Category Overview: Well-being in the workplace

The drive for a healthier workspace with a sharper focus on employee well-being is rising up the news agenda. But is it truly a zeitgeist with momentum or just a passing fad?

The provision of a workplace environment that’s conducive to health and employee happiness is a complex issue. There’s no doubt that the frontrunners in this field are taking a holistic approach, with an emphasis on a wide range of different aspects. These usually begin with the office building itself and its furniture, fixtures and fittings, and then move on to encompass other facets, such as offering healthy breakroom products, a focus on physical and mental health and the encouragement of movement and active working. 

But is this really the direction that most conventional businesses are taking, or just virtue-signalling from the richest firms that can afford to make the politically correct gestures of the day? And what are the opportunities for companies in the business supplies industry?

Real demand

This is certainly a sector on the rise as those providing products that service this category are experiencing burgeoning demand.

At UK dealer group NEMO, for example, Merchandising Manager William Lavender reports that its dealers are witnessing significant growth in health and well-being-related items: “What’s particularly interesting is how quickly sales have accelerated for our members – the interest suddenly sparked into life,” he says. “Also intriguing for us as a dealer group is the fact that some members are performing better than others in this category. We have yet to analyse this and see whether it’s a regional, city-based or larger-company phenomenon. Or is it simply that some companies have a more proactive approach to obtaining new business and are the ones asking the right questions? We believe it’s the latter.”

UK wholesaler VOW is seeing businesses investing more into health and well-being and its dealers are benefitting from that. “This is not just in products,” says Product Marketing Director Helen Wade, “but in policies like flexible working, discounted gym membership, healthy eating in staff canteens and health accessories. We are also seeing growth in the sale of air purifiers for the office space and an increased emphasis on staff relaxation zones.”

On the other side of the Atlantic Sean Macey, President of Canadian dealer group Basics Office Products, is more cautious: “Wellness is not yet a mainstream category for either the reseller or vendor communities that we deal with on a day-to-day basis. A few are beginning to experiment with bits and pieces, but it’s difficult to put together a wide-ranging plan. Part of the problem is that there doesn’t seem to be any hard data on how big the opportunity is in Canada.”

Feedback suggests that the main forces propelling this trend forward are a potent combination of increasingly tough legislation and the need to drive up productivity, coupled with a genuine desire to do what’s best for the workforce.

Rik Mistry, Head of Business Development at UK retailer Sit-Stand.com, explains that health and well-being initiatives are now necessary to both attract high-calibre recruits and ensure their retention. “Unsurprisingly, a workplace that’s conducive to good health also makes for happier staff.”

Betsey Banker, Wellness Market Manager at ergonomic product manufacturer Ergotron, adds: “Companies increasingly understand that treating their employees well has a direct impact on productivity and on reducing absenteeism. People who feel healthy are more engaged, more creative and more focused. In addition, businesses that are known to take good care of their employees will find it easier to attract and retain the best staff.”

At US office design specialist Knoll, Director of Workplace Strategy Kylie Roth concurs: “Of course organisations want to provide a healthy and safe place for their employees to do their best work. But, that withstanding, it’s cost reduction – especially in the US where businesses pay for a large portion of employee healthcare – that’s a significant driving factor for the increased focus on workplace well-being and ergonomics.”  

Active working

Anecdotal evidence suggests that it’s the newest entrants to the workforce who are pushing the hardest for this change in office culture and environment.

“The younger generation of gym-goers and those who enjoy sport, exercise and nutrition are having a massive impact on well-being in the workplace,” explains Lavender. “Sitting still at a desk for eight hours is not an attractive proposition for these people, so it is in the interest of employers to create an environment where staff feel they have the freedom to stand up, move around and have access to healthy food.

“A recent straw poll of my friends and acquaintances revealed that 70% work in an office environment and more than half have written formally to their line manager to request access to healthy snacks, a sit-stand workstation or new social spacing for a breakout area. One even asked for a weightlifting machine and that’s not a stretch of the imagination today as many businesses are starting to incorporate gym equipment in their buildings. As more people try to live a healthier lifestyle, those influences are not stopping in the gym or at home, but are also travelling to work with them.”

An interesting concept that’s making a resurgence is mentioned by Macey – it’s Management by Walking Around (MBWA). This idea popularised in the 1980s which encouraged senior staff to wander the floors checking on staff, equipment and ongoing work, is now being seen as having wellness benefits too. “People need to move while at work,” he says. “The best idea anyone ever came up with is MBWA and should be adopted even if you aren’t a manager. Get up and go for a walk. Do some work standing up. Do some work sitting down. Hell, do some work on a treadmill if you’re coordinated enough! The goal is to just get everyone moving and at Basics we are focused on finding as many active office options as possible.”

Greening the office

Future-gazing research from renowned German think tank Zukunftsinstitut (which translates into ‘Institute of the Future’) envisages office evolution and the drive for mobility leading to a completely chairless workspace. It also sees the naturalisation of the office environment through biophilic-design techniques as becoming increasingly mainstream. 

At its core this involves incorporating greenery – plants, grass and even trees – within the indoor fabric of the building and relying on natural light to illuminate the office space. The idea is to put workers in touch with nature to reduce stress and trigger creative thought patterns.

Zukunftsinstitut’s Associate Director Jeanette Huber points to a mountain of evidence showing the benefits of biophilic design, with employees reporting a 15% higher level of well-being and creativity and a 6% increase in productivity. Research in Norway has additionally found that natural elements within an office space can also prevent fatigue when completing tasks that demand high concentration levels. “There’s a tonne of data showing employees are happier and work better when exposed to a natural environment,” says Huber, “so organisations are going to increasingly incorporate these aspects into office design.”

