Prevention is better than a cure. One unhealthy employee jeopardizes your entire team's mental and physical well-being. By creating a culture that values health and wellness, you're showing employees that you care about them while potentially saving your company from high turnover and absenteeism rates.
Healthy employees are happier, more productive and likely to stay on the job longer. Here are four ways to encourage your team to take control of their health. [See related: Why You Should Offer an Employee Health and Wellness Plan]
Incorporate biophilic design
Biophilic design focuses on bringing the outdoors inside. Access to nature, like fresh air, greenery and sunlight, helps the body physically and mentally.
"Urbanization has caused most of us to lose our connection to green spaces. This is especially true in the workplace," said Sara Abate Rezvanifar, branding and communications director at Ambience Design Group. "Bringing elements into the workplace that allow a nature connection can help us to mentally recover from day-to-day stresses and improve our well-being."
Natural lighting is especially important. In a study by Cornell University's Professor Alan Hedge, workers in office environments with optimized natural light reported a 51 percent drop in eyestrain and a 63 percent drop in headaches.
"We humans have a biological clock that is synchronized with daylight," said Tom Paladino, founder and CEO of Paladino and Company. "It's called a circadian rhythm. It helps us stay in sync with the environment as the seasons change and regulates many of our normal health functions."
When workers are trapped indoors without natural lighting, their bodies are thrown off, causing fatigue and mental strain. Additionally, fluorescent lighting, often used to replace natural light, has its own negative effects.
Greg Bullock, marketing manager of TheraSpecs noted that fluorescent lighting often triggers migraines, post-concussion syndrome, and attacks or episodes for light-sensitive individuals. To avoid these issues, he said, opt for natural lighting or warm lamp, set up monitors to reduce glare, and encourage employees to step out of the office for breaks.
"Circadian can be programmed to provide high energizing blue and white light earlier in the morning, as the body naturally awakens and we get up and go," added Paladino. "The lighting can then gradually shift to lower levels throughout the day. These subtle changes are usually invisible to our conscious selves, but they are relished by our subconscious circadian systems."
Encourage movement breaks
Desk work involves long stretches of time when employees are not moving. Buying standing desks for your employees isn't the answer; the negative effects of desk work – like musculoskeletal disorders and increased risk of certain diseases – happen whether workers are sitting or standing. Instead, sedentary time should be broken up with periods of physical activity. [Ready to get moving? Try these three tips to stay active at work.]
"One way to improve office health is to use design that encourages movement throughout the day," said Rachel Lehn, business operations manager at Perfect Search Media. The company offers a private area for exercising and stretching, fit with foam rollers, yoga mats, kettlebells and bands.
"Employees love using the foam roller to roll out their backs or legs and loosen up after a long day of sitting," she added. "They do yoga during lunch breaks or even a quick HIIT session with the kettlebells. This designated movement area gives employees an opportunity to split up seven hours of sitting at a desk with more active breaks."
These breaks, studies have found, mitigate the damage of too much sedentary time at work. By encouraging employees to leave their desks, stand up and move around, you protect them from injury and increase their focus, which directly boosts your bottom line.
Offer healthier food options
If there are free pastries in the conference room, staff will likely jump at the opportunity for some sweets during a stressful day. While the occasional treat is necessary, constant access to junk food could trigger bad eating habits.
"Instead of bringing in donuts for the meetings, consider treating employees to granola bars and bottled water," said Nedelina Payaneva, marketing specialist at Asian Absolute. "Partnering with a company that provides fruit delivery services can ensure you have healthy snacks. If you can, help employees avoid junk foods in the vending machines by stocking the machines with tasty and healthy options – low in sodium and fat."
Mindless eating is a common yet concerning issue in the workplace. If you stock your office's pantry with fruits and nuts rather than cookies and chips, employees make healthier choices.
Do your part as the employer
If your business involves manual labor, be sure your employees follow both federal and local safety guidelines as well as recommendations for working in extreme temperatures. Always prioritize safety over cutting costs; in the long run, injuries can take your employees out of the workforce, increase your healthcare expenditure, and possibly even cost you money in litigation and settlement fees.
Don't forget to make sick leave available and create a workplace culture that encourages employees to use it when they need it. By normalizing sick leave, you create a supportive environment for workers, leading to better retention and higher productivity for your office as a whole.
You can also help your employees maintain good mental health. Provide mental healthcare as part of insurance options, and promote mental health awareness and self-care in the office culture. Be sure to treat your employees with mental health disorders the same as you would an employee with a physical illness, allowing them to take time off or temporarily reduce their workload if necessary.
By creating a workplace culture that prioritizes employee health, businesses can increase their competitiveness, retain workers and improve their bottom lines. In other words, it's a win for everyone.
Additional reporting by Katharine Paljug. Some source interviews were conducted for a previous version of this article.