The NHS recently revealed that more than five million people are signed off work every year due to mental health issues, such as anxiety and depression. Similarly, a report commissioned by the UK's PM Theresa May found that one in every seven workers has a symptom of a mental health condition and that an estimated 300,000 people lose their jobs due to mental health issues every year.
The average working Brit will spend a third of their week in the office, and in some cases much more. That’s a significant chunk of our life and so it's crucial that working environments are set up to support the physical and mental health of employees and positively influence their quality of life.
I’ve been thrilled to see the stigma around mental health starting to clear. As a society, we're becoming much more conscientious and understanding of mental health issues. So it's time for employers to lead and set the agenda around mental health at work, by redefining the role of the physical workplace.
While it is true that employers are becoming more responsive to improving employee wellbeing (through the introduction of ‘flexi’ working hours, free gym memberships and other such initiatives), they can often miss basic principles that foster a healthy mind and body. Neuroscience, for example, can help us understand workplace performance through discovering what enhances the focus of the human brain and stimulates activity. This is a topic that was discussed at Management Today’s Future of Work conference earlier this year.
At the summit, I joined fellow workplace aficionados including Nina Jasinski (chief marketing officer, Ogilvy & Mather UK), Paul Wheeler (director of space and workplace management, King’s College London), Philip Ross (chairman, Worktech Academy), Araceli Camargo (director of the Centric Lab, University College London), Katrina Kostic-Samen (managing partner, KKS Strategy) and Wouter Sleijffers (CEO of Fnatic). One of the key recurring issues discussed was employee engagement and wellbeing. Companies too often find themselves focusing on the ‘novelty factor’ rather than drilling down to the ingredients that will promote physical and emotional wellbeing: natural light within an indoor environment, connections to nature, social safety and community creation, and opportunities to refresh, restore and energise.
Take International Quarter London - a new commercial offices development and business destination in Stratford, London - as an example. Here, the architects have endeavored to challenge the assumption that work only occurs within four walls. As well as designing inspiration into the buildings themselves, Lendlease and LCR have committed to proving that having access to a diverse and engaging environment outside the building can be just as instrumental in delivering positive mental wellbeing for its employees.
The increasing frequency of discussions around mental health in the workplace prove just how important this issue is becoming to businesses, and also how it is a vital ingredient in their wellbeing strategy. If businesses want to deliver increasingly creative solutions for their clients and customers, their workplace itself must be creative and must inspire creativity amongst its occupants. Creativity and inspiration can only come from a happy, healthy employee base. While workplace design does not wholly carry responsibility for the mental wellbeing (and linked to that, output) of the entire business, when incorporated the wider picture it can be hugely influential.
Alison Webb is head of workplace, Europe, Lendlease