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How Do You Prove A Workplace Is Healthy, And Do We Need To?

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Healthy and sustainable construction became a trillion-dollar industry in 2016, and it’s doubling every three years. But while sustainable design is fairly backed by data supporting its impact and ROI, wellness is much more intangible, and workplace experts don’t agree on the so-called proof behind it.

Green building

“Anyone who says they can give you specific data proving that a given wellness measure works — I’d be skeptical,” said Nina Charnotskaia, who leads all of CBRE’s workplace research efforts in the Americas. 

Ask a room full of architects, developers, workplace strategists or HR heads where well-being fits into the built environment, and you’d be hard pressed to find a single one who thinks wellness isn’t a valuable strategy. But likewise, few believe all wellness practices have tangible benefits. 

That's the strange paradox of designing for wellness — without much undisputed data proving its effectiveness, the industry is growing quickly based on what people feel is a good idea.

Kirk Teske

A Fluid Concept Begets Varied Results

During the 1990s, the AIA, EPA, USGBC and many other public and private entities started formalizing the notion of building greener buildings. That began with sustainability — a focus on the environment and cost savings through efficiency. More recently, attention has shifted to wellness, with human beings at the core. 

Wellness advertises any number of potential benefits from more productive employees to spending less money on healthcare costs, from less employee turnover to greater recruitment and retention ability.

Central components to wellness include natural light, air quality, physical activity and a strong focus on reducing toxins in building materials, particularly finishes, HKS principal and COO Kirk Teske (above) said.

The International Well Building Institute’s WELL Building Standard also uses water, nourishment, comfort, mind and well-being as metrics.

“If you’re talking about investing in someone’s health, it’s tougher to measure than energy efficiency,” USGBC Northern California director Brenden McEneaney told us. “There may be societal, healthcare or recruitment benefits that serve as a marker of quality.”

Designing for sustainability is pretty straightforward — whatever your motivation, the tools and strategies are going to be similar. Whether you care about renewable energy or you want a cheaper electric bill, installing solar panels is a good bet. But the definition of a healthy office means something different to every business that pursues it, and each requires different tools. Maximizing worker productivity or minimizing worker stress would use different principles. 

And implementing an air purification system here and daylight harvesting lighting there could cost a company thousands without addressing a healthy workplace at its core.

If employers don’t first understand what health problems exist in the company’s built environment, the foundation of addressing wellness voids could easily become more about purified water than healthy people. 

And culture is more important than any building feature. “Wellness is the partnership that an employee and employer maintain that promotes health, creative thought and collegial atmosphere in and around the work environment,” according to CBRE SVP Dan Lyne.

Landscape architects may create a manicured courtyard connected to walking trails, but that doesn’t make the property any healthier for employees if the company’s culture encourages employees to spend their lunch hour sitting at a desk and staring at a computer. You can create a $1 trillion industry based on designing the greenest, most sustainable and healthy water trough, but you can’t force a horse to drink from it.

Gensler regional sustainability leader and principal Rives Taylor

“Forcing someone to work in a certain way doesn’t work,” Gensler regional sustainability leader and principal Rives Taylor (above) said, and what spurs healthy practices for one company may fall flat for another. 

When the discussion looks less like a math equation (i.e. doing X saves you Y) and more like a philosophical discussion, is a quantifying answer even replying to the right question? 

Outcomes Versus Strategies

Wellness is a less intuitive measurement than sustainability, Teske said. You can’t pencil out wellness using the cost of materials and calculate savings. Still, the field is evolving toward a more data-driven performance. The WELL certification, the CDC and Center for Active Design’s Fitwel program, the EPA’s Indoor Airplus program, the CDC’s Built Environment Assessment Tool and the Active Community Environments Checklist all aim to break apart what works and what doesn’t for wellness design. 

HKS created a labeling initiative in 2014 called Mindful Materials that promotes transparency of product ingredients so architects can easily see if a type of carpet, mattress or other product contains unwanted materials such as PVC. 

“Clients benefit indirectly from Mindful Materials,” Teske said. “Because our design staff now has a one-stop-shop for transparency.” HKS is rolling out a common platform to scale use for all designers. Mindful Materials is a tool to curate information, and it sprang from architects who question everything. 

“Folks who work in the design community are trained to be skeptical of data,” McEneaney said. And if that skepticism facilitates building a better body of knowledge around wellness, that’s fine — especially when it comes to vetting products and services, he said. 

But the evolution to data-driven benchmarking exposes a question of whether we should be measuring strategies or outcomes. Strategies can be tracked with less data, but often have less meaning. Whereas these certifications highlight projects that succeed in designing for wellness, identifying projects that succeed in making employees healthier is a different story. 

But that’s coming, McEneaney said, as long as WELL has willing participants. “To the extent that we can zero in on the biggest impacts in a complex environment, we should. It requires a willing participant pool to build this body of knowledge.”

Before joining CBRE, Dan Lyne was director of technology and development at World Business Chicago.

A Healthy Future

There are plenty of reasons to pursue a healthy work environment, with or without numerical proof. 

“Even if you don’t believe wellness is an investment to employees,” Lyne (above) said, “we’ve reached a tipping point in the talent wars where big companies must offer wellness as a non-negotiable in retaining employees.”

It’s an economic play, too. As obesity, heart disease and cancer rates reach new heights, healthcare costs have become a larger portion of a company’s total budget, climbing to about 8% in one study by Health Care Benchmarking Report. Worker presenteeism (when an employee is physically at work but mentally checked out) is on the rise. The American Institute of Stress reports 75% of workers believe they have more on-the-job stress than a generation ago.

Nina Charnotskaia | CBRE | Workplace Strategy

But there’s that tricky dichotomy again. If companies pursue wellness standards for profitability purposes first and foremost, it has implied that profits trump people. But if a company designs a healthy office based on the mountains of data that aren’t widely accepted, it may overspend on unproven practices. 

“We need to figure out what we’re proving,” Charnotskaia (above) said. “Are we talking about proving a water or electric savings of 50%, or are we talking about little nudges toward healthier behavior that make people happier and more productive?”

Charnotskaia has seen many of her clients institute these nudges, many of which cost nothing, to some success. One client made all meetings a maximum of 50 minutes, allowing employees 10 minutes between back-to-back meetings to stretch their legs or grab a snack. Such changes can be easily adopted, then refined or removed if they aren’t successful.

USGBC's Brenden McEneaney speaking at a healthy buildings event
credit: USGBC

There may never be lengthy studies published in peer-reviewed health journals proving the benefit of these little small strategies, but Charnotskaia can see the merit in the less tangible benefit of how employees feel. When you’re talking about human health, “is ROI really your most important metric?” McEneaney (above) asked.

Many architects see wellness design as a higher purpose. “Those of us in the architectural profession have a greater ability to improve public health than those of us in the medical profession. We must begin solving for wellness upstream,” Teske told us. As long as designers and office experts believe focusing on wellness in the workplace is the right thing to do, the $1 trillion industry will keep growing regardless of cold hard facts.