The workplace is often portrayed as the root cause of employee discomfort, and is thought to induce backaches, weight gain and eye strain. While many modern-day offices do foster employee injuries and ailments, it is possible for workers to leave their companies each day healthier than when they arrived. With careful planning and an understanding of the relevant research, facility managers can create healthful workplaces that minimize adverse health risks and the associated costs. Thoughtful design considerations, flexible user-controlled arrangements and a forward-thinking company culture are just a few elements that contribute to employee wellbeing within the physical workplace.
Acknowledging the workplace’s potential to be safe and healthy is a recent concept, which began with section five of the Occupational Safety and Health Act of 1970. Health issues pertaining to the workplace environment are ever-evolving, but sitting is currently the most-discussed challenge that today’s companies face. At a time when over one-third of Americans are considered overweight and obese (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention), sitting for a greater part of the work day is certainly not healthful or beneficial.
Sitting for long durations of time is a relatively new behavior with which humans fill the majority of their day. For the past 400,000 years, humans have primarily been walking, sleeping, leaning, running or squatting, states Eric Jensen, author of “Teaching with the Brain in Mind.” The action of sitting only recently became a common behavior, following the invention of the chair. Over the last 500 generations, the time that people spend sitting has increased, which has changed the way that the human body naturally moves. While formerly very active, people are now significantly more sedentary. Due to improvements in modern technology and communication, sitting has become the most convenient and natural position for humans to accomplish their work tasks.
The concept of work and, by extension, where it should occur, has recently undergone drastic change and redefinition. Only a century ago, the worldwide predominant industry was farming, which necessitated hard manual labor. Tasks like tending to crops and livestock created a demand for physical work. Thus, people spent most of their time moving and almost none sitting down. However, the Industrial Revolution prompted rapid development in the banking, rail, insurance and oil industries, each of which opened centralized facilities to conduct business and to process orders. Several decades later, technology became more efficient, and several lines of work began to concentrate on deep problem solving and educated industries of focus.
This trend led to employees who became labeled as knowledge workers. The invention and subsequent widespread use of computers directly influenced workplace culture: companies began using dictated work stations and conforming standard hours.
Human beings are tethered to technology because it permits immediate communication and quick answers; our heavy reliance on technology is evidenced by a steady rise in smart phone sales each year. The challenge with modern-day technology, however, is that it limits body movement, as many tasks that used to require a series of actions can now be completed digitally while sitting. Individuals can spend more than 75 percent of their work day sitting, which allows them fewer opportunities for healthy movement .
Because we are so anchored to technology, the whole spectrum of behaviors that our bodies are able to execute becomes severely limited. Specifically, sitting in a stagnant state for the majority of the work day slows metabolism. According to TIME Magazine, “Since more jobs require people to sit at a desk, Americans are burning 120 to 140 less calories a day than they did 50 years ago.” This explains, at least partially, the spike in obesity that has occurred within the past century.
FIGURE 2: Reactive Media’s conference room features a ping pong table that is used during meetings to maintain productivity.
Consider the following facility design ideas to increase employee health:
Figure 2 showcases a meeting room at Reactive Media. The company uses a ping pong table to keep employees active and focused.
Well-programmed buildings focused on employee health can reduce the amount of time that occupants spend sitting. Companies with offices that encourage exercise and physical activity can better stimulate their employees, while simultaneously decreasing their risks for disease and cancer. Improved levels of employee health decreases health insurance spending, which means more profit overall.
Stephanie J. Fanger, M.S., NCIDQ, LEED AP BD+C, EDAC, FMP, IIDA is a workplace strategist at Goodmans Interior Structures in Phoenix, Arizona, USA. Fanger focuses on improving office interior environments by educating customers about the future of the workplace. She influences and documents change management, establishing strong connections between companies’ values and the physical spaces that their employees occupy.
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