Work: Wellness: WELLbeing

8 July, 2019


Today, it would not take much to convince most of us that work, work, work, work, work, work is bad for our wellbeing. Balancing the demands of our personal, professional and family life can, in itself, be exasperating, but most workplaces certainly encourage it, recognising how integral it is to employee satisfaction and of course, productivity. Beyond achieving a work-life balance, it is important to think about how our work environment informs our general wellbeing, too. Even with the rise of agile working and the flexibility to work from home, most working professionals spend the majority of their working life in a workspace of some kind. This blog considers how the built environment interacts with wellness and can be designed to improve wellbeing and productivity, taking the responsibility away from the individual and placing it firmly in the hands of employers and developers.


In a multi-disciplinary review, Doge et al (2012) defined wellbeing as  ‘…when individuals have the psychological, social and physical resources they need to meet a particular psychological, social and/or physical challenge.’ This definition was published at a time when the UK government stated its intention to implement measures of wellbeing for the UK as a whole. The first annual Life in the UK report, was published in 2012 as a new way to measure our progress as a country by our quality of life, rather than GDP alone.  ‘Wellbeing’ is a word that has certainly become part of national debate, alongside mental health, and pervades the HR sector. Even Aristotle’s eudaimonia, or “human flourishing,”  has been translated to mean wellbeing in popular debate. Whether taken as a psychological construct, scientific concept, philosophical ideal, or a word to describe employee benefits programmes, it is something inherently subjective, dynamic and multi-dimensional.


The relationship between wellbeing and productivity

In the real estate industry, recognition of the understanding that wellbeing directly impacts productivity is leading property developers, designers and occupiers to explore ways in which the fabric of a building can promote wellness. As businesses are prioritising wellbeing, landlords are working with tenants to ensure that changes can be made to existing spaces, requiring greater flexibility in their leases and the nature of the relationship. Tech-enabled, ‘smart spaces’ are increasing in popularity, as is the concept of placemaking and enhancing experience, demonstrating an industry shift in focus, with design earmarked as a valuable business investment.

The rising notion of the ‘third space’ is clearly influencing new London commercial schemes. Developments such as 22 Bishopsgate and the regeneration project at Kings Cross blur the boundaries between work, living and leisure to enable collaboration, comfort and improved environmental conditions. The prominence of wellbeing as a design specification on construction projects is reflected in the increasing implementation of a new(ish) architectural benchmark: the WELL Building Standard (WELL). Focusing on wellness and human health to improve sustainability, WELL is one of a number of global standards that have been established.


Measuring wellbeing

WELL certification is based on a score that measures a building’s performance, based on the impact that they have on occupant health, in seven categories:

  • Air
  • Water
  • Nourishment
  • Light
  • Fitness
  • Comfort
  • Mind

WELL takes medical knowledge and research, and fuses it with the built environment to create design solutions that ensure a healthier workforce. Although wellbeing is inherently subjective and difficult to measure, taking empirical measurements within these defined categories (such as by combining measurements of air quality and filtration with heart and respiration rate) is helping to assess the relationship between buildings and business performance. For example, light, specifically poor lighting, has been associated with headaches, fatigue, stress and anxiety, as well as poor sleep and quality of life. While we spend almost 80% of our time inside, lack of natural sunlight can lead to conditions such as seasonal affective disorder (SAD), particularly during the shorter days of the year and is a disorder linked with clinical depression. As there are no statutory workplace lighting levels in the UK, standards such as WELL attempt to improve wellbeing in the workplace by providing examples of how to improve lighting design, such as by maximising natural lighting and controlling glare. This shift in focus to active design could revolutionise workplace health, and is likely to inform developer decision making. At the intersection with smart building technology that can monitor a building’s ecosystem, it is clear that building design and management systems can improve efficiency, sustainability and occupant comfort.


In the words of David Cameron on measuring the UK’s wellbeing, while ‘you cannot capture happiness on a spreadsheet any more than you can bottle it,’ there is sufficient empirical and theoretical evidence that workplace design can positively influence wellbeing, employee satisfaction and performance. The integration of building standards such as WELL, building design, construction and evidence-based wellness interventions will undoubtedly (and perhaps compulsorily)  influence the development of new and existing office buildings and workspaces in the future, with wellbeing at the top of the design agenda.