How to make wellness work

News June 11, 2020

On the 12th July we hosted a ‘How to make wellness work’ debate with an expert guest panel in our new offices on Union Street, London.

Rennie Dalrymple, one of our Managing Partners articulated in his opening speech that Wellness was at the top of the agenda when considering the new office space. This set the tone for a healthy exchange of views between the panel and audience member alike.

Arguably the biggest surprise of our debate on the importance of wellbeing in the workplace was the need to discuss the topic at all. After all, as a recent report from the charity MIND has pointed out mental health issues effect a staggering one in six British workers each year, accounting for 15.8m sick days in 2016. Conversely research has shown that FTSE 100 companies prioritising employee engagement and wellbeing outperform the rest of the FTSE 100 by 10 per cent. It would appear to be a no-brainer.

And yet as the panel – chaired by Andy Swann, author of The Human Workplace and including journalist and design expert Aidan WalkerPhil Hutchinson, strategy director of BDG architecture + design, nutrition consultant Sophie Higgins and Humanscale ergonomist Sukhneet Assee – were quick to point out too many companies have yet to grasp the wellness nettle.

Why is this? Well there’s congenital short-termism – the need to produce rapid profit for shareholders takes precedent over investment in the longer run. And, as Higgins pointed out, a lot of management teams are simply ‘old school’, clinging on to the belief that employees aren’t working unless they are sat still at their desk staring at a screen. That said, what emerged from the discussion is how complex changing a company’s culture can be.

On one level wellness in the workplace is about individual choice, or as Hutchinson put it, ‘understanding needs… Wellbeing is a state of mind.’ Some of this constitutes good design or ‘basic comfort’. When BDG designed our new office, it concentrated on getting the simple things right: de-cluttering, planting, lighting levels. However, providing that individual choice also requires a form of collective responsibility. In other words, if management simply imposes a new culture on its employees, the changes are unlikely to stick. Cooperation is key.

Walker emphasised the need for respect between management and staff, adding that if the work is enjoyable in and of itself then the environment in which it takes place is of secondary importance. Meanwhile both Higgins and Assee talked about the importance of educating staff in breaking down shibboleths, such as the belief (in-grained since childhood) that you should always sit up straight. Actually, our increasingly sedentary lifestyles mean that micro-movements – or fidgeting as it’s more commonly known – are vital to get blood flowing to different parts of our anatomy.

Ultimately the discussion boiled down to the importance of profit and whether wellness is about anything more than the bottom line. Broadly speaking the room divided in two: those that believed the desire for wellness within the workplace is a basic human right that sits outside of our neo-liberal capitalist model and others who felt that to encourage firms to invest in wellbeing measures it’s vital to prove their economic effectiveness.

In fact, briefly it sounded as though Walker and Swann were mapping out a new, twenty first century, union movement for the office worker based around the tenants of wellness. Now that’s an intriguing thought isn’t it?

Thank you to everyone who attended and contributed to making this event so successful!

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