Our healthcare has never been a more important topic. After all, insurance and medical costs are continuing to rise, health, in general, has started to decline and we find ourselves in the middle of obesity and opioid epidemics.
Stringer’s book is based upon the idea that it’s not always employees’ lifestyles that are making them sick. Sometimes it’s the workplace itself. After all, we’re increasingly sedentary, spending more and more time in front of computer screens in small cubicles, with insufficient lighting and ventilation. Many of us are even eating packed lunches at our desks instead of taking the break that we’re contractually obliged to take. (Check out the latest price on Amazon HERE)
“Unsurprisingly,” Stringer says, “many employees are overweight, stressed, and sleeping poorly, while companies suffer from increased absenteeism, lost productivity, and elevated insurance premiums. Work doesn’t have to be so sad. Wellness programs don’t have to be so futile. You can help your people become healthier, happier and more engaged.”
Stringer herself is a senior workplace expert at EYP Architecture and Engineering and is actively researching the fields of employee health and productivity. This includes her work with the Harvard School of Public Health, the Centre for Active Design and other major organizations, as well as the hundreds of case studies, surveys and interviews that went into the making of The Healthy Workplace.
All of this means that Stringer knows exactly what she’s talking about and that there’s a lot to love inside these pages. And so without further ado, let’s open up the book and see what there is for us to learn.
Stringer kicks the book off with an honest and frank look at what she calls the “bottom” line, the idea that rising obesity rates could be linked with an overall change in our lifestyles. Obesity is one of the biggest threats as it’s a big killer, but she also highlights other specific health problems including smoking, musculoskeletal issues, stress and the twin threats of both absenteeism and presenteeism.
The idea is that your workplace, as well as the corporate culture behind that workplace, has a big impact on your overall health. Business leaders have a moral obligation to rethink the way that the workplace works to put their employees first, but it also makes sense from a business point of view.
One study even found that the on-the-job productivity loss resulting from depression/anxiety, obesity, arthritis and back/neck pain was 2.3 times greater than the absence-related productivity loss attributed to these conditions. “In other words,” Stringer writes, “less time was actually lost from people staying home than from people showing up to work not fully charged.”
In this section, Stringer takes us through the path that we followed from hunter-gatherers who were on their feet all day to modern office workers who have unhealthy but convenient choices at their fingertips everywhere they turn. She also covers everything from our eating habits at work to what the modern workplace actually looks like, with as many as five generations in the same office.
That leads us nicely into the next chapter, which deals with productivity, flow, and creativity. Stringer notes that the term “productivity” was first used during the industrial revolution, and was later defined in 1899 as “an increase in the rate of output per unit.” Flow refers to the phenomenon of “being in the zone” that we get when we seem to seamlessly move from one task to another with no gaps in productivity. And of course, creativity is self-explanatory.
Stringer’s view is that the modern healthy workplace facilitates productivity, flow, and creativity and that when you get it right, you can even experience “group flow.” The idea of group flow comes into play again in Chapter Four, where Stringer talks about the need to maximize energy while avoiding clashes.
Energy is a difficult concept to pin down. Part of it comes down to our attitude, and you’ll have seen that in action if you’ve ever worked for a company where employee morale was so low that it sucked all of the energy out of the office. But energy also comes to us from physical factors, like the amount of sleep we get, the food we eat and even the amount of natural light that we’re exposed to.
For Stringer, one of the big problems with the modern workplace is the obesity epidemic. “Roughly 70% of Americans are overweight,” she says, “and 70% of Americans’ waking hours are spent at work during the week. It just makes sense to leverage work time and to integrate healthy habits into our work style.”
That’s why she dedicates significant amounts of time to the idea of helping employees to lose weight at work, via everything from resistance and interval training to using standing desks or even increasing the amount of movement that employees get in general. A great example of this is Under Armour, the company that owns MyFitnessPal and many other health applications, which offers yoga classes and other health-based perks to their employees.
Some of Stringer’s concepts for creating a healthy workplace include making stairs more attractive to use, encouraging employees to stand up and even using “point of decision” prompts to make people think twice. Where possible, Stringer also suggests locating your office near to public transportation hubs and other local amenities, as well as providing employees with gymnasiums and showers if at all possible.
Stringer also shares her strategies for improving nutrition at work, ranging from providing places for employees to eat and to store their lunch to offering free meals, making snacks available and ensuring that healthy choices are the default. Some of the more forward-thinking companies are even providing dedicated garden areas so that employees can grow their own fresh fruit and vegetables.
