Sponsored content is premium paid-for content produced by the Irish Times Content Studio on behalf of commercial clients. The Irish Times newsroom or other editorial departments are not involved in the production of sponsored content.

A healthy workplace by design

Simple steps like improving air quality, increasing natural light, and reducing noise levels can improve employee productivity and cut absenteeism

You don’t necessarily need to install state of the art games rooms, gourmet restaurants and Olympic swimming pools to turn a workplace into a productive environment. In fact, a few pot plants, extra windows and fresh air can make a huge difference to the health status of a workplace.

People perform significantly better in a healthy work environment and it also makes them live healthier at home. These were among the key findings of a study undertaken by the University of Twente in The Netherlands which found that the presence of plants improved performance by 10 per cent while natural lighting systems delivered an improvement of 12 per cent.

Even more striking were the numbers of staff who said they felt happier or more energised by these simple enhancements to their workplace. More plants made 76 per cent feel more energised and 65 per cent feel happier. The results for increased natural light were 71 per cent and 50 per cent respectively.

These results are backed up by research undertaken by the World Green Building Council which aims to persuade organisations to put wellbeing at the heart of buildings. The council's 2016 report Building the Business Case: Health, Wellbeing and Productivity in Green Offices, showed that simple steps like improving air quality, increasing natural light and putting in plants can improve employee productivity, reduce absenteeism, lower staff turnover, and deliver savings on medical costs.

Start with plants. It may not be possible to give every staff member a view of rolling green fields, but it is very easy to bring the greenery into the office

The more striking findings involved the environmental conditions in buildings with simple factors like noise levels and temperature having surprisingly strong impacts. For example, the presence of noise distractions led to a 66 per cent drop in performance and concentration while staff performance can drop by 6 per cent if offices are too hot and 4 per cent if they are too cold.

Furthermore, a well-ventilated office can double the cognitive ability of people working there; people in offices with windows get 46 minutes more sleep a night, and processing time at a call centre improved by between seven and 12 per cent when staff had a view of the natural world outside from their desks.

In Australia, one company created a new plant-filled building with 26 different types of workspaces, from tranquil areas to collaborative hubs, available to staff. The building also features fireplaces on every floor, herb gardens, and sports facilities. Following the change, 80 per cent of staff are working more collaboratively, 66 per cent say they feel healthier, and absenteeism has fallen by five per cent.

Organisations wishing to avail of benefits such as these do not have to go to great expense. Simple steps are all that it need take. Start with plants. It may not be possible to give every staff member a view of rolling green fields, but it is very easy to bring the greenery into the office.

All available research shows that employees who work in environments containing plants experience lower levels of stress and demonstrate higher productivity.

Tackling noise is another relatively simple action. While most people don’t want to work in total silence, research carried out by Robert Karasek of the University of Massachusetts and Lowell.Töres Theorell of Sweden's National Institute for Psychosocial Factors and Health has shown that constant, low frequency background noise disrupts learning, causes fatigue, and increases the levels of hormones responsible for stress.

Simple actions like insulating air-conditioning systems, installing soft partitions and furnishings, and clever use of other acoustic dampeners can shield workers from these damaging effects. Use of interesting colours and fabrics can also add to the look and feel of the office.

Furniture is another factor. The US Occupational Safety and Health Administration recently found that 86 per cent of workers experience some discomfort from office furniture. This leads to a loss of productivity and puts employees at risk of illness and occupational injury. Some care and attention to the ergonomic aspects of office furniture next time it is being replaced could pay handsome dividends.

Air quality can also have quite a dramatic impact. This doesn’t just mean ventilation and air conditioning systems, it also involves the very fabric of the building. Certain building materials, paints, wall and floor coverings emit volatile organic compounds (VOCs) which have a known association with absenteeism as a result of conditions like asthma and other respiratory illnesses.

A study carried out in the US found that buildings designed and constructed to the latest Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) standards achieved reductions in absenteeism of up to 50 per cent.

Also, CO2 isn’t only a greenhouse gas, excessive levels in rooms can make occupants feel drowsy and generally fatigued and definitely less productive. Keeping the oxygen levels up by letting some fresh air in is one very cheap way to increase productivity.

Creating a working environment more conducive to movement also promotes employee wellbeing. A UK report found that sitting down for more than an hour at a time leads to a significant reduction in the production of the enzymes responsible for burning fat in our bodies. Stand-up workstations are becoming more popular with many employees as a result and could be offered as an alternative to standard desks. Also, meeting spaces without chairs and smart positioning of facilities such as water-coolers, photocopiers or canteens can maximise movement during the working day.

Five simple steps to a healthier workplace:

  • Adjust ventilation systems to allow more fresh air in
  • Rearrange desks to maximise the number of people sitting near windows
  • Add plants wherever you can
  • Install soft partitions and furnishings to reduce noise levels
  • Ask your staff if they are too hot or cold and adjust the heating accordingly

These are all low cost or no cost steps which organisations can take to make the physical workplace healthier and more productive. For those that do want to invest more, the installation of small gym areas with exercise equipment, games rooms with ping pong tables, and wellness spaces for meditation can make a big difference as well.

A note from Vhi about Rebalance

We know that when employees nurture both body and mind it can lead to happier employees and better business results. That’s why our health and wellbeing programme is focused on engaging  employees in a culture of wellbeing both in work and at home.

Our approach at Vhi is holistic and proactive, with programmes specifically designed to meet each employee’s needs. We offer services which are accessible by all, sustainable in everyday life and enjoyable too.

Wellbeing with Vhi, is all about two pillars; body and mind. In fact, the old adage of healthy body, healthy mind is more relevant today than ever as the two largest categories of work-related illness are musculoskeletal disorders and stress, anxiety and depression.

Our programmes are accessible to all (not just the superfit), which in turn leads to greater engagement and sustainability. Choose from our range of programmes, including trending topics such as diet and nutrition, fitness and emotional wellbeing.

If you'd like to find out more about Vhi Rebalance call 056 7775800 or visit our website to arrange for one of the Vhi team to get in contact with you.