Nutrition and Hydration Week 2020


In partnership with Innovate UK (the government’s agency for innovation), Mitie and Sheffield Hallam University collaborated on a Knowledge Transfer Partnership to explore the impact of the workplace environment on employees’ wellbeing and productivity. In this series of articles, the PhD student leading the research, Michael Roskams, will discuss the key findings from the research.

Understanding the office environment

Did you know? Natural Light is the number one desired natural element in workplace design, preferred by 44% of respondents. Employees in the workplace with natural elements, such as greenery and sunlight are 15% more creative. Source: Human Space. 2015.

How can you measure the physical workplace environment?

In years gone by, to measure the indoor environmental quality of an office, you’d have needed to use a clunky cart equipped with lots of different types of sensors. Hiring the carts and the operatives who knew how to use them could quickly became a very expensive process, so most organisations simply didn’t bother. As a result, many offices have poor indoor air quality, uncomfortable temperatures, and inadequate lighting – if it’s not being measured, it’s difficult to improve.

However, recent developments in the field of wireless sensor technology have made it far easier for organisations to understand the performance of their office environments. Sensors are comparatively cheap to install and operate. Hundreds or even thousands of sensors can be installed within a building, and their data can be visualised in real time using a simple front-end portal.

These sensors have the power to transform the facilities management industry, helping practitioners to immediately identify and rectify any problems in the workplace environment. However, the technology is so new that the academic research hasn’t had the chance to catch up yet. Environmental “comfort boundaries” found in certifications such as the WELL Building Standard are mostly based upon experiments conducted in purpose-built climate chambers, and it’s possible that people’s comfort in real offices might be slightly different.

What research did we conduct?

To test how effective these comfort boundaries are in real workplace environments, we conducted a pilot study with 15 employees. We fitted an office with sensors to capture live measurements of carbon dioxide (CO2), temperature, humidity, light intensity, and sound level at each workstation. Over a two-week period, the employees were repeatedly asked to quickly rate their satisfaction with these different aspects of the workplace environment. The two streams of data (physical environment and questionnaire responses) were then brought together to explore the impact of the indoor environment on subjective environmental comfort.

The full research report has been published in the Journal of Facilities Management, but I’ll run through the main findings below.

What were the findings?

The data from the sensors showed that the CO2 in the office was consistently above the 800 particulates per million (ppm) upper limit recommended in the WELL Building Standard. Indeed, CO2 tended to get higher and higher as the day progressed, rising to approximately 1,600 ppm on average in the afternoon. This was a surprise, given that the office was relatively new and high-spec. This is a clear indication of how environmental sensors can be effectively used to highlight problems that are otherwise difficult to identify.

Indeed, when we combined these readings with the questionnaire data, we found that higher concentrations of CO2 were associated with more negative ratings of air quality and lower self-rated productivity. This corresponds with lab studies which have shown that As such, we confirmed that cognitive performance is 101% higher when CO2 is at 600ppm rather than 1400ppm. the comfort boundary for CO2 is very important in real workplaces, and can be effectively monitored by using wireless sensors.

We did not find any significant associations between the other comfort boundaries and subjective comfort in the pilot study. Possibly, this was because the office environment was generally comfortable, and the boundaries for temperature and light were adhered to throughout the study period. In future, it will be necessary to conduct research at a wider range of offices including those with poor indoor environmental quality, to get an even clearer idea of how sensors can be used to monitor and improve comfort.

How to make the workplace healthy

Workplace strategies can play a crucial role in indoor air quality – invest in healthy building materials, advanced ventilation design and maintenance, biophilic design approach, etc. Source: HOK. 2016

Why do we need healthy workplaces?

It’s estimated that we spend about 90% of our lives in buildings. For many of us, this time is split pretty evenly between two buildings – our homes and the office where we go to work. Unfortunately, there is growing evidence to suggest that poorly-designed offices can make us ill in various ways.

Helping employees to stay healthy at work isn’t just the right thing to do – it also makes business sense. Absenteeism already costs the UK economy approximately £29 billion per year, and the cost of presenteeism (i.e. working while ill) has been estimated to be double or even triple that. Companies might even lose staff because of unhealthy working environments, setting in motion a lengthy and expensive process of recruiting and re-training new employees. In short, UK employers could achieve massive cost savings by providing healthier workplaces.

To explore this in more detail, the first step of my Knowledge Transfer Partnership was to explore what is already known about health and wellbeing in the workplace. The full literature review has now been published in the “healthy buildings” special issue of the Journal of Corporate Real Estate, but I’ll sum up the main findings below.

What are the causes of ill health in the workplace?

In certain ways, the workplace environment can be pathogenic. In other words, the majority of workplaces contain various features which directly or indirectly harm health.

