People

All together now: seven dimensions of workplace wellbeing

Getting lost amidst a plethora of wellbeing models for the workplace? Confused by the complexity of health systems? A new academic model simplifies the story of workplace wellbeing

The debate in public health about how workplace health interventions can address a growing chronic disease epidemic has already lasted for several decades. Much more recent is widespread awareness of how the built environment can support better wellbeing.

Various leading health organisations such as the World Health Organisation (WHO), European Network for Workplace Health Promotion and the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have introduced the concept of health-promoting workplaces, emphasising integrative solutions in four areas to tackle such a complex problem in a comprehensive manner: physical exercise, healthy diet, mental health and healthy lifestyle. As health is defined by the WHO as having physical, mental, and social wellbeing, strategies around the workplace have been developed to enhance these three domains of wellbeing.

PROWELL Model

Following this health-promoting workplace concept, a new framework has been developed by 22 leading workplace practitioners and scholars in the US and UK to identify dimensions and measures of workplace health and wellbeing in the built environment.

A total of seven dimensions have been identified as relevant and important to achieving workplace health and wellbeing at the organisational level. These are: Physical Fitness, Physical Comfort, Physical Nourishment and Environmental Wellbeing (physical domain); Cognitive Wellbeing and Emotional Wellbeing (mental domain); and Social Wellbeing (social domain). This model is called PROWELL©.

A set of critical topics were also identified under each dimension, and another set of measures under each topic to achieve workplace health and wellbeing. These topics and measures were derived from: various theories and practices such as biophilic design, environmental preference theory, evolutionary psychological design, and active design principles; standards and guidelines for green buildings and health and wellbeing – promoting built environment; and health – related recommendations from the WHO and other established authorities.

These seven dimensions of workplace wellbeing in the PROWELL© model delineate a comprehensive approach health and wellbeing in the workplace where various factors influence one another in systems of complexity.

Seven dimensions to consider

Sedentary postures and inactivity, a dominant mode of the contemporary workstyle, have shown a strong association with chronic diseases that have been blamed for over 60 per cent of all deaths. To promote physical fitness, PROWELL© suggests a set of strategies integrating design/spatial interventions based on active design and evolutionary psychology principles, and also policies and benefits to encourage people to participate in fitness programmes and activities.

Physical Comfort addresses comfort issues in the major human senses and body system, including four sensory systems: visual, auditory, thermal, and olfactory. When it comes to health issues, food and diet cannot be left out. Diet is known to be the second most significant lifestyle factor contributing to health, and, surprisingly, has also shown a keen relationship with mental health in nutritional psychiatry.

For Physical Nourishment, PROWELL© includes strategies to provide healthy food amenities and encourage health-conscious eating habits and behaviours through choice architecture.

Cognitive Wellbeing is a critical dimension in the workplace to enhance mental processes of attention, memory, problem-solving and reasoning. Cognitive Wellbeing strategies comprise four major themes: providing appropriate types of spaces; flexibility and flow of major workspaces; technology and equipment accessibility; and cognitive ergonomics for visual-spatial processing and acoustic stimuli management.

Social Wellbeing in PROWELL© focuses on enhancing social connectivity and supporting social systems in the workplace. Socialisation activities at work have been shown to reduce work demand-related stress and negative affect at the end of workdays; increase cohesion; and decrease employee turnover. Emotional Wellbeing supports emotional states of happiness and satisfaction, which is directly related to overall quality of life. Three major topics are known to support Emotional Wellbeing, including biophilic design, art and design elements for pleasure, and personalisation and control of the environment. Lastly, Environmental Wellbeing includes strategies in providing non-toxic and clean environment via indoor air quality, drinking water quality, chemical control, and cleanliness and maintenance.

Applying in practice

With a flood of information and professional tips, you are now charged with a new enthusiasm and ready to roll out plans. But one last note of caution: a workplace is a complex system. Pursuing workplace health and wellbeing may seem as easy as providing some yoga sessions or treadmill desks. But it is more meaningful if you are able to plan strategically to tie workplace health and wellbeing initiatives to your own organisational outcomes, and specify dimensions more suitable to company goals and pursuits.

When doing so, it is also important to deliberate over trade-offs between them. Creating open spaces to increase social wellbeing will decrease auditory comfort. Introducing random plants and aromas may trigger allergies and repulsive reactions among people with hypersensitivity. Thus, attention needs to be paid to scientific evidence, rather than anecdotal success stories, and consultations with proper professionals will be required to initiate truly meaningful workplace health and wellbeing planning. What has worked elsewhere might not necessarily work for your organisation.

For more reading, an open access book chapter is available: Workplace Health and Its Impact on Human Capital

Young Lee PhD is a Visiting Research Associate in the Institute for Environmental Design and Engineering at University College London, director of the Innovative Workplace Institute in New York, and a lead researcher on the open source tool PROWELL©. The PROWELL© framework was presented by Dr Lee at the Healthy City Design International Congress 2019, supported by WORKTECH Academy