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The wellbeing imperative

We’re in an era where Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) plays an integral role in how companies strategise. Employees and customers vote with their feet; they are preferring to work for, or spend money with, businesses that are responsible. To exhibit the highest ethical standards, it is no longer enough to offer the right product (or service) at the right price in the right place, it also needs to be done responsibly.

While headline grabbing activists call for action for the environment, organisations who want to show their commitment to ethics and social responsibility need to look further than that, as CSR includes more than environmental sustainability. Think Triple Bottom Line; Environmental, Financial and Social sustainability. A responsible organisation does what’s best for all stakeholders, not just shareholders.

Testament to this, The Business Roundtable (BRT), the association of Chief executive officers of America’s leading companies, have updated their ‘Statement on the Purpose of a Corporation’ and changed the message from corporations existing to principally serve their shareholders to a more progressive stance that acknowledges all stakeholders and is committed to delivering value to them. This includes the employees, and the Roundtable CEO’s have thus committed to invest in them.

Investing in and taking care of an organisation’s employees includes supporting their wellbeing. But what does that mean? How do we do that? And how do we even define wellbeing?

A browse through content from past years shows that it’s a word often used but rarely defined, perhaps on one hand because it’s so often talked about, but on the other because there’s still a lack of a single comprehensive definition. The Oxford English Dictionary defines wellbeing as ‘the state of being comfortable, healthy, or happy’, but this offers little practical guidance to those who want to focus attention on employee wellbeing.

In essence though, wellbeing is about being happy, healthy, socially connected, and purposeful, which means taking care of both body and mind. It is not simply the absence of illness and avoiding health issues. Not being ill is not enough. Instead of turning the dial from negative only to neutral, wellbeing is about maxing it towards the positive – both physically and mentally. It’s about being physically healthy, creating positive emotions and high engagement.

We all know that the environment around us has a profound impact on how we behave, feel and interact. It’s no secret, therefore, that through the way we design and manage our workplaces, we can contribute positively (or negatively) to both the physical and mental wellbeing of employees. And with the vast majority of the workforce working from home the past months, socially disconnected and weary of catching COVID-19, there’s now an added dimension to the challenge.

On a general level, perhaps one of the most fundamental things is offering a workplace that supports employees in doing the activities they’re employed to do and that enables them to work productively, which inevitably contributes to a healthy mind. To date, 63% of all employees who have responded to Leesman Office, our standardised workplace experience survey, report that their workplace enables them to do that. Imagine the negative impact on the mental wellbeing of those employees who don’t feel their workplace is a place where they can do and be at their best.

Across the first 50,000 responses we’ve received to our new Home Working experience survey, 81% agree that their home environment enables them to work productively, which suggests that a certain degree of remote working could be a real opportunity to improve employee experience.

If we go into more detail, there are a myriad of ways that a workplace can support employee wellbeing which, consequently, can improve their chances of being happy, healthy, purposeful and socially connected. And I’m not just talking about those fruit baskets and treadmill workstations that often get lambasted for being ineffectual gimmicks.

From a physical wellbeing perspective, offering a healthy indoor environment with fresh and clean air, natural light, thermal comfort and clean water should be a given. The workplace can additionally support employees’ physical wellbeing by encouraging exercise (e.g. in a gym), movement (e.g. by taking the stairs instead of the elevator, changing postures or regularly moving to another work setting), or even choosing an active commute (end-of-trip facilities that encourage commuting by foot or bicycle). Our bodies and minds also need the right fuel to be at their best, so ensuring that employees have access to the right type of nutrition and are able to eat healthfully is vital.

From a mental wellbeing perspective, important aspects include: having a clear purpose and feeling valued (both of which the workplace can communicate); feeling a sense of community within the organisation (which the workplace can accommodate); having a feeling of being in control (e.g. by means of flexible working arrangements); and being offered the right tools and infrastructure that enable maintaining focus and high energy levels (e.g. spaces without distraction, the right noise levels, places for relaxing and taking breaks).

So how well are today’s workplaces supporting wellbeing?

Last year, we joined forces with Delos, the founder of the WELL Building Standard™, to develop a new set of questions that investigate how the workplace supports wellbeing at work. The questions can be added to our workplace experience survey and more than 31,000 employees from 37 organisations globally had responded to them pre-COVID.

The results suggest that organisations are performing best in offering freedom of how and where employees do their work, with 74% and 65% of the respondents agreeing that they have that. This freedom has certainly been put to test as organisations worldwide have been forced to send their people off to work from home. The even bigger test will be to see which organisations will take the opportunity to grant their employees trust, flexibility and choice of where they work also in the future.

But it seems to be the design of the workplace that in many cases falls short in supporting wellbeing. Roughly one in two (48%) employees agree that the design of their workplace supports their overall wellbeing, while only 45% think that the design of the workplace shows that their employer values them.

A lack of investing in the workplace truly is a lack of investment in the workforce. And as offices start reopening, organisations who have not made the investment may find that employees are reluctant to return.

Further, only 36% of the respondents find that the design of and/or the location of their workplace encourages them to be physically active. In contrast, 72% of respondents to our home working survey say that they’re able to be physically active when working from home. The two are not directly comparable due to the questions probing different things, but they do reveal that there’s a lot of room for improvement in office design, and also that a considerable proportion of employees may risk not being active enough when working from home.

However, the most alarming numbers are found in the questions related to mental wellbeing, with roughly only one in three (35%) respondents agreeing that the design of their workplace helps them maintain the energy levels needed to do their job well. Hardly surprising, to be honest, considering that ‘Noise levels’ is a feature with consistently low satisfaction levels (32% satisfaction globally). To make the matter worse, also only one in three (35%) employees say that there are places they can go and refresh, should they get mentally exhausted.

Escaping to the home workplace is not necessarily the answer either, as it may then have a detrimental effect on our sense of belonging. This large home working experiment has revealed that maintaining a sense of connection is a challenge: despite all efforts to create virtual catch-ups and hangouts, only 62% currently say that informal social interaction is supported and 67% say that they feel connected to their colleagues when working from home.

The flipside is, of course, that this leaves a lot of room for improvement. Many of the employees who have responded to the workplace wellbeing questions have in fact responded in a pre-project phase as their organisation has committed to making changes in the workplace.

And a look at just one of the workplaces where the questions were asked post-occupancy, in a WELL certified workplace, shows just how big a difference the workplace can make: two out of three (66%) employees say that the design of the workplace helps them maintain needed energy levels and 72% find that there are places they can go and mentally refresh, should they need to. Some 88% found that the workplace generally supports their wellbeing and 83% think that the design of the workplace shows that the employer values them. While many employers continue to underinvest in the workplace, illustrative figures like these are testament to the profound changes a workplace can make in an employee’s life (both physically and mentally). And when the current global home working experiment eventually comes to an end, there’s a real opportunity for organisations to give their people more choice and flexibility to utilise the home environment as an extension to the corporate workplace, making it possible to get the best of both worlds.

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