For example, it is common for shared offices to have stuffy and polluted indoor air, due to the combination of high levels of human respiration, pollutant-emitting materials and furnishings, and inadequate ventilation. Coupled with poor lighting and uncomfortable temperatures, and this can create a pretty unhealthy working environment. In fact, scientists recognise that these factors contribute to a phenomenon called “sick building syndrome”, in which certain symptoms (e.g. headaches, difficulty concentrating, blocked nose, respiratory irritation) when spending time in a particular building, but improve after you leave.

Another source of poor health in offices is the requirement for desk-based office work, which drives people towards sedentary lifestyles and unhealthy eating habits. We’re often expected to spend the 40-hour work week sat down at our desks, with limited opportunities for physical activity. This sort of lifestyle contributes to obesity and musculoskeletal problems in the short term, and even more serious cardiovascular illnesses in the long term.

Finally, it’s not just physical health that can be affected in offices, but mental health too. Anyone who’s worked in a busy office will no doubt be aware of the various daily occurrences that cause stress – crowded workspaces with a lack of privacy, frequent distractions that stop you from getting your work done, a lack of control over working conditions. Does that sound familiar? Over time, these small but persistent stressors can build up, and lead to emotional exhaustion and burnout.

What opportunities for health promotion are there in the workplace?

On the flip side, a carefully-designed workplace could also be salutogenic. In other words, it can be designed and maintained in such a way that supports the wellbeing of the employees, helping them to maintain healthier lives.

For example, many workplaces have now started harnessing the beneficial effects of nature by integrating indoor plants and other natural features into the indoor environment. Exposure to nature has been proven in numerous studies to help people recover from stress, and restore depleted energy reserves. In the context of the office environment, this means that employees are able to more effectively cope with daily stressors and prevent them from building up into more serious problems.

Secondly, workplace designers can support health and wellbeing by designing workplaces which encourage people to interact with each other. For example, they could provide formal and informal ‘break-out spaces’ for collaborative spaces, and/or shared eating spaces for people to take a break and socialise during lunch. Workplaces with zero interaction can be pretty lonely and isolating spaces, where the everyday strains of working life start to seem even more stressful. Conversely, having social support in the workplace can help people to stay positive and enthusiastic whilst at work.

Finally, even small and seemingly insignificant aspects of the workplace environment have been proven to help support employees’ wellbeing. Are you one of the many office workers who likes to decorate their desks with pictures of family or friends, or with objects that are meaningful to you in some way? Again, this can help you to deal with stress more effectively, and shouldn’t be discouraged. Studies have shown that desk personalisation helps to support the psychological need for the expression of personal identity, and so has a positive impact upon employee’s wellbeing.


Improving nutrition and eating behaviours

Obesity is one of the top three global social burdens generated by human beings.
A company employing 1000 people could lose more than £126,000 a year in lost productivity solely due to obesity. Source: The National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (NICE).

If the growth rate in the prevalence of obesity continues on its current trajectory, almost half of the world’s adult population is projected to be overweight or obese by 2030.

Beyond the Food

Behaviour is thought to occur both through deliberative and impulsive processes
Nutritional food is the starting point. Deliberative: Education and motivation. Impulsive: environment that facilitates wellbeing.

Choice Architecture Deliberative

Education and encouraging personal responsibility are necessary but not sufficient—additional interventions need to be in the mix that rely less on conscious choices by individuals and more on changes to the environment. Subconscious interventions not only have greater impact than conscious ones; they are also more cost-effective. Source: McKinsey Global Institute. Overcoming obesity: an initial economic analysis. 2014.

The way that dining environments are designed can shape eating habits.

Not only does adequate restaurant lighting provide form and function, but light also contributes to our other sense of taste, touch, sound, and smell in these culinary environments.

There are a number of combining factors that create a poor acoustic environment in restaurants, which harms diner satisfaction.

Research reveals that softening the lighting and music leads people to eat less, to rate the food as more enjoyable, and to spend just as much. In contrast to hypothesized U-shaped curves (people who spend longer eat more), this suggests a more relaxed environment increases satisfaction and decreases consumption.

Behaviour Change

Taking the conversation beyond ‘good nutrition’ to explain the connection between food habits and good physical and mental health; NUTRITION & PHYSICAL PERFORMANCE, NUTRITION & MENTAL HEALTH and HEALTHY EATING HABITS

How can Mitie help?

Mitie’s Wellbeing consultancy offers a comprehensive environmental monitoring service, including an experience sampling survey. We can help you to understand the performance of your office environment, in terms of both the physical characteristics and employees’ subjective perceptions. Using these data, we can help you craft effective solutions for improving comfort, wellbeing, and productivity in your workplace. To learn more, please get in touch using the form.