Green team: A sustainable workplace for healthier, happier employees

Advice and top tips

Green team: A sustainable workplace for healthier, happier employees

There has been much talk of us building back greener in the wake of the Covid-19 pandemic. But what does a green recovery look like for businesses and employees?

Going green in the workplace benefits more than just the environment. By making changes to the office environment and encouraging green habits, employers can positively influence employee health and wellbeing – and in turn boost productivity.

Here we look at four workplace adaptations and initiatives that can help boost business sustainability, while improving the health and wellbeing of workers.

The biophilia route to improved air quality

Although the impact of poor air quality on our health has long been recognised, the issue was brought to the fore this year following the inquest into the death of Ella Adoo-Kissi-Debrah. The government has now pledged to raise awareness of air pollution and has also moved to bring in new legal limits for pollutants.

Covid-19 has made people more conscious of the undetectable in our environment, but awareness of indoor air quality has not always been as prevalent as it has for our outdoor spaces, where fumes from familiar pollutants, notably vehicle exhausts, can often be smelt and tasted.

Air pollution indoors, however, can reach much higher levels than outdoors – typically up to five times(1) – and the consequential effects on workplace health and wellbeing can be extremely damaging.

High levels of carbon dioxide (CO2), and even low levels of pollutants, can cause symptoms in employees that range from headaches and fatigue to nausea, dizziness and eye, nose and throat irritation.

Enriching office spaces with plants can help mitigate the detrimental impact. Studies have demonstrated that plants can help filter the air and are capable of removing chemicals such as benzene, trichloroethylene, and formaldehyde(2). Furthermore, they are effective at reducing concentrations of carbon dioxide.

The psychological and aesthetic benefits of a biophilic workplace – a term used to describe and environment that promotes our connection with the natural world – on employee wellbeing cannot be underestimated either. Greenery and natural environments have been found to reduce symptoms of depression, stress and anxiety(3) .

Moreover, the combined physical and psychological benefits of a ‘green’ office has been proven to boost employee satisfaction, concentrations levels and productivity(4).

Daylight and lighting in focus

A green lens can also be applied to lighting. Maximising employees’ access to windows and exposure to natural light not only reduces a business’s reliance on electric lighting – typically responsible for up to quarter of an office’s energy use(5) – it has been shown to improve staff sleep patterns, productivity and their quality of life.

This is because daylight exposure is linked to regulating our body’s circadian rhythm, which is important for both sleep quality and cognitive functioning.

Indeed, workers in offices that have windows receive 173 per cent more white light exposure during work hours and sleep an average of 46 minutes more per night(6).

Where it is possible to do so, employers should opt for workspaces that maximise natural light, or remodel their existing workplaces.

Where natural light is being utilised, however, the risks of screen glare and the potential for overheating should also be considered. In some cases, this can be addressed by installing electrochromic glass, which when tinted allows for the flow natural light while still minimising glare.

For other businesses, the existing design of their workspaces make the need for electric lighting a necessity. In such cases, innovations in smart lighting and energy-efficient LED technology should be explored. Computer-controlled lighting systems have now been developed that can mimic outdoor daylight patterns, including brighter white in the morning and warmer tones in the afternoon and evening.

Feeling the heat?

Adopting green energy management measures that ensure a ‘thermally comfortable’ workplace can be challenging for employers, with a variety of factors influencing personal levels of employee satisfaction.

According to the Health and Safety Executive (HSE), the environment should not only take account of air temperature, but also humidity, air speed and surrounding surface (radiant) temperatures. Personal factors include employees’ choice of clothing, their natural tolerance for heat or cold, along with their work and metabolic rate.

Getting the thermal environment right, however, remains an important ingredient to a green, happy and productive workplace.

The Workplace (Health, Safety and Welfare) Regulations 1992, advises that “during working hours, the temperature in all workplaces inside buildings shall be reasonable”.

What constitutes ‘reasonable’ will depend on the nature of the work being carried out and the environmental conditions of the workplace. According to the Health and Safety Executive (HSE), however, the ideal working temperature in a non-domestic building is at least 16°C, or 13°C for strenuous work.

Employees working in uncomfortably hot and cold environments are more likely to lack concentration and research has indicated a four per cent reduction in performance at cooler temperatures and a six per cent reduction at warmer temperatures(7). Ability to perform manual tasks can also deteriorate, which can lead to health and safety being compromised.

It can be beneficial for employees to control their personal environments by being able to adjust thermostats or open windows as needed. In open-plan spaces, where this is more difficult, employers should review opportunities to increase air movement by improved ventilation, direct air movement to reduce draughts and consider the introduction of smart temperature management systems. This can help adjustments to be made based on the number of people in a building or weather conditions, while helping employers to balance green energy management with employee health and wellbeing.

Active design

The introduction of workplace initiatives and facilities that support exercise can also play a role in helping businesses address both environmental and health issues.

Creating an environment that makes it easier for employees to make healthier decisions can encourage positive, health-related behavioural changes, while reducing energy consumption and a company’s carbon footprint.

By providing secure, convenient bicycle storage and shower facilities, for example, and putting a cycle to work scheme in place, companies can establish themselves as cycle-friendly employers. In doing so, they will not only reduce their impact on the local environment and help cut the business cost of congestion, studies suggest they may also benefit from reduced levels of employee sickness absence(8,9).

It should be noted that the government’s Cycle to Work Scheme now includes e-bikes and the original £1,000 cost limit has been removed.

Other initiatives might include a ‘take the stairs’ scheme in applicable office buildings, promoted using motivational internal communications, to encourage employees to walk rather than using lifts. This can help reduce electricity usage, while offering an effective way for employees to incorporate more physical activity into their working days.

Indeed, Public Health England has reported “strong evidence for the effectiveness of interventions to increase stair use(10)”.

(1) US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA)
(2) NASA study, 1989
(3) Survey of the Health of Wisconsin, 2014
(4) The relative benefits of green versus lean office space, 2014
(5) Health, Wellbeing & Productivity in Offices, World Green Building Council, 2014
(6) Impact of Workplace Daylight Exposure on Sleep, Physical Activity, and Quality of Life, I Chueng, 2013
(7) Effects of thermal discomfort in an office on perceived air quality, SMS symptoms, physiological responses, and human performance, Lan L, Wargocki P, Wyon DP, Lian Z, 2011
(8) Commute and Exercise Survey, Sustrans, 2013
(9) TNO Research, February 2009
(10) Health Matters: getting every adult active every day, Public Health England, 2016