The goal of all of these changes is to reduce stress in the workplace and to increase employee focus. If you’ve ever come across Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, then you’re already familiar with how we need to have our basic needs met before we can start to focus on higher pursuits. Now that we’ve taken care of employees’ physical needs, it’s time to think about their emotional needs.
According to Stringer, we increase focus by reducing stress, which is why she advocates the use of mindfulness and meditation, supporting it by sharing success stories from fields as diverse as basketball, football, and the Marine Corps. If you’re struggling to reduce stress in your workplace, she suggests developing stress management programs, encouraging employees to focus on one task at a time, getting rid of email, designing places for psychological restoration and even allowing people to decide when and where to work if it allows them to be at their best.
Stringer’s next step is to sleep your way to success, but she doesn’t mean it like that. “The issue of poor sleep is a growing one,” she explains. “Sleep problems – including insomnia, obstructive sleep apnoea, restless leg syndrome, and sleep deprivation in general – affect up to 45% of the world’s population.”
The author doesn’t claim to have all of the answers, but she does provide a thorough grounding in the general concepts behind the way we sleep, as well as a few ideas on how you can help out as an employer. For example, you could install circadian lighting, provide napping or wellness rooms and even stop serving caffeinated drinks in the afternoon. You also need to go out of your way to support shift workers or those who are expected to sleep on the road while traveling.
Next, Stringer shares some of the pros and cons of different types of workplace design, stressing our inherent need as human beings to feel closer to nature and highlighting some of the biggest irritants that people mention when they talk about what they don’t like at their workplace. “By far, the issues that are brought up most frequently have to do with acoustics, crowding, indoor air quality and thermal comfort,” the author says.
As the title of this section suggests, Stringer is an advocate of designing the workspace with health in mind from the very start. Some of the techniques that she suggests include maximizing natural light, integrating plants and nature views into the work environment, keeping the workplace tidy, upgrading furniture and finishings and even reducing the risk of communicable disease.
This brings us on to the chapter on creating a healthy organizational culture. “A major reason employees are not engaging in healthy behaviors at work has to do with organizational culture,” she explains. “Culture has a profound effect on how we work – for example, how we behave in meetings, how we dress, whether we check our email before we go to bed, and whether we exercise during the day or wait until ‘after hours’ to do so. It even impacts how stressed out we let ourselves get.”
It’s difficult to explain what a culture is, and it’s even harder to explain how to develop one. Stringer does a good job of it, though, showing how a healthy workplace culture comes from the example set by senior management and how providing everything from talking partners to easy, healthy choices and personal coaching can make a big difference to employee health and happiness. Even encouraging some healthy competition such as showing a leader board to showcase the biggest weight losses can be enough to make a big difference.
Other options include creating buddy systems or even providing incentives to employees, such as allowing them to leave early if they spend the time using the company’s gym. It’s all about finding ways to make your workplace healthier by leading by example and engineering it in such a way that people understand why they're healthier, as well as how to go about it.
That’s where this final chapter comes into play. Stringer suggests building a business case for health by following these simple steps:
1. Creating a wellness vision and charter
2. Setting health targets tied to third-party evaluation tools
3. Calculating your wellness program ROI
4. Considering the ROI for other health and wellness investments
5. Measuring the benefits of health investments to recruitment and retention
6. Evaluating the impact of a healthy workplace on organisational performance
Building a business case for a healthy workplace is important because you’ll need to have everyone on board across the entirety of your company. Senior management need to be the most dedicated of all to your new healthy workplace, because they lead by example and the rest of your employees take cues from them that ultimately determine how they behave. And it’s how people behave that ultimately determines how healthy your workplace really is.
The Healthy Workplace is a refreshingly different business book, and it’s nice to read something that puts people first and the company second. After all, it’s the people who work for a company that determines its culture, its healthiness and ultimately its profit and loss and its overall legacy.
One of the most interesting things here is the way in which Stringer uses a mixture of hard facts and soft anecdotes to talk readers round to her way of thinking. It doesn’t take much though, because the general concept of looking after employees to improve both their productivity and their loyalty is self-evidently a good one.
So if you’re responsible for a workforce, consider taking some time out to evaluate how healthy your workplace is. The chances are that you’ll spot plenty of ways in which you could improve it, and if you can’t then, you’re probably not looking hard enough. The good news is that this book will help you to ask the right questions, to look in the right places and then to take active steps to make things better. Good luck – and enjoy your healthier workplace.
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