of businesses would recommend similar organisations play music to improve productivity and staff morale.

The survey also asked about the factors that were important in influencing the ideal working environment: 92% of respondents said lighting, 85% said design or layout, 73% said furniture, and 72% said music.

Barney Hooper, head of PR at PRS for Music, says: “For a lot of people, the style of how their manager approaches them, the layout of the office, the hours and workload are massively important, but music is a small but significant part of that, too. Music is part of a whole suite of things that make a nice working environment.”

Matt Davis, research fellow at the University of Leeds, adds: “In terms of wellbeing, people’s moods and reducing stress levels, if they can choose the music, it probably can be beneficial."

This article first appeared in Employee Benefits Online www.employeebenefitsonline.com

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