Designing for Employee Wellness in the Workplace

Designing for Employee Wellness in the Workplace

Addressing employee wellness in the workplace through the lenses of design thinking and service design might yield potential for beneficial change.

Could human-centered design play a role in the creation of healthy workplace environments, gently changing employee’s lifestyles for the betterment of their overall wellness? This topic has been a current interest of mine and curiosity drove me to explore the thought a little more in depth. While compiling my own thoughts I also interviewed two local colleagues to hear about their personal experiences and expertise.

In a recent interview with a Senior Manager working in the Information Technology sector, I learned how a small design tweak led to an impactful lifestyle change. The transition from a clunky crank arm standing desk, to an efficient pre-set button model drastically changed functionality. This simple detail meant that in the middle of a call, if he needed to sit down, he could simply press a button, meaning the incorporation of this desk into his workflow was intuitive and even enjoyable.

Workplace Coding

Although this was just a change in a product’s design, the possibility remains for design to be used to code an entire workplace environment. This type of workplace coding might create impactful lifestyle changes that would be simple to incorporate, and would not feel like more work or effort requiring sacrifice on the user’s part. Could there be other small environmental changes that would lead to big impact, discoveries just waiting to be uncovered?

It’s no secret that we currently have serious problems related to basic wellness. There are plenty of statistics on the prevalence of issues such as obesity, chronic back pain and stress. One of the major pitfalls of the common office space is a lack of options for movement and the correlation of work and sitting:

“With the advent of TV, computers, and the desk job, we’re sitting down more than ever before in history: 9.3 hours a day, even more time then we spend sleeping (7.7 hours). Our bodies weren’t built for that, and it’s starting to take its toll.”

It is even more frightening to think that generations now entering the workforce are beginning already at risk. In the United States, 28.2% of high school students are already overweight or obese.

Without an evolution of the typical workplace environment, companies are setting up their employees for a rather dismal outlook on basic wellness and for huge healthcare-related costs. This is a complicated problem, and unfortunately it is not as easy to solve as simply installing standing desks. However, addressing this wicked problem through the lenses of design thinking and service design might actually yield potential for beneficial change. Addressing the needs of employees and incorporating usability into overall design should in turn result in a more productive workflow, lower healthcare costs and better employee engagement.

Behavior Change is Tough

One of the biggest problems regarding healthy lifestyle changes at work is that they are typically high-commitment and require some level of sacrifice. Think about the onsite gym, which provides a spot to work out but also requires the sacrifice of a lunch break and the inconvenience of a clothing change. Herein lies room for growth and one of the first steps to that growth is addressing the pain points that lead to minimal change in human behavior.

To Cassandra Callas, Health Education Specialist at Duke University, there are obvious pain points that need to be addressed. “I think the biggest barrier typically boils down to time and its associated stressors.” Furthermore, she believes that there is a undertone message that breeds our culture to internally say “the best way is the way of not taking care of yourself.” Big picture, the issue is a culture that does not encourage an individual to value their own wellness, and this lack of balance over time does not help anyone. This is where the empathetic approach incorporated in design thinking has the potential to make a difference.

Empathy for Workplace Satisfaction

Addressing again the workplace built environment, many are rigid and do not allow for variety. This not only plays into an employee’s physical health, but also affects an employee’s overall attitude and energy level. On this topic, Cassandra believes that limited employee autonomy and flexibility plays a role in the broader problem. In her opinion, “The biggest element of job satisfaction either real or perceived, is freedom, or flexibility…I think a part of that is the built environment.” Cassandra imagines that the employer might be saying, “You still have to do the same task but you can sit here, or stand there, look at all the options you have”. To her, the opportunity for variety and options in the space an employee is able to work in, is in itself highly valuable. This approach is empathetic to the fact that employees value a level of autonomy. What If employers could figure out a way to approach workplace design, connecting this element of job satisfaction, while also incorporating easy lifestyle changes that turn into wellness wins? This could have a huge impact.

What’s Next?

The future of a workplace’s culture, experience, and built environment could be overwhelming to address based on how complex of a problem it presents. However, there are tools and methods that have been used in the past to create impactful change. In the future, when companies create new office space, why not bring in someone who can help strategize and bring tools and methods that will drive both efficiency and innovation? Design leaders would be eager to bring their expertise to the table, and it is exciting to think about the potential for positive change this could create.

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