Understanding the importance of working life, from the quality and safety of the physical environment, to how workers feel about their work
No matter what kind of job we do, the average person spends more time at work than on any other activity. Our work environment impacts our health and well-being, and our personal health impacts greatly on our work output and efficiency. It is therefore important to create and maintain a healthy workplace environment, for the benefit of both employers and employees.
Most of us spend a full third of our lives working—but very few people would say that they consciously take good care of their health while working, or that their employers provide a working space that supports and enhances their state of health. Most people regard work as a “necessary evil” of life and look forward to the next holiday and retirement. But what if this could change?
Up until recently, the focus has been on avoiding physical injury in the workplace, and this is regulated by various agencies like OSHA (e.g. mandating the hours of work, wearing appropriate protective clothing, making sure floors are not slippery, that airconditioning or ventilation units are properly maintained, that staff facing a computer monitor every day keep the screen at eye-level, and that arms and wrists are poised at the most natural position while seated).
More recently, many companies have become more aware of the benefits associated with investing in employee health (beyond just physical health). Good health means less sick days, which is good for business.
Psychological health in the workplace is now becoming more and more important. Research shows that it is not only essential for the well-being of the employee, but this also directly impacts on the productivity and quality of work produced by the employee. Psychological safety for the employee thus directly translates into better staff retention and higher productivity for the company.
The World Health Organization (WHO) emphasizes four key elements that every workplace should have to ensure their health. These four elements are:
• A healthy physical environment
• Psychological safety
• Resources for health
• Participation in the community
A healthy workplace is defined as one in which workers and managers collaborate in using a continual improvement process to protect and promote the health, safety and well-being of all workers and the sustainability of the workplace. Employers are very unlikely to reach their goals if their employees do not provide and proactively ensure a working environment that can support good physical and mental health.
When the environment where employees are working brings comfort and safety, they feel healthy and happier. This also motivates people to come to work every day and to be more productive—just imagine a person who dreads going to work because it’s going to be a dirty office with poor air ventilation and an unreasonable and mean boss—versus looking forward to spending a day in a pleasant, clean office where colleagues and bosses are respectful and encouraging. Which scenario encourages more motivation and productivity and new ideas?
There are numerous examples. Ergonomics, for one, is vital in any physical environment—this is the science of designing a workplace in a way that considers the capabilities and limitations of workers, removing risk factors that can lead to musculoskeletal injuries and allowing for improved human performance and productivity. The most common ergonomic considerations involve positions related to computer, desk and office chair cushion. Beyond this, certain touches in décor can positively influence an employee’s sense of well-being—such as a place to put a picture of family or any other personal item that provides encouraging thoughts or helps staff to relax or be more productive—as long as such things meet the business needs as well.
Studies show that better lighting can increase an employee’s work rate by 23%. Other statistics also indicate that workers who have a view of the outdoors are likely to be 25% more productive, and process calls 12% faster. Employers can also make sure the working space sounds, looks, feels and smells great. Adding plants in the office can be calming and also act as air purifiers.
Color is also very important in a working place, as certain colors can help to boost workers’ productivity. Yellow interiors are energizing, expressive, radiant and happy; blues are more intellectual and stimulate the mind, helping staff to stay focused. Greens promote balance, calmness and security, and also symbolize nature, the environment, growth and development. Red may be the color of fire, blood and violence; however it is known to promote bold decisions, and it is also good for restaurants and sales offices.
Beyond these more physical considerations, psychological safety in the workplace is of paramount importance. Essentially, a psychologically healthy environment is one where an employee can work without fear of negative consequences to their self image or career.
Organizational behavioral scientist Amy Edmonston introduced concepts of psychological safety in her book The Fearless Organization: Creating Psychological Safety in the Workplace for Learning, Innovation, and Growth. She wrote that a safe workplace is one fostering trust and respect, where people feel comfortable working and being themselves. She emphasizes that a person should not be afraid to speak their mind during team meetings, even if his or her idea is different or opposite to the majority or consensus.
For the employers out there—just to clarify—a psychologically safe work place is not one in which the employee is “happy” per se (some employees will be happier at home or playing computer games all day), but rather, one in which employees feel safe to speak their mind, safe from being bullied, and safe from sexual harassment— and where they can express their real opinion so as to not suppress their creativity and ideas that can contribute to the success of the business.
Any leaders or team members who discourage staff from speaking up, ridicule them for different suggestions or being different, or punish someone for expressing different opinions, are acting in a way that is detrimental to the success of the team and the business. To this end, the management of an organization plays an important role in ensuring a corporate culture and organizational structure that provides psychological safety to its employees, and make sure its supervisors are there to help the employees do the best job they can.
In the long run, psychological safety benefits the company by increasing staff retention (saving money on recruitment), through increased productivity and better quality work from the existing team, and providing a better public image for the company. Provision of personal health resources should also not be overlooked. This can simply include information made available about exercise, nutrition, and health insurance or ways to balance one’s lifestyle between work and rest being made available in the workplace. Staff should be encouraged to exercise by providing exercise facilities; employers can also remind them about healthy
dietary options or provide healthy fruits and snacks on-site.
Safety talks onsite during lunchtimes, such as talks on ergonomics, breathing exercises and cancer screenings, can be of great benefit to employees—as can providing annual flu shots on-site to all employees free of charge to minimize staff sick days.
Another good example that can be implemented in places of work is N.E.A.T.—Non Exercise Activity Thermogenesis. This is a method focusing on expending calories even when not exercising. Workers can use everyday activities to increase their energy expenditure without having to exercise, which is particularly good for people with busy schedules who can’t go to gyms easily. Examples of these activities are using stairs instead of elevators; doing one’s own household chores; parking a bike or getting out of a taxi 1–2 blocks away from the destination to fit in a brief walk; and getting up from one’s work desk every 30 minutes to stretch. At lunchtime, staff should not eat lunch at their desk, but instead take a walk to a restaurant or canteen.
One last thing to consider in having a healthy workplace is corporate participation in community activities to improve the health of the workers, their families and the members of the community in general. This can involve taking part in group activities both inside and outside the business.
A significant part of our lives is spent in the workplace—let’s make sure this part of our existence is as positive as possible.