How to Design a Healthier Office

Quick — how long do you think it takes one sick person to infect half of your office?

A day, a week? How about four hours. That’s right, research shows that in as little as four hours, half of your office (and your productivity) can be hit by a virus carried by just one person.

Or how much do you suppose you lose annually to non-physical health factors, like workplace stress?

The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) estimates that stress costs US businesses $300 billion annually.

You can throw up your hands and say “That’s just the way office life is.” or, you can “design health” right into your workplace. How you design both your space and your “stay-healthy” programs for those who work in this space can make a big impact.

The final frontier for office health: space

Designing office space is often seen as a task of maximizing footage and enhancing output — but it also needs to be viewed through the lens of how your space design impacts employee health, happiness and, in turn, productivity.

There are at least four key concerns to address in designing your work environment:

  • Encourage positive physical behaviors. Health-conscious space design doesn’t just “contain” employees, it also sets them free — free to move around and take those attractive, centrally-located stairs; free to sit or stand, with adjustable-height desks; free to meet and collaborate in comfortable common spaces.
  • Serve physical, emotional and mental needs. Your employees aren’t just workers, they’re multi-faceted human beings, and healthy offices take that into account. When you include fitness centers, quiet rooms and accessible outdoor space in your office design you better serve all dimensions of your employees’ needs.
  • Improve light and air, diminish noise. Many offices are still in a SAD state of affairs — which is to say their design may contribute to Seasonal Affective Disorder, a type of depression related to change of seasons and insufficient daylight. Providing plentiful natural light is one of the best ways to ward off the onset of SAD in your workforce. Ensuring excellent ventilation and designing to reduce noise, both external and internal, will also improve your employees sense of well-being.
  • Respect sufficient personal space. Even the smartest organizations can be truly “dense” when it comes to office space, packing people in to optimize square footage while ignoring the negative impacts of overcrowding. Workplace density has a direct impact on employee stress, which can impact the ability to concentrate and function in the moment and negatively impact both physical and mental health.

Room for improvement: Employee wellness programs

If designing healthier spaces is the overarching battle strategy, designing effective employee health programs is the hand-to-hand combat (sometimes literally). Unfortunately, efforts to educate and encourage about basics like hand hygiene may get short-changed within the current focus on comprehensive employee wellness programs which include screenings, yoga, mindfulness training and a host of trendier initiatives.

The payoff to simple hand hygiene can, however, be enormous. According to OSHA, a good hand-washing program is “like a do-it-yourself vaccine” that can help prevent the rapid spread of colds and flu. And while handwashing is part of it, so is the provision of hand sanitizer, ideally for each employee as well as in common spaces, along with the regular disinfecting of two of the most germ-infested surfaces in your office, keyboards and desktops.

Take a walk around your office today. How many people do you see out sick — or looking like they should be? It may be time to rethink design as the new key to a healthier organization.

Designing for the Health-Conscious Office (Metropolis Mag)
How Office Design and Layout Can Impact Mental Health (Office Space Blog)
The Effects of Stress on Your Body (Web MD)
How Quickly Do Germs Spread in the Office? (PBS)
Why It’s Time to Detox your Desk (Daily Mail)
CDC handwashing facts (Center for Disease Control)