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Sick of work? Or is work making you sick? A Guide to Healthy Work Environments

by Dr. Candace Nykiforuk University of Alberta | June 30 2016

I’m no fortune teller, nor gambler, but if I had to make a bet I would guess that you are at work, reading this sitting down. A lot of us work in stationary settings and don’t even realize the negative impacts this can have on our physical, emotional and mental health. If I was a betting person, I would also say that by the end of the week (or day!) your back is sore, your eyes are strained and your nose is irritated from the dusty, dry air at work. And maybe, you feel tired or burnt-out. Although we may love the work we do, work environments do not always love us back.

The impact that our work environments have on our mental, emotional and physical health is profound. As a result, it is in everyone’s best interest that work environments support happy, healthy and productive employees. Health-promoting environments require a systems thinking approach that takes into account the unique circumstances of employees, their personal workspaces, the greater work environment and what happens beyond the workplace walls. Although all workplaces are different—a small start-up, a school and a large corporation have vastly different needs—the basic principle of a healthy workplace remains the same: use design to encourage health-promoting environments

Wait, What? I’m Just One Person in a School!

I know, I know. I can hear you now…“It’s not possible to completely redesign or rebuild our workspace.” Initially when thinking about creating a healthier workplace, the idea might seem daunting. Let’s take a step back, as luckily there are easy (and small) things that you, as a wellness champion, can do to improve your workplace environment that doesn’t require major renovations. A simple change may involve working with your colleagues to ensure there is a designated space to eat lunch as a group. This can help boost feelings of belonging and self-esteem by encouraging positive social connections. Another change may involve taking your next meeting outdoors, whether that is through a walking meeting or just sitting outside enjoying the fresh air. While these small changes are really great, if your workplace is considering more major renovations, it provides an opportune time for you as a wellness champion to advocate or work as a collective towards things like dimmer lighting, air controls and addition of ergonomic furniture such as adjustable chairs and sit/stand desks. This infographic highlights several ways workplace environments can support employee health, by fostering individual health—and more importantly, by creating social and physical settings conducive to health.

Start Small and Ripple Out: Ideas for Next Steps

So the next time you are organizing a session or workshop for your group, or you’re looking to spruce up your current work space, consider the setting you’re working in. Does it have access to natural light? Do you provide opportunities for people to get out of their chairs, move around and mingle with one another—or eat their lunches together? Are there other opportunities for physical activity or active living nearby like a gym or a park? Given that most of us spend about 1/3 of our day at work, it is essential that our workplace is a healthy environment. This will help ensure we are able to perform to the best of our abilities. So what kind of change can you implement to make a healthier, happier workplace?

Dr. Candace Nykiforuk

As an associate professor in the School of Public Health at the University of Alberta and health promotion superhero, Candace has spent the bulk of her career focusing on aiding communities in the development and implementation of healthy public policy and creating healthy environments. These accomplishments notwithstanding, Candace has been unable to conquer her fear of heights despite her superhuman ability to make a frog with her hands.