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Does workplace wellbeing need a health check?

21 June 2023

The physical, mental and social wellbeing of employees remains high on corporate agendas, with employers recognising the importance of creating nurturing working environments and supporting their staff in ways which now often transcend what might be seen as a traditional employer/employee relationship.

Having effective wellbeing strategies is, of course, not entirely altruistic; it can ultimately improve the bottom line. A well-cared-for workforce is always going to be more productive than a burnt-out one, and companies are increasingly using wellbeing initiatives to attract and retain talent.

When we wrote about wellbeing last year as part of The Great Office Occupier & Developer Debate, it was clear that discussions about wellbeing were already influencing the shape and form of office spaces, as well as informing how workforces were returning to the office post-Covid. There were conversations about tenants partnering with their landlords to improve amenity offerings in the workplace, and about occupiers looking to use their offices differently from the ways they had before. Flexibility of space and biophilic design (“bringing the outside in”) were often cited as examples of ways to embrace a new era of wellness. We also looked at ways employers could capture “little drops of joy” and harness a “feel good factor” in everyday office life, with the aim of creating more human-centric workspaces – whether that be through impromptu ice cream delivery, wellbeing walks, lunchtime Zumba classes or an early evening music recital.

Some organisations have certainly embraced these ideas more than others. For example, it is reported that Diageo’s Soho offices now include a whole floor dedicated to the wellbeing of its staff (a space housing a studio running exercise and meditation classes and an on-site massage therapist). There are other companies offering similar wellbeing services, and more, to their employees: doctors, pharmacists, dentists and chiropractors all on tap for staff at some larger organisations. Mindful Chef’s London office has a “vertical farm wall” growing nearly 100 kinds of edible plants from rainbow chard to curly parsley, and Google’s new office development in King’s Cross will reportedly have an indoor basketball court, a swimming pool, landscaped gardens and a 200-metre rooftop running track when it opens next year.

But do such corporate wellbeing initiatives actually achieve what they set out to do? There is a growing school of thought that they might not.

According to a City AM report earlier this month, studies suggest that the $50billion+ companies spend on wellness initiatives is largely wasted – simply because such initiatives do not adequately focus on the factors that have the most effect on workplace wellbeing. An employee’s welfare and happiness are instead tied to concepts such as autonomy, competence, belonging and purpose. As Barbara Jeffery of McKinsey Health Institute said in a recent article for Raconteur, “we can’t yoga our way out of workplace wellbeing issues.” A yucca plant and a meditation session won’t solve an unhappy workplace. “Businesses need to invest in the underlying problems to create the necessary cultural change,” Jeffery explained.

In other words, it seems that while the “little drops of joy” are positive and welcomed additions to the workplace, perhaps it is more important to look at why wellbeing initiatives are needed at all in the modern working environment. With that we see that the most meaningful approaches to wellbeing are ones that are embedded in the culture of the business. Although every workplace is different, examples of such meaningful approaches might include allowing more flexible working arrangements, ensuring that there are appropriate resources available for staff (in terms of personnel, procedures and technology), instigating robust risk assessments for stress, implementing an authentic and inclusive approach to leadership and management, and showing genuine care and interest in the professional development of all staff. Many forward-thinking businesses are already addressing this point alongside the other headline-grabbing initiatives, some aren’t.

A recent report from Knight Frank’s (Y)OUR SPACE platform picks up on this shift by highlighting an emerging wellbeing trend: a focus on personal growth and development. The report predicts that educational amenities will become an increasingly important feature of the future office – library spaces, classrooms, conference spaces and events programmes. Indeed, it makes sense that a happy workforce is one where employees feel positive about their futures and feel fully supported as they work hard to climb the career ladder. Any initiatives which aid these goals are likely to have a meaningful impact, perhaps more so than the provision of free fruit, Pilates classes and ping pong tables.

For now, it seems inevitable that wellbeing agendas as we know them will remain firmly fixed to boardroom tables, as companies grapple with what to offer and how best to use the office space they have to improve their wellness programmes. It may be that such offerings come under further scrutiny in the coming months and years, as more questions are raised about whether they remain fit for purpose and whether businesses find there is a tangible return on the investment. However, the key point is that wellbeing initiatives shouldn’t just be treated as perks or as a tick-box exercise for ESG credentials; it is far more important that employers create a workplace culture which has wellbeing embedded right in the heart of it.

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RE: VISITED - The Great Office Occupier/Developer Debate

In 2021, Lewis Silkin and HCG hosted three separate panel sessions where the views from senior members of the Occupier and Landlord communities were heard on a range of key, current topical issues within the real estate industry. This follow on-series brings together some of the key themes from those sessions in relation to ‘The Great Office Occupier/Developer Debate’ as we reflect on the past year, merging the best of the old ways of doing business with the best of what was learnt during the pandemic.

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