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The road to wellness

The British Council for Offices has published a comprehensive review of workplace wellbeing that includes a detailed plan for implementing a range of health and wellbeing initiatives

There have been many reports on the theme of health and wellbeing in offices, but few as comprehensive as Wellness Matters, published in June by the British Council for Offices (BCO). The 233-page report examines why workplace wellness is important, how it can best be measured and how to achieve the optimum outcomes. It then goes on to set out a strategic ‘roadmap’ for all those involved in constructing, running and furnishing offices – building owners and operators, occupiers, designers, contractors and suppliers – to help them deliver 55 separate health and wellbeing outcomes.

As Richard Kauntze, Chief Executive of the BCO, explains in the foreword to the report, this attempt to synthesise the vast body of research and expert opinion on this topic was urgently needed. “The sector is faced with competing frameworks for assessment, a raft of new processes, new disciplines to swell the ranks of project teams, uncertainties around the strength and relevance of the evidence base and concerns around the cost to respond,” he writes. “In the face of unprecedented complexity there is a genuine risk that projects will disengage and the benefits of a proactive approach to health and wellbeing – to business, office workers and the wider economy – may be missed.”

Key findings

Here are 10 of the key issues raised by the report:

1. Barriers to adoption

Significant factors holding back the implementation of measures to increase health and wellbeing include the perceived cost of project delivery and wellness certification, a lack of expertise and guidance, and confusion as to who should lead wellness initiatives at each stage of the office lifecycle.

2. Scattered evidence

The evidence base to back up workplace wellbeing initiatives is drawn from a wide range of disciplines and is thus hard to navigate. As the report says: “At present there is no single resource that effectively brings together research data, analysis and knowledge.”

3. Language problems

There is a lack of a common vocabulary in the field of wellness, with differing terminology found in medical research and in industry, making it difficult to exchange ideas and to translate research into practice.

4. Questioning the evidence

As the report puts it: “When presented with ‘definitive’ or ‘conclusive’ proof of ‘links’ or ‘relationships’ between aspects of the office environment and health and wellbeing outcomes, it is important to question the evidence that is presented – its quality, relevance and any biases.”

“In the face of unprecedented complexity there is a genuine risk that … the benefits of a proactive approach to health and wellbeing – to business, office workers and the wider economy – may be missed” – Richard Kauntze, BCO

5. A need for implementation tools

While there is extensive legislation and guidance on health and wellbeing in the workplace, there has been limited uptake by those who design and construct office buildings, and by occupiers.

It doesn’t help that the two leading health and wellbeing frameworks, WELL and Fitwel, both originated in the US and rely on US regulations and standards – although Matt Webster, Head of Wellbeing and Futureproofing at British Land, points out this is becoming less of a problem as UK expertise is brought to bear on adapting these standards.

6. Green doesn’t mean healthy

Although there is an emerging correlation between green buildings and the wellbeing of their occupants, the link is not guaranteed; green building standards such as BREEAM and LEED contain few compulsory wellness measures.

7. Certification is useful

“WELL and Fitwel are useful tools that provide a structured approach to credibly document wellness strategies,” says the report, before pointing out that they have different structures and emphases (and price points), and that the absence of such certification should not be seen as negative as long as health and wellbeing are being properly addressed.

Webster agrees that the important thing is that this type of thinking is integrated into everyday design, but adds: “What’s powerful about WELL certification is that it’s not a tick-box exercise. Buildings are assessed after they’re occupied and you have to demonstrate that those environments are doing what they’re supposed to.”

8. Focus on outcomes

While wellness certification tends to focus on processes and actions, there is a need to focus on outcomes – hence the 55 Wellness Outcomes that the report devotes more than 100 pages to documenting.

9. The importance of data

Data collected before, during and after health and wellbeing initiatives are implemented is essential to measure their effectiveness, and to identify areas for potential improvement.

10. A collaborative effort

Finally, the report stresses that “wellness is a team sport – requiring an integrated response, early engagement and a new cohort of integrators.” Teams will need to work collaboratively across a range of disciplines, as health and wellbeing is a complex area that can’t effectively be addressed in silos.

Work in progress

Reviewing the report, Webster comments: “This is an important piece of work by the BCO, helping to structure the way wellbeing is thought about within the context of the workplace – although it’s worth pointing out that healthy design should apply to all spaces and places, not just offices.

“Collaboration is clearly key: from our position as a landlord and custodian of public spaces, we have seen the direct positive impact that wellbeing interventions can have on businesses and individuals, and in particular on those who engage with us to shape their environments. We want to see those conversations continuing and evolving – not just within our industry but also with the NHS, Public Health England and other bodies.

“More work is needed on the outcomes and results of this approach. When people talk about wellbeing in the workplace, they tend to focus on the cost, but we really need to get some good data to demonstrate the value of doing it as well.

“Finally, while wellbeing is really important, let’s not lose sight of all the good work that British Land and others are doing on environmental sustainability as well. We need to deliver both in order to provide spaces for people to do the best work and be their best self.”

Wellness Matters is available to download here. It is free to BCO members



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