Designing for Health: Strategies to Encourage Wellness in the Workplace

Community hub/pantry and interconnecting stair in Penn Medicine’s Center for Healthcare Technology increases movement and informal collaboration. Image: Perkins+Will

Today, with individuals spending on average over 40 hours a week at work, health and wellness are taking center stage. Labor and healthcare spending also comprise the bulk of operating expenses—making happy and healthy employees a smart investment. While optional workplace wellness initiatives require employees to ‘opt-in’ in order to participate, by designing a healthy office, employees reap health benefits just by coming to work.

In recent years, two new wellness rating systems have emerged that use research-based strategies to evaluate buildings not by how much energy they save, but by how they can directly contribute to occupant health. WELL, developed by Delos Living, uses evidence-based health and wellness interventions to support human health, well-being, and comfort, and has a somewhat similar framework and documentation process to its “cousin,” LEED. Fitwel, developed by U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and the General Services Administration (GSA), and administered by the Center for Active Design, aims to identify the most impactful strategies for space and does not require a technical design background to administer. By examining several of the research-based strategies that form the foundations of the WELL and fitwel systems, it will become clear how spatial planning, building amenities, and workplace policies can positively influence the health and productivity of all building occupants.

I.Building Location, Design, and Furniture Choices to Increase Movement

While building owners may not always have control over where a new building is constructed, the location and surroundings of a site significantly impact human health. Locating a building in a denser setting with a higher walk score (walkability of a specific address based on neighboring amenities) and in close proximity to public transit allows employees to walk to work, transportation hubs, and nearby services. Not only does walking provide physical exercise, according to the British Journal of Sports Medicine, it also increases neural activity and cognitive capacity. Buildings in less urban sites also have opportunities to encourage movement. For example, providing well-designed trails on site that include shade, benches, or other aesthetic aspects like water features cater to walking, jogging, and biking.

Active Transportation Support
Active transportation is a cost-effective and sustainable means of integrating physical activity into daily routines. According to research within the WELL Building Standard, “Biking or walking to work has been associated with lower rates of diabetes, hypertension, overweight and obesity”. Providing bicycle parking (or being close to a bike share drop-off point) as well as showers and changing facilities on-site support active commuting.

Internal Connecting Stairs
Integrating aesthetically pleasing, accessible, and thoughtfully placed stairs within the built environment can decrease dependence on elevators and provide a convenient way to integrate short periods of physical activity into the workday. Climbing stairs is a low-impact physical activity that increases heart-rate and burns calories, and research has shown its connection to cardiorespiratory fitness and a lower risk of stroke. Interconnecting stairs also increase interaction between employees in departments that span multiple floors, encouraging informal collaboration and interaction. Strategically placing the stair near community features such as open eating areas or gathering space creates moments of serendipity.

Active Furnishings
While it may be extreme to use the phrase that has recently begun circulating, “Sitting is the new smoking,” prolonged sitting has been associated with a number of adverse health conditions, including an increased risk of cancer, weight gain, and greater fatigue and back discomfort. According to research within the WELL Building Standard, “sitting burns 50 fewer calories per hour than standing, and sitting for more than 3 hours per day is associated with a 2-year lower life expectancy.” Unlike nurses and doctors who may circulate between stations and patient rooms, office workers primarily spend the majority of their time indoors in a seated position.

Unfortunately, regular exercise does not appear to negate the health consequences of long periods of sitting. Integrating sit-stand desks, treadmill desks, or bicycle desks into the work environment mitigates prolonged sitting, sustains work productivity, and has also been found to support mental cognition. Strategies include either specifying every workstation as a sit-stand desk or making designated unassigned sit-stand desks available to all occupants when they so choose.

