In the buildings industry, we talk a lot about the health and wellbeing of occupants, but what do these terms really mean and what’s the difference between them? Can you be healthy and lack wellbeing, or achieve wellbeing in poor health? These terms have become central to the generation of value in modern real estate, yet many in the industry may not really know what they are buying, selling, or ignoring. As the global health crisis continues around the world, Memoori explores these terms that have already become critical to the future of the building’s industry.
The World Health Organisation defines health as “a state of complete physical, mental and social well-being and not merely the absence of disease or infirmity,” making it clear that wellbeing is fundamental to health. The definition also suggests that physical wellbeing rather than physical health covers the physical portion of health, meaning someone can achieve wellbeing in poor health. More often than not, however, we use the term ‘health’ to describe someone’s overall condition, while appreciating the impacts of physical, mental, and social elements on that overall state.
In the buildings industry, health is symbolized by technological applications such as air quality monitoring for better ventilation, human-centric lighting for circadian alignment, or office density management for disease control. Health also covers company policies such as free food options in the office, discounted gym memberships, cycling initiatives (also environmental), or the stance towards sick-leave, for example. All of these relate to physical health while appreciating that there are social and mental benefits that lead to better physical health. Those healthy employees are usually then less absent and more productive, driving the health trend in workplaces.
Wellbeing is a more difficult word to define. Traditionally wellbeing referred to the absence of disease and disability, but more recently wellness has come to describe something that you have more personal control over. More often than not, wellbeing is now a word used to describe living the best possible life you can regardless of your physical health. In fact, modern “wellbeing” goes beyond physical health to recognize the mental, social, emotional, and spiritual elements that lead to contentedness and fulfillment. Having wellbeing is therefore maintaining an agreeable balance between mind, body, and spirit.
“Wellbeing is a growing area of research, yet the question of how it should be defined
remains unanswered. Many attempts at expressing its nature have focused purely
on dimensions of wellbeing, rather than on definition. We conclude that it would be appropriate for a new definition of wellbeing to center on a state of equilibrium or balance that can be affected by life events or challenges,” state Rachel Dodge et al. in a Journal of Wellbeing paper. “By proposing this new definition, which we believe to be simple, universal in application, optimistic, and a basis for measurement. This definition conveys the multi-faceted nature of wellbeing and can help individuals and policymakers move forward in their understanding of this popular term.”
More often than not, wellbeing in the buildings industry refers to workplaces with breakout rooms that provide space for yoga, meditation, and ping-pong, or the presence of alternative features like bean bags, hammocks, swings, and slides. Workplaces that focus on wellbeing might adopt biophilic approaches that link natural views and office plants with positive emotions or carefully optimize the office soundscape to create a more relaxed environment. These factors could be described as less tangible elements, modern/millennial fads, or even unnecessary distractions by many, and more often by older generations used to the traditional office approach.
“Workplace design and workplace culture go hand-in-hand. Recently, I connected with the chief mindfulness officer at a Fortune 500 company. He told me that he had received ample congratulations for his efforts to provide rooms for meditation and contemplation in all of the company’s corporate offices, but, he said, “That doesn’t mean anybody uses them”,” writes Rachel Gutter, President of the International WELL Building Institute (IWBI). “A restoration room is likely to go unused if workplace culture discourages taking breaks throughout the day, even though we know they are beneficial to well-being.”
Though more than 85% of large employers offer wellbeing programs, Gallup research shows that only 60% of US employees are aware that their company offers a wellbeing program and only 40% of those who are aware of the program say they actually participate in it. Overall, only 24% of employees are participating in wellbeing initiatives offered by their companies, but they get credit for offering them to 60% of employees, and it no doubt offers an extra push for potential recruits. Wellbeing programs are creating value for employers but not really by increasing the wellbeing of employees across the organization.
“Too often, lack of participation in workplace wellness programming starts at the top. A growing body of research underscores the importance of engagement and participation by leadership. Leaders are best positioned to champion these efforts, as they are able to link new initiatives to broader organizational goals, reach all levels of the organization, and allocate sufficient resources to launch and sustain them,” continues Gutter. “Employees take notice of the commitment that their leaders make to their own health and well-being. I’ve found that being vocal about my commitment to my personal well-being gives permission to others in my organization to embrace their own.”
The true value of wellbeing in commercial real estate is not being realized due to a misunderstanding about, and lack of commitment to, the concept itself. Physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual health are just factors in a person’s overall wellbeing, and good wellbeing is what creates the most loyal, collaborative, innovative and productive employees.
In workplaces taking this holistic view, wellbeing provides the best path to improve occupant health and productivity, wellbeing also attracts talent and fosters loyalty, and ultimately cultivates long-term sustainable success.