Productivity paradox: no gains without workforce wellbeing

As companies struggle with low levels of productivity, new UK research on wellness in the workplace suggests that creating a fitter, happier workforce is the first step to better performance and profitability

Against a background of growing political concern over Britain’s weak productivity growth, new research from the UK suggests that improving employee conditions in the workplace might contribute to better performance.

The study, Wellness Together, carried out by Sapio Research on behalf of a research syndicate comprising six UK companies in the office design field, concedes that the link between the workplace and productivity is not a direct one.

Nevertheless it provides evidence that creating an environment in which employees are more physically and mentally fit will lead to the type of creative and innovation-oriented work on which productivity gains can be built.

Indeed the study makes the argument that measures of innovation and creativity are a surer sign of the profitable company than traditional measures of productivity. And building a culture of creativity and innovation depends of building a culture of wellness in which such diverse factors as fresh air, quiet spaces, employee consultation, plants, showers, personal lockers, digital collaborative tools and variable lighting control can play a role in raising levels of personal wellbeing.

Complexity requires attention to detail

Sapio Research spoke to 1,000 office employees and 50 facilities managers across the UK in compiling the Wellness Together study. It discovered there is no quick behavioural or technological fix for wellbeing in the workplace. This is a complex subject that requires that attention be given to all aspects of the workplace – from building infrastructures to company cultures.

The report addresses one of the most puzzling aspects of the UK economy – persistently low levels of productivity despite a marked decline in absenteeism through ill health. This is a pattern also seen in Europe and North America. The researchers conclude that presenteeism (being at work while unwell) is costing British companies twice as much as absenteeism.

A preference for choice and control

Wellness Together also holds up a mirror to employee preferences and behaviours. People generally want more freedom and choice in how and where they work, and more control over their environment, an aspect that extends from the provision of healthy food and sit-stand desks to control over working hours.

People working in more senior roles are more sensitive to distractions and also more reactive to improvements in their environment, and the same is true for those who work at different sites or locations most days. The more agile and flexible that working life becomes, the more it seems that workplace comfort is a critical factor.

‘The more agile that working life becomes, the more workplace comfort is a critical factor…’

Having your own desk divided opinions in the survey. Half hankered after their own personal workstation, but half dismissed it as an important consideration, showing how the game has moved on. Better ventilation emerged as the number one environmental factor for improvement in the workplace, closely followed by natural light penetration and temperature control.

A quarter of employees surveyed complained about loud colleagues, but messy desks and smelly sports kits proved to be even bigger bugbears in the workplace environment.

Significantly, more than half of those who took part in the research (55 per cent) recognised that there is a problem with their own company’s productivity. Will a more comprehensive focus on wellbeing at work address this?  The Wellness Together report suggests why it might be a good place to start.


The Wellness Together report is available here.