Two men sitting across from each other at a table in a busy office.

From fatigued to fit: how office design can boost employee health

12 April 2017

By Jonathan Emery, Managing Director, Property - Europe, Lendlease

Our growing desire to be healthier is driving consumables sales that meet those needs through the roof. By the end of 2015, fitness trackers made up 63% of wrist-worn devices sold in the UK. But regardless of the effort many of us put into our health and fitness regime in our personal lives, we seem to be ignoring the significant proportion of our time spent at work – where, despite widely documented health warnings, we remain inactive for hours at a time.

Findings from a new report commissioned by Lendlease and London & Continental Railways - joint developers of 4m sq ft of new workspace at International Quarter London - show that a sedentary work culture is still rife in Britain. Our research found more than three quarters of all workers regularly sit in one place for more than an hour at a time, with more than half doing so every day of the week. Worse still, more than a third of workers eat lunch at their desk four or more times a week and more than a quarter never use the stairs at work. We are simply not active enough during the working day.

The World Health Organization has publicly identified physical inactivity as a leading cause of disease and disability. So why haven’t we changed the way we work, given the wealth of information available on the positive effects of remaining active throughout the day?

Our study has revealed that information on its own is simply not enough to drive a meaningful shift in attitudes and behaviours. We need a holistic approach that takes account of the physical and psychological barriers at play.

To create long-term change, we need to address the crux of the issue at hand: many workplaces just aren’t designed to accommodate movement, and often office cultures don’t encourage or facilitate physical activity. We need to dispel myths that eating lunch in front of a screen is a sign of commitment and walking meetings only belong in startups.

On the face of it, there’s no shortage of appetite among employees to change their behaviour. But when it comes to actually being active in the office – getting up to stand or pace in a meeting – many of us will revert to old habits for fear of being seen as strange by colleagues or clients. This points to a need to change our collective mindset, which will be most effective when it is led from the top.

But equally we need to see a change in our environments. This doesn’t mean simply replacing swivel back chairs with gym balls; this is about the very structure of the workplace design and our environmental surroundings.

Across the globe, Lendlease has been pioneering a concept known as activity-based working, creating flexible workspaces designed to facilitate specific tasks. This has been proven to help reduce sedentary workplace patterns, increase performance and foster overall workplace wellbeing.

Workers are encouraged and empowered to work across various locations within the office, rather than rely on a single desk all day long. They get to choose the best place that suits a specific work activity. As a result, we see employees naturally using all the spaces on offer and integrating movement into their day.

We know clever design can build healthier workplaces from the ground up. For example, strategically placing a staircase in a central location where employees can see it before they reach a lift can considerably increase stair use. And features such as open atriums and natural light encourage mobility. Even relatively simple things such as windows looking out into spacious public realms and green parks can encourage us to get out and eat lunch outdoors, rather than in front of our screens.

The rise in popularity of fitness trackers is a clear sign that people want to live more active lives. But to drive real change we must ensure our workplaces are fit for purpose and, from design through to culture, help build a mindset that makes us move.

This appetite to live healthier should be a focal point for businesses, and empower all employees to take charge of their own health at work and create lasting change for generations to come. There are ways to secure this ambition, and it needs commitment from leadership to take the first step.