The next privacy bump: should employers study your DNA to support wellness?

As workplace health and wellbeing rises fast up the business agenda, WORKTECH’s Wellness 2017 conference at Credit Suisse in London asked uncomfortable questions about our performance economy

Would you be willing to give a sample of your DNA to your employer so that your entire work environment – from settings to diet – could be scientifically redesigned to improve your personal health and wellbeing?

That was the bombshell question posed by Tom Savigar of The Future Laboratory, a speaker at WORKTECH’s second specialist Wellness conference, held at Credit Suisse in London on 5 September 2017.

According to Savigar, handing over your DNA to the HR department could be ‘the next privacy bump’ for employees in a world of work looking ever more closely at ways to optimise performance.

Research from The Future Laboratory with Unum showed a third of UK workers feel exhausted at trying to juggle work and life in a ‘performance economy’ that is increasingly unsustainable. Savigar said that we’re all becoming ‘everyday athletes’, which is why the wellness market is growing so fast.

Mindful design

While body optimisation remains a key focus in re-energising the workplace, the big money is now chasing after the mind. Mindfulness is growing in popularity and brain training is becoming de rigeur, especially for older workers to avoid early-onset dementia. Pro-focus cubicle culture is coming back so people can avoid the constant interruptions that drive them crazy.

Switching off and having a mental refresh is in everyone’s interests; so is having a good night’s rest. Sleep is the new frontier of wellness, according to Tom Savigar. If the last thing you touch before you drop off is your digital device, not your partner, you’re in trouble.

Mindfulness should be practised not just by harassed employees but also by office designers who create the work environment, according to design commentator Aidan Walker. He told the Wellness 2017 conference that there are seven principles of mindful design to follow: curiosity, compassion, creativity, craftsmanship, communication, collaboration and critical intelligence.

If sustainability is ‘saving the world from ourselves’ then mindfulness is ‘saving ourselves from ourselves’, said Walker. But do we want to be saved? Simon Williams of Transport For London kicked off the conference by talking about how to support employees and build resilience through the onrush of change. ‘Wellbeing is integral to successful change, he explained, noting how Transport For London’s peer support system of ‘change champions’ has relieved pressure on line managers.

Stress kills creativity

Other speakers offered their own recipes to relieve stress at work. Ali Ganjavian of Studio Banana demonstrated his famous and widely popular creation the Ostrich Pillow, showing how people can power nap in the workplace if they’ve not had sufficient rest the night before. Kate Cook, nutritionist and author of the Corporate Wellness Bible, discussed how nutrition can affect our minds, improve focus and bind teams.

In a compelling address, Bruce Daisley of Twitter advocated having happier friends (attracting ‘radiators’ and avoiding ‘drains’), managing your battery, finding your flow, being your whole self and inspiring creativity at work through chatting (an idea apparently inspired by Alex Pentland’s book Social Physics).

Like other speakers, Daisley attacked open plan space for damaging wellbeing. ‘There is zero evidence that open plan offices achieve  anything,’ he declared, adding that our mood is hardly lifted by Londoners having the longest commute in Europe of 74 minutes.

Open communication

Louise Aston of Business in the Community (BITC) looked at the importance of line managers to address mental health into organisational culture. Brendan Street of Nuffield Health and Adam Spreadbury of Bank of England explored the need for open communication to break down the stigma attached to mental health. And Laura Jackson of Credit Suisse focused on the role of line managers at the front-line of change, peer networks and supporting employees as individuals.

What all these proposed networks of support are grappling with is a world of work in which new technology has speeded everything up and people feel out of control. Dr Almuth McDowall, a senior lecturer in Organisational Psychology at Birkbeck University, took an interactive approach to encourage delegates to explore how much we are addicted to our smartphones. A panel featuring speakers from RICS, CBRE and the Lion Heart charity highlighted how an always-on culture overturns work-life balance.

Ultimately we all need healthier, better-regulated workplaces to help us cope. Could the new Well Community Standard, launched at the Wellbeing conference by Dr Christine Bruckner of M Moser Associates and Ann Marie Aguilar of the International Well Building Institute Europe, point the way forward?

Biophilic design

The conference closed with designer Oliver Heath discussing the importance of biophilic design to create more sustainable, better balanced workplaces. It is an innate human desire to be surrounded by nature. Heath’s view is that there are three essential workplace strategies: contact with nature (placing water, plants, trees, light in the office); natural analogies (evoking a sense of nature through colour, texture and material); and human spatial response (designing spaces that are restorative).

Like much else at the Wellbeing conference, this was sensible, actionable intelligence based on proper medical evidence. But as the wellness industry continues to grow, so the workplace remedies being offered to the workplace industry are set to become more complicated. Tom Savigar pointed out the paradox when he exclaimed: ‘Wellness is becoming a tsunami of stress for people’.

Interviews with Wellness speakers

Ali Ganjavian of Studio Banana

Aidan Walker of Aidan Walker Associates


In-depth interviews with Wellness 2017 conference speakers can be found in the INNOVATION Zone  
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