The Science of Workplace Design.™
The Science of Workplace Design.™

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Are you making your employees ill?

Jon Wilson, Design Director

Illness isn’t good for business. 


There’s the short-term issue of day-to-day disruption and asking other employees to pick up the slack, as well as the longer-term costs associated with lost productivity, replacement cover, potential staff attrition and new staff training.  With sickness costing the UK economy in excess of £18 billion per year[1], an ageing workforce and a global talent shortage that’s made retaining the brightest and best a daily challenge, there’s a question that all good, employee-minded organisations should be asking – could you be making your employees ill?

Wellness drives employee engagement and is directly related to economic capacity.  Research shows that those businesses with a high level of employee wellbeing outperform the stock market by 2-3% each year[2], proving that an unhealthy workplace is both unproductive and commercially crippling.  As the Institute of Occupational Safety and Health (IOSH) says: “Workplace wellbeing and performance are complementary and a dependent part of psychologically and financially healthy organisations.”

The thought of the workplace or an organisation’s culture directly contributing to poor employee health is difficult to consider, but it is all too common. Sedentary behaviours, a mental health epidemic and workplace pressures to do more with less, are just some of the factors that can leave employees in poor health.

Although it may seem a new concept, wellbeing is far from a new idea.  Amongst the first pioneers of employee wellbeing were the Cadbury brothers, John and Benjamin in Birmingham and the Lever brothers, William and James in Wirral who, in the late 1800s recognised that improving employee welfare, housing and access to education not only made a valuable societal contribution but directly benefited the financial performance of their businesses too.   Modern day workplace wellbeing, when done correctly, builds on this legacy and encapsulates employee engagement and motivation as well as emotional, physical and mental health. It’s a far-reaching discipline and one that is underpinned by making employees feel valued, appreciated and supported in their work and home lives.

However, despite a very compelling rationale for wellbeing which can be traced back more than one hundred years, some organisations are still failing to put their employees first.

Here are the five primary areas in which organisations are making their employees ill:


1.Poor leadership

Poor leadership is one of the biggest contributors to disengaged and eventually, unwell employees.  A lack of clarity about an organisation’s direction or a culture founded on unrealistic workloads and inadequate training, for example, can lead to apathy and disengagement.  Disengagement is the enemy of wellbeing as it can lead to reduced effort and productivity, lowered commitment and often a higher propensity for conflict, grievances, poor morale and illness.

If employees don’t feel aligned with a company’s values and ethical behaviours, the success of any wellbeing programme will be undermined, for wellness is intrinsically linked to shared purpose.  As the IOSH said: “We know that being in work can be one of the best things for health,
as long as the work is ‘good’. Employers should help keep their workers well and healthy by making sure that work isn’t carried out in conditions that lead to stress, MHDs or other health problems.”[3]

While clear leadership and support for wellbeing certainly needs to come from board level directors, it’s important to remember that line managers must also reflect the same values in their actions too.

2.Lack of training and on-boarding

Regular and adequate training underpins most professions and employees’ performance.  Organisations that don’t put enough value on professional development stand to leave talent feeling un-challenged and unsupported, thereby heightening stress, anxiety and discord in the workplace.

Training isn’t just linked to professional skills either – it also relates to how to behave and use the workplace too.  Increasingly businesses are investing in modern, agile and choice-led workspaces, but not the on-boarding and training needed to ensure employees know how to get full value from them. Do employees know how to use the video conferencing facilities and feel empowered to use them rather than travelling to a meeting 100 miles away? Do they know that they can use alternative spaces for quiet work or collaboration, rather than having to be at the same noisy desk?  To avoid workplace investment causing unwanted stress for employees, it’s important to thoroughly communicate the benefits of an agile workplace and how different work settings and technologies can accommodate different working styles

3. Absence of a values-driven culture

Culture is a critical component of wellbeing as this determines how people feel about their employer and work and whether they are valued, respected or trusted.  It’s what combines a company’s unique character, values, beliefs and attitudes all in one.  If employees don’t feel empowered and trusted to make choices about how, when and where they work, don’t have the support of their peers or line managers or find the workplace an unhappy place to be – wellbeing will suffer.   The Great Places to Work study sums it up: “A culture which is built on values such as trust, honesty and openness providers the foundations for wellbeing and engagement to flourish.”[4]

4. Ignoring the basics

As the benefits of biophilic design[5] become more commonly understood, it is important to recognise how three seemingly simple elements – light, temperature and noise – can have a huge impact on employee wellbeing and happiness.  Organisations that fail to get the basics right show little regard for their employees and underestimate how damaging this can be to morale and wellbeing.   Consider whether there is enough access to natural light, adequate ventilation in the summer/ heating in the winter and the impact of noise.  Noise transfer is one of the most common complaints about open plan working, affecting concentration and privacy, interfering with employees’ ability to get the job done and adding to workplace stress.

5. Ineffective design and lack of stimulus

Poor workplace design directly impacts performance and wellbeing yet many businesses don’t give sufficient thought to the employee experience and how work is undertaken when embarking on the design process.   If quiet booths are located in noisy parts of the office, meeting rooms aren’t equipped with collaborative technologies or relaxation areas are located near to the client suite, they will always be under-used.  Design that fights against the needs of its users will only cause frustration and in time, corrode morale and wellness too.

Tired, drab and unstimulating spaces do not make for happy work environments either. Environments that offer variety and stimulation and that create opportunities for colleagues to work together, all help to create a sense of belonging and shared goals.

