We’re all aware that sitting for prolonged periods can be bad for our health (especially if we’re not engaging in enough physical activity). But how much do our desks – and the rest of our physical workspace – really impact us? Here’s a look at how the physical workspace affects worker productivity and wellness.
Physical Activity and Employee Wellness
From cubicles to office chairs, the standard office design simply doesn’t promote physical activity. This can negatively affect our health in a variety of ways. Specifically, LifeSpan Fitness says that sedentary behavior can lead to weight gain and obesity, which can contribute to additional health problems.
Sitting for prolonged periods puts strain on the back, shoulders, arms and neck, in addition to reducing circulation and blood flow. Health writer Scott Hensley points to a study on physical activity, which found that men with the lowest levels of physical activity were at the highest risk of heart failure.
Despite the risks of a sedentary lifestyle, many offices still promote traditional sitting desk environments. Some people believe the risks of prolonged sitting to be so great that many researchers and health professionals are proposing detailed interventions, placing a stronger emphasis on employee physical activity, business writer Lisa Creffield reports.
In contrast to the anti-sitting movement, some people believe that sitting isn’t all that bad for our health. JotForm CEO and founder Aytekin Tank highlights studies proving not only that sitting doesn’t have an impact on the development of life-threatening conditions, but that standing can actually lead to a drop in productivity. Regardless of these contrasting views, its true that engaging in physical activity — and creating a well-rounded culture of health at work — can make employees happier and more productive.
Workplace Wellness and Productivity
Aside from the fact that it promotes a sedentary lifestyle, another problem with the standard office desk is that it contributes to something called presenteeism. Presenteeism is when someone is physically sitting at their desk, yet they aren’t working on company-related tasks that can move the needle forward.
WellSteps CEO Steven Aldana, Ph.D. says one of the main causes of presenteeism is poor health. Being in poor health can cause increased fatigue, making people feel tired and unmotivated. Behaviors like eating an unhealthy diet, smoking, and failing to engage in physical activity have all been shown to increase presenteeism at work.
A workplace wellness program, like those offered by Viverae, is the best way to combat presenteeism, Liz Sheffield at MeYou Health writes. It can also work as a preventative measure to keep employees healthy and reduce absenteeism. An effective health management strategy helps promote both mental and physical wellness.
Such wellness initiatives have been linked to increased productivity, Elizabeth Rosalyn The at HR and wellness company Rise People writes. She points to a study which says that among employers offering wellness programs, 77 percent saw increased employee satisfaction and 66 percent reported increased productivity. Additionally, 63 percent noted increased financial sustainability and growth while 50 percent saw decreased absenteeism.
Another study shows that over the course of three years, a workplace wellness program resulted in a 4 percent productivity increase, freelance journalist Michael Totty reports at UCLA Anderson Review.
“Those whose health improved during the course of the study, whether they had pre-existing health problems or were already considered healthy, posted significant gains of 10 percent or more,” he adds. Moreover, the wellness program was seen to have a 76 percent return on investment.
Timothy Gubler, a co-author of the study and assistant professor at University of California, Riverside, believes that this number could be even higher if employees adhered more strongly to the wellness program and if the rate of employee turnover at the company could be reduced.
Interestingly, workplace acoustics can play an important role in the health of office occupants. As Inc.’s Jessica Stillman reports, research from the Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute found that the sound of a babbling mountain brook can mask a workplace’s distracting noises, helping people concentrate and feel more productive. Still, having a quiet, enclosed space for contemplative work gives employees the freedom to choose which environments they prefer.
Create a More Active Workplace
In contrast, healthy behaviors promoted by workplace wellness programs can increase worker productivity greatly.
Many companies are starting to take the idea of an active workplace beyond the desk station to create a more inclusive picture of workplace wellness. VARIDESK, an active workspace company and provider of height-adjustable standing desk solutions, believes that employers must support employee wellness through cultural and functional integrations.
These can include employee-sponsored fitness-tracking apps, integrated tools like standing desks and cultural enhancements like low-level music. Combining multiple wellness elements helps promote both physical and mental health among employees.
A basic example of how to create more activity in the workplace is to implement adjustable standing desks. Those that easily convert to sitting desks give employees more flexibility in the workplace and encourage users to move throughout the day. Standing pads can make standing for long periods more comfortable, and adjustable headsets can ease strain, as writer and author Julie Bawden Davis highlights.
Active workstations, or desks that incorporate treadmills and stationary bikes, are an increasingly popular way to promote more activity in the office, Tamara Lytle at SHRM writes. Having a treadmill or bike desk doesn’t mean employees will walk or cycle all day, of course, but they’ll have the option to be more active.
The design and layout of a workplace itself can impact worker productivity and wellness, too. Environmental, health and safety consultant Gemma Collins Doyle from EazySAFE explains that the levels of natural lighting and even the colors on the walls can impact a person’s mood, for example. Clutter can make a person feel stressed and less able to concentrate.
Employee mental health is very much affected by the workplace. Bob Chapman, CEO and chairman at global engineering company Barry-Wehmiller, thinks the biggest contributor to chronic illness is stress, and stress is mainly caused by work. He says organizational stress is often due by people feeling like they’re not being appreciated and valued for their unique contributions. When they don’t feel like they’re valued, they’re more likely to feel unfulfilled and unhappy.
It’s important to remember that increasing workplace wellness is a gradual process. One of the best things leaders can do is set a positive example for what it means to be healthy at work and in life. Tarra Mitchell, author of The Yoga of Leadership, says being open about positive choices and lifestyle changes can trickle down. When inspired by example to be healthier, employees will be better able to achieve optimal productivity.
This idea is further supported by scientist and Institute for Health director at Johns Hopkins Bloomberg Ron Goetzel and Hector De La Torre of the Transamerica Center. They write that a healthy company culture should be built intentionally. By incorporating a total health model into every aspect of the business, people feel more supported by leadership and fellow staff to pursue healthy choices. In turn, wellness becomes part of everyday life at work.