By Ian Baker, Head of Workplace Design Consultancy, EMCOR UK
The issue of mental health in the workplace has been well documented in recent months. Countless media reports have highlighted the increasing levels of stress, anxiety and depression in Britain’s businesses. And the financial services sector is no exception.
In fact, reports suggest that finance workers in the UK are among the most stressed in the world, with research by recruitment consultancy Robert Half¹ finding that 78% of Chief Financial Officers (CFOs) in the UK see stress levels rising in the next two years.
But why is this important? Five years on since the City Mental Health Alliance (CMHA) was launched in 2013 by senior business leaders from across the financial services sector following a number of suicides and scrutiny on long working hours, we are finally beginning to see mental health become a boardroom issue. Every organisation wants a productive, thriving workforce while retaining the best talent. And to achieve this, more organisations are waking up to the idea that people are their biggest asset—protect their wellbeing and the rest will follow.
Positive steps towards change
The CMHA recently launched its Guide to Thriving at Work², a unique toolkit to help businesses – mainly within the financial services sector – to become mentally healthy workplaces. The CMHA is a coalition of organisations that came together to create an environment in the City where mental health is discussed in the same way as physical health—and this framework has been deployed to provide a structured, practical approach to building a healthier, more productive workforce.
The framework includes a set of core standards that contain recommendations employers can implement to ensure they are helping their employees to thrive in the workplace. Suggested practices include developing mental health work plans to promote mental health and access to support, the sharing of health and wellbeing information, and training programmes. However, although it offers a great springboard from which organisations can launch and develop their own mental health policies, it doesn’t address one of the fundamental factors for improving workplace wellbeing: the workplace and its design.
The role of facilities management
That’s where the facilities management (FM) industry comes into play. Studies have shown that a positive company culture and the alignment of employees with office values results in a more engaged and productive workforce. It also helps to ensure that organisations not only attract top talent but are able to retain that talent for longer—building a stronger workforce that is working towards common goals and aspirations.
Organisations that are serious about mental health should evaluate their workplaces to see if they reflect the company culture and values and, if not, use building and office design to help align them. The workplace should be designed to promote these values, bringing them to life through the physical environment in which employees work every day.
The design and layout of an office – and even the building itself – has a recognisable impact on employee mental health and wellbeing. This was reflected by the recent introduction of the International WELL Building Institute (IWBI); a global movement to transform buildings and communities to help people thrive. IWIB delivers the WELL Building Standard, which focuses exclusively on the ways that buildings, and everything in them, can improve employees’ comfort, drive better choices and enhance health and wellness. Aligned to this new international standard for office design, FM is in a unique place to improve the environmental conditions of a building to improve performance and wellbeing.
Where and how we work, alongside changes in technology, has put increasing pressure on us and our workloads and is a common source of stress. Many organisations fail to recognise how important the workplace is and it’s often taken for granted. However, once the need to make our workplaces happier, healthier and more productive is realised a transformation and re-design of the workspace is often required.
There are simple steps to be taken. FM operates at the very heart of every workplace. FM’s can facilitate the creation of high-performance workplaces, with their in-depth knowledge of the organisation and cross departmental links, FM’s are ideally placed to lead employee engagement programmes that peak behind the façade of the organisation and can also perform utilisation studies to determine type of usage and ultimately the amount of floor area the organisation requires.
Many studies advocate the benefits of ‘activity-based working’, a design solution that provides a range of work settings to suit the different tasks employees need to perform (such as focussed rooms for concentration, project spaces for collaboration, breakout spaces for relaxation / contemplation or study) also contributing to improved engagement, collaboration and performance. Although this level of input into design isn’t a traditional FM role, many businesses and professional bodies are increasingly seeing workplace design as being best delivered from an FM angle.
Another important element of office design that impacts mental health is lighting. According to a survey by Lamp Shop Online³, 9.3% of employees surveyed said that the position of their workplace lighting created a ‘stressful environment.’ To prevent this unnecessary health concern, we are seeing a demand for effective lighting strategies that prevent poor lighting or excessive glare, and that can be catered specifically for each organisation’s requirements.
The issue of noise in the workplace is also an important factor. The majority of employees report continuous noise in their workspace and many say they lack quiet space for private meetings and quality focus time. A recent report by Leesman⁴ found that only 31% of the 300,000 respondents were satisfied with the noise levels in their workplace, despite 74% reporting that noise levels are important to them, added to the fact it is the strongest likely indicator of perceived poor productivity.
Similarly, air quality can also play a huge role in the overall productivity and health of employees. In particular, carbon dioxide (CO2) can have a measurable effect on how well people accomplish cognitively high-level tasks at work. A recent study by Harvard University⁵ found that when people breath in too much CO2 at their desk, their performance suffers—by up to 50% in some cases. With the right conditions, measured and controlled by FM, hidden factors such as air quality can be mitigated to improve productivity and wellbeing. Through design, businesses can create a range of spaces to accommodate different needs. By making sure the building is properly designed and giving people access to different levels of noise depending on their requirements, businesses can ensure that the effect of noise pollution on staff is minimal.
The way forward
Despite the UK still being a top location for financial services investment⁶, there is growing evidence that the financial industry’s workforce is falling behind its global counterparts in relation to mental health. The CMHA has taken positive steps towards empowering City organisations to take ownership of mental health practices. However, new policies and training procedures can only go so far—employers need to take the development of their office environments seriously if they are to truly be happier and more productive. The role of FM in implementing successful workplace design strategies will be key if the UK FS industry is to become a world leader in workplace wellbeing.
¹ Research by recruitment consultancy Robert Half, released in February 2018, revealed that finance workers are among the most stressed in the world with 78% of CFOs in the UK predicting stress levels to rise in the next two years.
² Launched in July 2018 by the CMHA, the Guide to Thriving at Work is a unique toolkit to help businesses which employ over 500 people to become mentally healthy workplaces.
³ A survey by Lamp Shop Online revealed that 9.3% of employees surveyed said that the position of their workplace lighting created a ‘stressful environment’.
⁴ The latest edition of the Leesman Review revealed that only 31% of the 300,000 respondents to Index were satisfied with the noise levels in their workplace, despite 74% saying that noise levels were important to them.
⁵ A recent study by Harvard University found that when people breathe in too much C02 at their desk, their performance suffers – in some cases, by 50%.
⁶ Coverage in the Daily Telegraphfrom July 2018 citing the UK as still being a top location for financial services in