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Work and the workplace are vital parts of our overall well-being, and there
is no shortage of organizations studying ways to improve them, such as
Healthways, a group that breaks down well-being into these six factors:
w Life Evaluation w Healthy Behavior
w Emotional Health w Work Environment
w Physical Health w Basic Access (to support and care)
Work environment is connected not only to our physical and mental
health, but also our health behaviors. Many of the habits and choices we
make during our (ever-expanding) workday impact our habits and choices
outside of work as well.
The ways that our environments do or do not encourage health and well-being,
and the behaviors they enable and encourage, have enormous potential to
impact the overall health of this country.
Most of the healthcare conversations these days, as well as the vast
amount of healthcare dollars, are focused on access to care—that is, treatment once you’re sick. But if we look at what actually influences health and
whether or not we get sick in the first place, we see that 20% depends on
environment and 50% on behavior.
Because we spend such a significant portion of our lives in our workplaces,
shouldn’t we be thoughtful about the impact of those environments, and design
them to encourage the types of behaviors we’d like to see, and the work output
we’d like to have? Unfortunately, most organizations don’t think that way.
Part of the benefit of moving away from a one-person-equals-one-desk mentality
is the opportunity for physical movement. If you think about the typical
American day—commuting to work, sitting in front of a screen all day,
commuting home, personal time spent eating, watching TV, or on a computer—
lifestyle is tied to shorter life expectancy, higher obesity rates, and increased
risk for diabetes, heart disease, and certain cancers (breast and colon). The
average 7. 5 hours we spend sitting at work is a critical part of that equation.
Unless we start to address that specific factor, we are unlikely to have a
significant health impact. (see sidebar lower left)
Some organizations are beginning to recognize the importance of encouraging
more movement and have designed workplaces accordingly. Instead of
spaces with traditional fixed, assigned offices and workstations, a big trend is
toward more customized spaces that support different types of functionality.
This encourages users to move around the space as needed.
The underlying premise of this trend is that the most flexible part of any
space is the people who use it. While designing furniture and spaces that
will be more adaptable, it is important to remember that people can and also
should move. Planning different spaces for different functions not only helps
with physical movement, but also has a positive mental impact. Eliminating
the stress of trying to concentrate in a very open environment, or removing the
feeling of disrupting your neighbor because you’re having a conversation, are
positive outcomes. Also, having a sense of autonomy and control over where
we do our work is very powerful. When employees are enabled to do their
work where it best suits them, it creates a more mentally healthy workplace.
Also consider the issue of eating at one’s desk. An organization whose
culture encourages working through lunch can induce negative health impacts
in several ways. It reduces movement to an even greater degree. It also eliminates
the mental break that stepping away from work for a few minutes provides.
And, finally, it severely limits the food choices we are able to make.
There is a website called SadDeskLunch.com in which users can upload
images of the depressing lunches they eat at their office desks. Looking
through these images, it’s disheartening and not-at-all unfamiliar. If we
encourage people to make healthy choices, but don’t provide them a place
to take a break or to prepare or purchase healthy food, then what sort of
message are we really sending about the value of healthy behaviors?
In addition to planning for movement in the larger work environment, we
are also trying to encourage more movement within individual spaces. One
option for doing so is height-adjustable furniture that can be easily altered
between sitting and standing levels. The past year has seen a huge increase
in their popularity. More and more companies are offering these sorts of
workstations either for individuals or for meeting rooms or shared spaces.
The advantages to this kind of flexible furniture are many. You can change
your posture and become more active, but on a more subtle level, the choice
and control it gives employees delivers a sense of empowerment.
From its Greek roots, biophilia literally means “love of life or living systems.” It refers
to the deep affiliation humans have with nature, relationships that are rooted in our
biology. Research in the UK and Netherlands has demonstrated the critical importance of this in office space. It has shown, for example, that enriching spaces with
items like plants, art, and even fragrances enables people to realize a sense of their
own identity, which brings about improvements in engagement, productivity, and
well-being. Give the office workers a degree of choice in the way these elements
are implemented and the benefits increase even more.
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A recent study from the National Health and Nutrition Examination Surveys reveals that if Americans would cut their sitting time in half, their life expectancy would
increase by roughly two years by reducing sitting to less than 3 hours a day, and 1.4
years by reducing TV time to less than 2 hours a day.
What makes the sitting issue even more curious is that we don’t necessarily even enjoy it.
Around 86 percent of us sit all day at work, but 67 percent of us hate it. We sit all day because
that’s the way our environments have been set up for us. Most of us would prefer more
movement. Nilofer Merchant, a business consultant, conducted a valuable TED Talk about the
connection between physical movement and brain activity. We are just now starting to see the
long-term consequences of our sedentary lifestyle. It’s time for us to get moving.
Brain scans illustrate the difference in activity between a brain after sitting restfully
and one after a 20-minute walk. It’s dramatic. Physical activity undoubtedly stimulates
mental activity, yet we continue to think of them as totally disconnected functions. One
recent survey found that most people performed their best thinking and arrived at their
best ideas during exercise.
The ways that our environments do or do
not encourage health and well-being and the
behaviors that they enable and encourage have
enormous potential to impact the overall
health picture in this country.
For the rest of this article and its references, and exam,