Making the workplace better.

So, with an increasing acceptance that wellness underpins productivity, there are some practical steps that companies can take to improve workplace culture and environment in order to motivate, inspire and care for employees:


Engage with employees and shape your culture.

The need to engage with employees is two-fold – firstly it’s about identifying what areas of the business they would like to change in order to improve their emotional and physical experience, the second is to make ongoing engagement and communication a defining characteristic of the organisation. Collating employees’ views on how, when and where they work as well as their feelings on how well work settings support them and overall job satisfaction, provides a useful understanding of the starting point and can determine the path ahead.

As Richard Branson said “Too many companies are too keen to put multitudes of rules and regulations on their staff. Not only does this stifle flexibility, but it suggests a lack of confidence in your team to do their jobs as efficiently and effectively as possible. Give your people freedom to be independent, and your business will reap the rewards. I truly believe that if you take care of your employees, they will take care of your business.”[6]


Audit business processes and facilities.

Building on step one, it’s necessary to take a closer look at the workplace and its facilities and whether they work effectively.  Workplace consultants can monitor and analyse the physical performance of the workplace and the behaviours of those using it, before identifying potential changes to better convey organisational values, build a supportive culture, improve information flow, stimulate wellbeing and better manage property costs.


Build a business case for why wellbeing matters to your organisation.

Call on HR to provide analysis about the costs associated with sickness and staff attrition and see what data is available on the efficacy of recruitment, team productivity and overall performance. This will identify key challenges and provide clues as to the projects and initiatives required to respond.  For example, if the objective is to reduce annual days lost to sickness then the business case might identify this challenge and focus on finding ways to improve access to GP appointments, changing the way sick-pay is provided and hosting free ‘be healthy’ seminars for employees.


Create a policy that highlights the holistic value of people.

Wellbeing is about prevention rather than just cure and so it should involve finding ways to help employees be happy and healthy and to improve the quality of their lives. Creating a wellbeing policy can be useful to set out the context and need for employee wellness and spell-out the company’s pledges and promises to its employees. It can also be useful for investor relations and managing company reputation too.  A policy might set organisational benchmarks and targets as well as outline positive initiatives such as community projects for employees, access to smoking cessation services, fun ways to show appreciation to colleagues or the introduction of flexible working.  It’s important to remember that the success of a policy or charter will always rely on effective communication and consistent cultural behaviours to drive take-up.


Train managers to do more than manage.

All too often line managers have practical job experience and technical skills, rather than the people skills to support their teams. Invest in all managers and give them the empathy and mentoring skills needed to build effective teams. This should include guidance on how to spot the warning signs that a colleague is suffering from stress, anxiety or ill health. Nick Davison, head of partnership health services at John Lewis said in an interview with Personnel Today: “It is very easy to lose sight of the fact that the vast majority of people are at work and not off sick, but being at work doesn’t mean you are well and firing on all cylinders…We have worked hard with line mangers to get earlier intervention as we know it leads to earlier recovery.”

Identifying high performing and healthy workplaces.


The four key drivers of wellbeing have been identified as employees’ values being aligned with the company’s, the ability to belong and feel part of a team, the work environment and recognition[7],  so it is clear that wellbeing and engagement are strategic enablers of efficiency, productivity and profitability.   As Advisory, Conciliation and Arbitration Service (ACAS) says: “Job satisfaction – including aspects such as satisfaction with training, skills development opportunities, how much autonomy employees have in their role, and how much scope they have to use their own initiative and influence decisions, show a strong and positive link with workplace performance.”[8]

A high performing workplace is one where company goals are well defined and understood by employees, communication is frequent and open, team working and cooperation are the norm and there is a culture of support and wellbeing.  The common thread linking all of these elements is a firm understanding and prioritisation of employees and their needs.

Wellbeing is not about managing illness when it happens or providing soft perks and benefits for employees. It is about recognising the value of people and putting them at the heart of a business. Employee-minded employers do this by building supporting and inspiring workplace cultures, encouraging positive life choices and effectively designing ill-health out of their workplaces.  They reap the benefits through lower absenteeism and its associated costs, improved reputation and talent recruitment, more productive employees and greater profitability.

Client - Triodos Bank View Project

Unlocking the value of wellbeing.

Explore Research Methods

There is no denying that a positive, affirming and people centric workplace culture is the bedrock of successful wellbeing – and successful wellbeing is the bedrock of successful business.

To find out more about Harmsen Tilney Shanes’ experience auditing employees’ needs and translating them into workplaces which harness wellbeing, visit our research methods section of our website.


To read the first feature in the Harmsen Tilney Shane Wellbeing Series, click here.

Useful reading & references.

[1] Taken from the Change at Work report from the Centre of Economic and Business Research commissioned by workplace absence management specialists, FirstCarehip’

[2] Research carried out by Professor Alex Edmans of the London Business School on Great Place to Work data as quoted in Wellbeing and the importance of workplace culture by Great Place to Work.

[3] Taken from the Working Well Guide – IOSH

[4] Taken from the Great Places to Work ‘wellbeing whitepaper.

[5] Biophilic design seeks to netter connect people and the built environment with nature

[6] From an interview in Media Planet’s Future of Business and Tech:

[7] Taken from Great Places to Work ‘Wellbeing and the importance of workplace culture’ whitepaper

[8] Taken from Government Review of Employee Wellbeing as quoted on ACAS:

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