The ability of workplace and facilities managers to influence the wellbeing of those they employ and serve came under the microscope last month at the annual Workplace Futures conference in London.
How wellbeing and wellness were defined and affected, from an organisational cultural perspective as well as both physically and mentally, were subjects addressed across a variety of presentations from service providers, psychologists and consultants.
The topical nature of the conference theme was evidenced by the number of speakers who referenced the same statistics such as the 12.8 million working days lost because of work-related stress, depression or anxiety or the £45 billion cost of poor psychological health for UK business.
Speakers were keen to emphasise both the work done recently to address wellbeing in the workplace and the work necessary to inculcate it further within their own organisations and within those of clients.
The event started with Kath Fontana, managing director, public sector, critical infrastructure and capital projects at Mitie - and president-elect of the Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors - saying that "positive social impact will be a defining purpose for FM professionals".
"Everything we do is designed to effect positive change in the built and natural environments, and to be a positive force for positive social impact."
But in rallying attendees to the cause, she expressed concern about the sector's ability to sell itself, suggesting there had been no change in FM procurement practice since the collapse of Carillion.
"Unless we are willing to recognise, understand and own the consequences of our decisions as they play out, we are never going to address them," said Fontana.
"I hold my hands up and acknowledge that our industry has not always got things right, our industry is still hugely cost-focused. It is dependent on low-paid workers. The race to the bottom is still fully operational.
"What does it take for our industry to change? We need to ask ourselves that question. [Carillion] was the biggest crisis in our industry and nothing has changed."
Facilities managers, said Fontana, have a "huge responsibility" as stewards of the real estate industry, which makes up 70 per cent of the world's wealth.
Failures in decision-making
Responding to Fontana's presentation, Mike Cant of Larch Consulting contended that, in fact, FM procurement has advanced enormously.
"What's failing is decision-making," argued Cant. "It's not about procurers; they do what they are told. Their techniques and systems are incomparable to those of the Eighties and Nineties - they are fantastic today. But they are driven by other people - and we've got to influence those other people."
Louise Aston, wellbeing director for Business in the Community, suggested a likely return on investment for every £5 spent on wellbeing initiatives has increased in recent years from a factor of three to one, to five to one.
Dr Craig Knight considered the impact on worker wellbeing of spartan and open-plan offices, suggesting the productivity gains reported from such workplaces were unlikely to be true: "You are unable to measure productivity by questionnaire."
Six Sigma approaches to efficiency were alienating, said Knight. Improved worker wellbeing, engagement and productivity were more likely where workers had agency in the design and implementation of their workplaces, said Knight. "When it becomes a fight between spartan/minimalist space and enriched high-design space, it's a no-contest."
Leesman's Kyde de Bruin defended open-plan offices - "we know in some cases open-plan strategies have been very successful" - and showed Leesman data suggesting workers, many in agile and open-plan offices, were feeling more productive in their workspaces.
The data showed concerns about physical wellbeing but only 37.2 per cent of respondents said "the design and or location of my workplace encourages me to be more physically active". And de Bruin said Leesman's most alarming numbers concern mental wellness - "our big challenge is inappropriate noise levels. Even the best-performing organisations tend to struggle here".
Sodexo's So Young Hyun's presentation focused on the company's newly launched Vital Spaces division.
"People are still organisations' greatest asset but they expect to work on their terms," said Hyun. "Wellbeing is multidimensional. It's all about our efforts to understand human dynamics in the workforce."
Although codifying and addressing wellbeing issues has been happening apace, there was, said Hyun, a failure by some to see wellbeing as a priority. The big challenge, she said, was a lack of collective knowledge of what constitutes best practice.
Donna Vizzini added OCS's voice to the service providers explaining their wellbeing "awakenings". Over three years, OCS has introduced two qualified mental health trainers, a hundred mental health first-aiders and 500 mental health champions. Later, Engie's Jamie Quinn spoke of his company introducing 169 mental health first-aiders.
Vizzini gave harrowing examples of mental health issues she and other OCS employees had faced, explaining the background to the company's recent work to support its employees in this regard.
Emotionally intelligent buildings
Later, Dr Edward Finch spoke of too many "benumbing" offices being "a modern-day crime". Co-author of the book Creating Emotionally Intelligent Workspaces: A Design Guide to Office Chemistry, Finch added to an emerging theme of open-plan offices being an issue for worker wellbeing, with case studies showing that, instead of prompting more face-to-face collaboration, open-plan systems appeared to trigger "a natural human response to socially withdraw from office-mates and interact over email and IM instead".
"Forget the intelligent building. We've been talking about the intelligent building for past 40 years. Let's instead have emotionally intelligent buildings," said Finch. "We are missing a trick. This is our baby. The built environment is the media through which we can convey emotional intelligence. Why are we not talking about the environment and the obstacles that presents to us being emotionally intelligent? FMs are all about clearing those obstacles."
He said it comes down to FMs already having a good understanding off the social model of disability as opposed to the medical model: "I want to apply the same argument to emotional intelligence".
While HR departments are making big decisions about people in their organisations, they are not yet talking about the physical or office environments those people are working in. Further analysis of the issues raised at Workplace Futures will appear online.
- By 2030, 50% of workers will be suffering with chronic health conditions (World Health Organisation, Mercer Research, Mind Workplace Wellbeing Index)
- One in six employees is experiencing a mental health problem at any one time (Deloitte Mental Health and Employers Jan 2020)
- 62% of managers faced situations where they put the interests of their organisation above the wellbeing of colleagues (BITC Mental Health at Work Report in partnership with Mercer Marsh Benefits 2019)
- "Wellbeing is the next trillion dollar industry" McKinsey
- 12.8 million Working days lost due to work-related stress, depression or anxiety (Labour Force Survey)
- £2.4 billion lost by replacing staff with mental health issues (Centre for Mental Health)
- 2.3% Higher share price for companies with high trust culture (Great Place to Work)