Why a healthy workplace is key to well-being at work

We spend a large part of our lives indoors, much of it in our workplaces. It is therefore crucial that the office is designed in such a way that it guarantees the physical and psychological well-being of the employees. Whether it is thermal and acoustic comfort, air quality, interior design, optimal light, ... even a pleasant view – we look at the essentials of a healthy office.

Bien-être au travail
The key factors of a healthy workplace

We spend 90% of our time indoors, either at home or at work, so our well-being (and even our health) can be strongly affected by our indoor environments.

Considering the fact that approximately one third of our lives1 is spent at work, employers have a duty to provide a safe and healthy space in which their workers can operate.

Unfortunately, this is not always the case. A recent study conducted in India by GBCI2 and Saint-Gobain Research India found that only one in 30 offices surveyed met indoor air quality standards. Culminating in the whitepaper Healthy Workplaces for Healthier People, the research showed there is a strong correlation between indoor environmental quality and the productivity, health and well-being of the occupants.

“The quality of indoor environment is determined by the design of the space, the systems and materials installed, and the operation and maintenance practices followed. Well designed and maintained spaces do not just provide a healthy and comfortable environment, but also enhance occupants’ health and improve productivity”, reads the study's preface.

The effects are far-reaching. Besides making office workers feel better at work, a well-designed healthy workplace is good for businesses. Studies and financial simulations made by Harvard professors Joseph G. Allen and John D. Macomber, in their book Healthy Buildings: How Indoor Spaces Drive Performance and Productivity, show that the financial benefits of higher ventilation are estimated to be between $6500 and $7500 per person per year.

However, if employers want to create and maintain workplaces that are healthier for their employees, they need to look beyond adding a few potted plants and an air filter. It requires a great deal of thought and planning, and should be considered at the design phase of the building.


The foundations of a healthy workplace

If offices around the world were better designed and built, they would be better able to guarantee the well-being of those who work in them. Allen and Macomber devised foundations that determine whether a building is healthy. These are:

ventilation, air quality, thermal heat, moisture, dusts and pests, safety and security, water quality, noise, and lighting and views.

When these features are optimized for the comfort and well-being of the occupants, employees thrive and produce their best work. A great example of this is when the Saint-Gobain call center in Pennsylvania moved its headquarters to a new, healthier building and experienced a 97% increase in sales-generated leads and a 101% increase in leads per call.

Similarly, Medibank in Melbourne Australia moved into a new office with 26 types of workspaces, edible gardens, and sport facilities. It subsequently reported that 80% of staff were working more collaboratively, absenteeism was down by 5%, and 2/3 of staff said they felt healthier in the new office.

By breaking down five of the most important features of a healthy office, we can not only understand the detrimental effects they can cause but how building design can be optimized to solve them:


1. Air quality

Air quality becomes a problem when there is a lack of a constant supply of fresh, clean air. This results in a buildup of contaminants indoors. The most common contaminants include carbon dioxide (CO2), nitrogen dioxide (NO2), formaldehyde (CH2O) found in some furniture and soft furnishing, and particulate matter. Poor operation and maintenance of ventilation systems can lead to reduced airflow, with air filters clogging up restricting fresh air supply and resulting in higher levels of CO2.

Poor indoor air quality with specific reference to high levels contaminants had a negative effect on almost half of all respondents in the GBCI survey. One in 10 experienced eye irritation, 8% said they had fatigue, and 4% reported feeling dizzy. Other consequences are coughing, skin irritation, and shortness of breath.

High levels of CO2 also make cognitive function and decision-making more difficult. Concentrations of more that 1,400 parts per million can reduce complex strategic thinking by half and basic decision making by a quarter. Analysis of sick leave data for 3000 workers across 40 buildings found that 57% of all sick leave was attributable to poor ventilation.

There are, though, a range of solutions that can be implemented – Air quality can be quickly improved by the provision of air renewal and filtration systems that eliminate pollutants; Chemical filters remove NO2 from outside air and trap fine and coarse particulate matter; Improved insulation works as a seal to stop pollutants getting in; CO2 sensor-based outdoor air intakes alert business managers to dangerously high levels of pollutants so they can remedy the situation.

Building designers should also use materials that have little to no volatile organic compounds, while interior designers should use soft furnishings with little to no formaldehyde.


2. Thermal comfort

Only 62% of respondents to the GBCI survey said they were happy with the thermal conditions in their office building. Thermal conditions relate to temperature, humidity, and air circulation. The respondents said it was often too cold in winter and too hot in summer. When thermal comfort is not optimized, staff performance can fall by 6% if offices are too hot and 4% if they are too cold.