These design elements don’t necessarily have to be ‘real’. In the healthcare profession, for example, murals in patient waiting rooms depicting natural scenes such as mountains, sunsets and grassy areas cause patients to feel significantly calmer and less tense than when sitting in rooms with plain white walls. Other studies have shown that even an image of greenery placed on or over things like walls, furniture and flooring can have positive effects.

Basics such as a view from a window can also be important. Staff with sight of natural elements including trees, water or the countryside report greater levels of well-being than those with views of buildings, roads and construction sites. But even having an urbanised view was found to be more beneficial than having no view at all. 

Maximising health

While health and well-being issues might not yet be mainstream across all businesses, there’s clear evidence to suggest that this isn’t just a passing fad either – for all the compelling reasons mentioned.

Holistic approaches aside, economic pressures are forcing companies to trim back their workforce to the bare minimum and recruit and retain the best group of personnel they can afford. But this paring down of staff numbers is leaving them increasingly vulnerable to absenteeism, as there simply isn’t the slack in the system for others to take up the strain. “If one of those key employees gets sick, this now has a tremendous impact on the remaining staff,” says NEMO’s Lavender. “Businesses must be thinking about all the things they can do to keep their staff as healthy as possible. We can’t do much about their non-work hours, but we can and should take steps to ensure their work environment is the very best one possible.”

Take-up may still be patchy at the moment, but the health and well-being category clearly offers significant opportunities for suppliers and resellers in the business supplies industry going forward.

Pet Power

Research has found that employees who bring their pets to work tend to have lower stress levels at the end of the day. Pets also help lower blood pressure, decrease loneliness, reduce cholesterol levels and encourage physical activity.

The Pets at Work report from pet nutrition experts Purina emphasises the positive impact animals can have in a professional environment and encourages companies to open their doors to employees’ furry friends.

“Animals bring a wealth of benefits – both physical and emotional – to owners and their families at home,” comments Dr Kurt Venator, Purina’s Chief Veterinary Officer. “So it’s no surprise those same benefits also apply in the workplace – perhaps providing a calming influence during a challenging situation or just encouraging employees to take a walk during their lunch break.” 

The report found that pet-friendly work environments are viewed as both exciting and innovative. It revealed that more than half of dog owners in these workplaces bring their dog to the office at least once a week and include them in lunch meetings, work parties and meetings with their boss. Furthermore, it showed that employees at such organisations ranked being able to have pets at work as second in terms of most valuable work benefits.

Venator adds: “Our hope is that the report will continue to raise awareness and arm employees and employers with insight that can help facilitate pet-friendly environments within companies.” 

Smells like success

Paul Wonnacott is Managing Director and President of Vectair Systems, a global hygiene company that specialises in washroom and air-care systems. He is also on the advisory board for the ISSA/INTERCLEAN Exhibition Committee and has served on the board of directors for the Cleaning and Hygiene Suppliers’ Association. 

OPI speaks to Wonnacott about the importance of scent in the workplace and the perception of cleanliness that this
 can impart.

OPI: Why is office cleanliness important to  staff well-being?

Paul Wonnacott: Cleaning isn’t necessarily glamorous, but it is imperative for a healthy workplace environment. The average office desk can be 100 times less hygienic than your kitchen table, and 400 times dirtier than the average toilet seat. In the hospitality industry it’s long been recognised that cleanliness is a key factor that drives positive guest reviews and this is a trend we now see taking hold in the workplace. But cleanliness doesn’t just mean the facility being clean – the perception of overall freshness is equally important. 

OPI: How can scent affect this perception of cleanliness?

PW: 75% of the emotions we experience are affected by smell. People are generally happier when exposed to certain scents, because aromas can be powerful triggers that reawaken latent memories. Organisations are now beginning to exploit this effect and are using fragrance to create corporate identities and signature scents. 

We are on the brink of a scent revolution. Advances in scent technology are being used to deliver an improved user experience and it’s becoming an instrumental part of office design. To date, we’ve focused primarily on what people see, whereas we should be appealing to all their senses – this is where scent come in.

OPI: How does this new approach differ from the traditional use of fragrances?

PW: Historically, organisations would simply choose to fragrance their washrooms as a way of masking unpleasant smells. But today it’s common to see companies wanting to fragrance areas both inside and outside of these facilities. 

It’s no longer just about the perception of clean and fresh toilet facilities, but about providing a whole scent experience around the building. As an industry, this means we’re now looking at a different range of ‘non-washroom’ fragrances and the technology necessary to cater for these additional environments.

OPI: Can you be more specific here?

PW: The main challenge facing the air-care industry has been finding a suitable delivery system that can be successfully used in these new areas. Traditional techniques such as aerosols are not safe for continuous exposure, while other methods like candles or reed diffusers are inconsistent or a hassle to service. 

The focus is now on reducing the size of fragrance particles. Conventional aerosol systems use particle sizes of around 80 microns, but newer delivery technologies have reduced this to under 10 microns. These smaller sizes mean the fragrance is lighter, travels further, lasts longer and is safer for continuous exposure. 

Vectair Systems has developed a number of such systems that are free from any propellants, solvents or volatile organic compounds. These are being used by firms who are waking up to the power of using scent to connect with our deepest emotions.