The “quarantine 15” may have started in jest, but lockdown-related weight gain is no joke. Adults gained almost two pounds a month, on average, while sheltering in place, according to a recent study in JAMA Network Open.
The pandemic prompted employers to broaden their definitions of employee assistance. As the virus raged and schools closed, companies everywhere increased their support of workers’ physical and mental health by revisiting sick leave, financial assistance, and child-care reimbursement policies.
Employers welcoming team members back to physical offices have a similar opportunity to do more than merely enforce COVID-19 safety precautions. This is an opportunity to look critically at the office’s overarching relationship to employee health. This process should examine every element of the workspace and revisit company policies and wellness programs — all with an eye to creating an environment that promotes sustainably healthy habits, now and for the long run.
Here are three straightforward ways to make your office a healthier, happier, and more productive place.
1. Build health into office design
Many companies are reconfiguring their office space to meet the new hybrid work reality. But in addition to asking employees to relinquish a specific cube in favor of “hoteling” or knocking down walls to create more collaborative spaces, leaders should ensure the redesign also limits harmful sitting time, reduces stress — and maybe even supports workers’ circadian rhythms. A few examples:
- Make the stairs less scary: “Take the stairs” has become a rallying cry to combat the negative health effects of sedentary desk jobs, but research underscores the fact that typical office design does not support this effort. Indeed, many office staircases are neglected, with concrete steps, minimal signage and subpar lighting. To solve this problem and encourage stair use, leaders at Cheshire Medical Center in Keene, NH, worked with area artists to create a six-floor mural in its main stairwell filled with bright colors, local wildlife, and even a few motivational quotes. Managers without a mural budget can still push for carpeting and brighter lighting in stairwells, as well as clear signage so climbers can remember what floor they’re on.
- Brighten things up: It’s not just stairwells. Typical offices also lack sufficient lighting required for optimal well-being, according to Mariana Figueiro, director of the Lighting Research Center at New York’s Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute. Her research demonstrates that more light — even if it’s electric, not sunlight — improves workers’ sleep and mood.
- Bring in nature: Spending too much time indoors is linked to increased illness, higher levels of the stress hormone cortisol, and a reduced ability to focus. What’s more, poor ventilation raises the levels of carbon dioxide in a building, which studies have shown can lower mood and impair cognitive performance. To combat these effects, buildings have begun incorporating green roofs and atriums with abundant natural light and expansive views of the outdoors. An even simpler solution: Buy a bunch of plants. Research conducted on offices in the UK and the Netherlands demonstrated that those who worked around plants were 15% more productive than those in spaces that lacked greenery.
- Re-evaluate the snacks: After so many months away from the break room doughnuts, now’s the time to shift to healthier snacks and catering. As more firms match tech companies’ free meals, startups like Thriver and Farmers Fridge now offer easy ways to offer more nutritious — and more sophisticated — office food.
2. Incorporate wellness into employee reviews
Employees tend to love or loathe office health competitions — but research shows that support from both peers and leaders is critical to making healthy habits stick. In addition to offering challenges with prizes, then, managers should consider other ways of providing accountability.
One option is to weave wellness into the employee review process. A great example: Lincoln Industries, a metal finishing manufacturer in Lincoln, NE., includes self-defined wellness goals in workers’ annual performance reviews. Depending on seniority, up to 25% of their overall review can be dependent on meeting that goal, which can range from lowering blood pressure readings to prioritizing home-cooked meals with family during the workweek.
Managers who elect to do this should work with their direct reports to formulate goals that are linked to a deeper sense of meaning, rather than simply to a desire to lose weight or look good. That’s because people who create lifestyle goals based on this kind of purpose, referred to as eudaimonia, tend to have increased motivation, according to Harvard Health.
The review process also offers an opportunity to ask employees how they’re feeling and how the company can help, according to leadership professors writing in MIT’s Sloan Management Review — and the resulting feedback can then be used to improve an organization’s overall wellness benefits.
3. Re-examine team-building rituals and office celebrations
Beyond the break room doughnuts, companies often rely on longstanding traditions that celebrate with junk food and/or alcohol. Such traditions can be tough to upend, but the re-entry to office life after a prolonged hiatus offers a perfect opportunity to supplant old vices with new routines.
To do so, company leaders need to understand how habits work. Most importantly, they’re based on a three-part neurological loop, according to MIT research popularized by Charles Duhigg in his book The Power of Habit. That loop features a cue, a routine, and a reward.
As Duhigg explains, once you’ve diagnosed the loop associated with a particular negative habit, you can successfully replace it. So whether the cue is Tim in accounting’s birthday or surpassing a sales goal, and the routine is either an afternoon party with cake or an evening at the bar, the reward remains socializing with colleagues.
Once these patterns are understood, it’s easier to keep the cue and the reward while subbing a healthier routine — whether it’s walking a 5K to honor Tim’s favorite charity or scheduling a cooking class for the winning sales team. The same approach can transform walking meetings, lunchtime meditation, or another healthy behavior into a workday norm.
The upheaval triggered by COVID-19 has imparted many lessons about what workers value in an employer and how closely a person’s job and well-being are intertwined.
As American employees continue to favor flexibility and remote work, leaders who expect people to return to the office must rethink how to make the building — and their company culture — more attuned to individuals’ mental and physical needs. The return on investment, research suggests, will be well worth it.