This can be remedied by the use of low emissivity glazing and high-performance insulation solutions which include highly-recycled or bio-based materials. These significantly reduce heat transfer between inside and outside so buildings do not become too hot or too cold. As individuals have different ideal temperatures, the use of ceiling fans and pedestal fans enable occupants to control air speed and temperature in their immediate vicinity.

Salle de réunion

3. Acoustic comfort

Noise pollution typically comes from two places – equipment noise, such as from ventilation or electronic office equipment and people talking; or external noise, from construction work, road traffic or airplanes.

Long-term high intensity noise pollution can contribute to the development of hypertension or coronary heart disease. Performance at work drops by 66% when we are exposed to a distracting noise. Noise pollution also causes headaches, stress and sleep disorders. Furthermore, 63% of employees say they do not have a quiet space for focused work, which has a negative effect on their productivity.

There are two ways to deal with the issue of acoustic comfort – reducing noise and absorbing noise. Architects and building designers can and should plan buildings with materials like mineral wool in ceiling tiles that can absorb sound. Lightweight drywalls and plasterboard ceilings from Gyproc®, as well as acoustic tiles or perforated gypsum boards used as a ceiling finish, led to lower background noise levels compared to offices with partitions made from MDF or other hard surfaces. Curtains and other soft furnishings can be hung to further reduce echo and reverberation.


4. Optimal lighting and a pleasant view

Optimal lighting is not just about windows. Workplaces can also suffer from insufficient daylight if the space has a deep floor plate, or there are high partitions or meeting rooms at the periphery of the building. Just under two-thirds of the offices (64%) studied by GBCI had lighting levels below recommended levels. In many of the offices, even where levels of natural light were low, artificial lights were not turned on. In addition, almost three quarters of respondents of the GBCI survey said that they had no external view or only a poor-quality view from their workstations.

Poor lighting can cause visual discomfort and can result in issues such as dry eyes, blurry vision, eye strain and headaches. Lack of access to a quality view with an unobstructed line of sight to the sky or open green spaces outside the building is directly correlated to quality of sleep and energy levels. Human physiology is affected by the circadian rhythm (the sleep/wake cycle) which relies on daylight. Those who can see interesting or pleasant views report having higher energy levels at the end of the day and fewer sleep related problems. Having poor levels of sleep is linked to several health conditions including diabetes, obesity, depression, and bipolar disorder.

This issue can be solved at the planning stage. By carefully designing interior layouts and windows, which should have an anti-glare coating, you can maximize natural light and access to outside views.


5. Interior design

A lack of contact with nature and other people has a negative effect on humans. While people typically spend about 90% of their time indoors, nearly all studies point to the positive health benefits of spending time outdoors. People who are connected with nature are happier, feel more vital and have more meaning in their lives.

Young adults working in an office that featured biophilic design elements saw their short term memory improve by 14%. Biophilic design is a concept used in the construction industry to increase the connection to nature of the occupants of a building. Also sitting for long hours as many of us do, is bad for our bodies. Of the building occupants surveyed, 64% reported sitting for eight to ten hours daily and two-thirds reported musculoskeletal problems.

Employees can also be encouraged to move by integrating internal stairs into a building and enhancing the experience of using them by making them standout features with artwork, lighting effects and vegetation. Also centralized photocopy rooms, drinking fountains and or kitchens encourage workers to get up and move around the workspace. Architects should also increase the proximity to nature for the occupants by bringing in plants and giving good views of the outside world.

For example, San Francisco-based company stōk installed a biome – a portable green wall – primarily to deal with levels of CO2. However, the installation had the secondary effect of improving the mental well-being of the employees. Nine out of ten said they felt more comfortable, and seven out of ten said they could concentrate better. In a different company, a call center, processing time improved by 7%-12% when staff had a view of nature.


A healthier workplace starts with its design

Lack of access to good outdoor views, low light levels in the morning, and high levels of nitrogen dioxide are the factors most detrimental to the well-being of office workers. A well-designed and healthy workplace can eliminate these issues, which not only beneficial to company health and morale but also a business’ bottom line. Just a 1°C variation in the optimal indoor temperature was found to lead to a 2% decrease in output. Another study found that each time you double the rate of outdoor air delivered to an office, worker performance improves by 1.7%.

As Terri Willis, CEO of the Green Building Council, argues: "Putting health and wellness, as well as the environment, at the heart of buildings is a no-brainer for employees and business outcomes."


1. Gettysburg College – “One third of your life is spent at work”

2. GBCI is the world’s leading sustainability and health certification and credentialing body


Photo credit : Shutterstock / Art_photo ; Sunil Mistry