II. Spatial Planning to Allow Access to Daylight

Exposure to adequate levels of sunlight is critical for health and wellbeing and contributes to positive effects ranging from visual comfort to improved sleep quality. Proximity to windows, outdoor views, and daylight are some of the most sought-after elements of building design. Locating enclosed offices and small meeting rooms at the core of the floor plate as opposed to along the perimeter allows

workstations to be placed closer to the windows where sunlight can reach them. Low partitions or no partitions are used between desks, ensuring that daylight in maximized within the interior.

Additionally, orienting desks and computer screens perpendicularly to the windows as opposed to having windows directly behind monitors reduces glare that can hinder an otherwise comfortable and effective work environment. Ensuring that overhead luminaries are not aimed directly at computer screens is also an important factor to address glare.


Schematic design layout of office floors in Penn Medicine’s Center for Healthcare Technology. Placing enclosed rooms at the core of the floor plate allows workstations to gain light by being placed at the perimeter. Image: Perkins+Will

III. Choice (In work settings, temperature, food, and light)

Work Settings
As employers continue to move into more agile environments it is important that occupants feel that they have choice when it comes to where to work, especially on office floors where employees do not have assigned desks. Creating a variety of space types designed for adaptable working, focusing, collaborating, and resting mitigates anxiety and optimizes productivity. Research demonstrates that presenting a variety of workspaces enables individuals to adjust their environments, positively influencing job satisfaction and group cohesiveness. As in Healthcare design, a growing body of research proves that unwanted noise can cause rising blood pressure and the release of increased stress hormones. Developing ‘buzz’ and ‘focus’ zones throughout a floor supports acoustic comfort; for example, seating a more collaborative group closer to a community pantry while zoning the edges of the floor plate for individuals who engage mainly in heads-down focused work organically creates acoustic regions. It’s important to also plan for other types of spaces that support activities outside of “normal work,” a wellness room can be used as lactation support for nursing mothers, serve those who need to pray, or accommodate employees feeling sick.

There are no assigned desks in the Perkins+Will Minneapolis office: people choose their location each day based on team need and function. A variety of space types throughout the floor support different working styles. Images: Corey Gaffer

Light, Air, and Temperature
Giving occupants choice over their access to light, air, and thermal conditions allows people the freedom and satisfaction in controlling their immediate environment. Providing task lighting, controllable blinds or shades at windows, and operable windows, allows individuals to impact their access to light and outdoor air. Achieving natural ventilation through open windows can provide a positive occupant experience. However, the air quality, temperature, and humidity should be monitored to ensure that occupants aren’t actually exposing themselves to more polluted air, or challenging the building’s HVAC systems by allowing air that is outside of the desired temperature or humidity range. Designers may consider implementing indicator lights at all operable windows that illuminate when outdoor conditions are unideal.

Thermal comfort can affect mood, performance, and productivity; however, individual thermal preferences vary greatly between people, as they are influenced by metabolism, body type and clothing. These factors make it nearly impossible to find a temperature that will satisfy all occupants in the same space. One out-of-the-box idea is to create a thermal gradient of around 5 °F across open workspaces and/or between rooms or floors. Coupling this with ‘free address’ let’s people choose their location based on their temperature preference. Given that other factors will also affect someone’s choice in desk location, such as the ability to sit near team members, this may not be the most practical solution. Potentially more realistic is to provide all employees access to small personal fans for use at their desk.

Organizations often have long standing relationships with food vendors; however, taking the initiative to review cafeteria menus and vending machine offerings ensures that healthy options are available for employees to choose. Including fruit and vegetable options, as well as the ability to order half size portions of entrees allows occupants to make healthy decisions. Additionally, ensuring that there is sufficient space in fridges in pantries on office floors allows employees to bring their lunch if they wish.

IV. Conclusion

Understanding the motivation and research driving these rating systems can inspire increased well-being and productivity across all types of workplaces. As demand for healthy workplaces continues to increase, businesses can potentially reduce sickness and absenteeism while strengthening recruitment and retention. By considering these strategies as well as thoughtful design concepts that architects have pursued throughout history, designers of healthy spaces can elevate the wellness and spirit of building occupants.




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