Toxic workplaces risk employee wellbeing, so here’s how to rethink your work environment

Nicola Gillen

January is the month when the “new year, new me” mantra is out in full force. While many people commit to fitness plans and diets to improve their wellness, the same focus is not currently given to “detoxifying” the wider work environment. Yet toxic workplaces could be jeopardising employee wellbeing.

Responsible organisations understand the importance of keeping their employees safe, but wellbeing is often overlooked. Companies that fail to recognise wellbeing and design their workplaces accordingly risk serious repercussions, including poor productivity, long-term sickness and negative impacts on staff recruitment and retention.

Office workers spend the majority of their days indoors, but studies increasingly link greater affinity to the natural world with decreased stress, better sleep patterns and enhanced wellbeing

Detoxifying workplaces can bring a range of benefits in addition to enhancing staff wellbeing. Improving the physical environment can create spaces and working cultures that encourage creativity and increase job satisfaction. At Aecom, we have identified five key steps organisations can take to rethink the work environment and improve wellbeing.

  1. The first is reducing invisible toxins inside offices that can have a huge impact on how our bodies work. Just as many people are looking to decrease toxins in their bodies by cutting back on fatty foods, a similar approach can be taken with buildings. Reducing toxins in buildings requires a multi-faceted approach. Organisations will need to consider sustainable materials specification during building design, including furniture, fixtures and fittings with low levels of contaminants called volatile organic compounds. Air filtrations standards, proper ventilation and operational policies such as green cleaning can also have an impact.  
  2. The second step is creating team neighbourhoods within offices to accommodate different working styles. This approach is particularly important because there are now four generations with varying needs occupying the workplace. Neighbourhoods give employees the opportunity to work alone and collaborate according to their changing needs and personal preferences. They work as both knowledge-sharing and social spaces, with a combination of workstations, meeting rooms and collaborative areas.
  3. Office workers spend the majority of their days indoors, but studies increasingly link greater affinity to the natural world with decreased stress, better sleep patterns and enhanced wellbeing. Our third step is therefore to reflect nature in the work environment with biophilia. Organisations can achieve biophilic elements in design by integrating nature’s patterns, colours and materials. Introducing plants, views, daylight and natural air into the workplace, for example, is one way to reduce toxins.
  4. Assessing health and wellbeing risks through data can give organisations the power to initiate change and is our fourth step to improve wellbeing. Using data to drive a change management approach is key, as changing behaviours can have a far greater impact than changing space. After all, people costs account for much more of a company’s annual spend than real estate costs. Tracking improvements by benchmarking building assessment methodologies like the WELL Building Standard™ can help organisation’s demonstrate performance.
  5. Crucially, organisations must recognise that wellness goes beyond the built environment. Employee wellbeing depends on a holistic, integrated understanding of potential impacts that influence health in the workplace. Understanding these factors, including job demand, content, reward, resources and level of autonomy, is our final step. Organisations interested in making positive changes must explore their policies and prioritise their desired outcomes. Buildings are designed to last for decades but the organisations within them change about every 18 months. Flexibility and a focus on people are key.

Nicola Gillen is global practice lead - strategy for Aecom