If there’s one thing most everyone can agree on, it’s that today’s workplace isn’t necessarily the healthiest environment. Not enough windows or natural light. Uncomfortable workstations and chairs. Endless meetings. Long hours spent sitting behind a desk, in front of a computer screen. Add the good old junk-food vending machine into the mix, and you have yourself a recipe for stress. Author and workplace design specialist Leigh Stringer offers a few tips on how leaders can take a proactive approach to keeping the work environment healthy and happy—a win-win for everyone.
1. Give employees a choice. Studies show that employees who feel more in “control” of their work and work environment are less likely to suffer from stress and illness. They also report increases in productivity. Talk to your team about ways you can build more choice into their work environment, such as changing where, when and how they work. Allow them to work at home, institute a more flexible schedule, or reconfigure the space to better suit individual preferences (like sit-to-stand desks or second computer monitors).
2. Nurture “biophilia.” First of all, we have a strong desire to be in and among nature. It’s only natural—for most of human history, we spent all our time outdoors. This preference, often referred to as biophilia, was introduced and popularized by E.O. Wilson, who suggests that there is an instinctive bond between human beings and other living systems. Integrate natural elements into the work environment by incorporating real plants, water, and views to nature. Try creating features that mimic nature, such as artwork, photographs, or natural materials. Particularly of note, there is mounting evidence that biophilic environments can improve stress recovery rates and cognitive functions, lower blood pressure, enhance mental stamina and focus, elevate moods, and increase learning rates.
3. Use choice architecture to improve eating habits. Know why you walk into a grocery store and find yourself buying food at the end of the aisle? Or why candy is located at child-eye level by the checkout counter? Foods that are easy to spot and presented well aren’t put there by accident, and food companies pay for the privilege. The secret is “choice architecture,” a term for different ways that choices can be presented to consumers, and the impact on consumer decision making. Consequently, companies use this strategy by reducing unhealthy foods in the workplace, or making them harder to find. In addition, you can subconsciously encourage better eating habits at work by putting healthy food in glass containers (versus opaque containers), using glass-door refrigerators , or even providing colorful plates. (More on choice architecture here.)
4. Make getting healthy a team sport. Social influence (peer pressure) has a positive impact on exercise behavior and attitudes. There are many ways to tap into this at work, like creating competitions to encourage more walking, biking or participating in team sports. Create a community garden if you have the real estate available. Studies show that people are more likely to eat healthy food if they have a hand in growing it as a community, even more so than on their own.
5. Look at lighting. Our internal circadian rhythm, or biological clock, regulates the timing of sleepiness and wakefulness throughout the day. Controlled by a part of the brain at the back of the eye, it’s triggered by changes in natural daylight. Unfortunately, most of us spend 90% of our day indoors, which plays havoc with our sleep cycle. To combat this, consider a circadian lighting system designed to trigger wakefulness. If you don’t have the budget for the full system (they can get pretty sophisticated), try a “daylight” LED bulb in your office task light. You’ll be shocked by how much better you feel after just a few minutes, and you will likely sleep better, too. (More on circadian lighting here.)
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