Radically changing the way we think about health at work

This short blog makes the link between health and productivity in the workplace inspired by CEO Colin Sinclair’s presentation at Downtown in Business’ inaugural business and innovation conference, Change Makers Live 2023.

Every year, in the UK, we lose 170 million days to sickness from work. This not only puts a strain on the NHS, but productivity also takes a hit, costing our economy in the region of £100 billion. So, what can we do about that? Is there a way we can help to alleviate the pressure on the finite resources in the NHS?

It’s fair to say that it is quite difficult to get an appointment to see a doctor. A lottery at 8 o’clock in the morning, with the race to get an appointment that same day and the probability of having to take a day off work. There simply aren’t enough doctors and appointments to go round. The workplace could play a bigger part in tackling this problem, with a greater focus on wellness and health at work. 

75% of the UK population are of working age. That is people aged 16 to 64. Another 15 million people work past the age of 65. If we can better manage health at work, we can take pressure off the NHS, away from doctors and surgeries, and it’s proven to increase productivity.

A change of mindset from employers will be required. Employers have a duty of care to look after people’s health, safety and welfare whilst at work. Employers need to go one step further.

The idea of healthcare in the workplace is not a new one. Go back 15-20 years and it wasn’t only schools that had nurses, factories and workplaces had nurses and some even had doctors too.

How then might healthcare become part of the workplace in 2023?

Quality, WELL Workspaces

Firstly, the office environment must be fit for purpose and designed with wellness and wellbeing in mind. 

The international WELL Standard is a useful tool for measuring and monitoring the features of the office environment that impact human health. There are seven key pillars of WELL including air, water, nourishment, light, fitness, comfort and mind – each measure intended to help create spaces that improve the nutrition, fitness, mood, sleep patterns, performance and ultimately the health of its occupants.

Take natural light as an example. Exam scores improve up to 25% in a naturally lit environment compared to artificially lit classrooms. Natural light helps to produce Vitamin D, a vitamin that is vital for sleep, focus and happiness. A Cornell University study observed a 84% drop in headaches and eye strain where workers were exposed to natural light. Harvard cited natural light as the number one most important workplace attribute, putting it above fitness studios, cafeterias and even free onsite childcare.

Now consider air quality. It may not be too surprising that poor indoor air quality hampers cognitive performance. However, perhaps what’s more shocking is that an increase in fine particulate matter in the air in an office or lab will increase the probability of errors by 26%.

In terms of water, a US study showed that 75% of workers suffered chronic dehydration impairing both the ability to work and reaction times.

Then onto biophilic design, where the natural world is incorporated into the built environment, which will be a key feature of Sciontec’s new-build HEMISPHERE. Biophilia is intended to make employees feel closer to nature, helping to reduce stress, enhance creativity and improve cognitive function.

A quality workspace is really important. The University of Oregon suggest that poor building design is responsible for 10% of all absences. Poor design, with a lack of biophilia, is proven to increase mental health issues, stress and fatigue.

Another US study found that 1 in 4 adults suffer from at least one diagnosable mental health disorder. And, in the UK, 15 million work days are lost a year from mental health issues – 11.5% of all sick leave. A number which could be reduced through more consideration of wellness in the workplace at design stage.

Mental health and physical wellbeing initiatives

Employers can take action to improve mental health and physical wellbeing at work. This could be through initiatives such as flexible working or remote working one day a week. 

The recent 4 day week study comprised 3,000 workers and 61 employers, with 92% of participating employers either extending the trial or changing their working week policy for good. Where a 4 day week is not possible, it is true that employers need to enforce a culture where excessive hours and presenteeism are discouraged.

Beyond flexibility in working patterns, the provision of onsite gyms, fitness studios, yoga or pilates classes also go a long way to enhance wellness at work as well as the provision of free water, fruit and health snacks.

Bringing people together is also important, whether that be through team building activities, away days, charity days and sports days designed to boost morale and camaraderie. Whether creating a games room, encouraging walking meetings or providing great cycle facilities, employers need to go one step further.

Healthcare in the workplace

Many of the world’s largest corporations offer their employees healthcare experiences, through wellness clinics, on-site doctors or health coaches. 

Here in the Knowledge Liverpool (KQ Liverpool) Innovation District, plans are afoot to build on the success of the mass testing and events pilot, and work of the Civic Data Cooperative, with a new civic health innovation lab bringing together communities, workplaces and digital data to provide health insights.

KQ Liverpool is also home to Liverpool John Moores University, one of the biggest and best in the UK for training nurses and in applied healthcare. There is an opportunity to capitalise on this expertise and bring health into the workplace. That could be through office clinics with doctors and nurses, health coaches or mental health apps. In-house doctors and nurses can help reduce sickness, absence and help productivity through early intervention, convenience and recruitment and retention.

Ultimately, a holistic approach is needed – combining in house healthcare provision with building design which prioritises biophilia, air, water and light.

In the not too distant future, “the doctor will see you now” will hopefully not just be a phrase common to doctors surgeries and hospitals, but in the workplace too.

Change Makers Live 2023 brought together leading entrepreneurs, academics, opinion formers, and politicians to offer innovative solutions to the key issues facing decision-makers across the globe.