ThinkingThe WELL Building standard versus corporate wellness programmes – where to invest?

Stephen Marks, founder of Mind Body Building, believes companies should prioritise investment in healthy buildings over workplace wellness strategies
Content Team6 months ago13 min

Companies everywhere are now turning their attention towards making the physical work environment healthier. New metrics such as WELL and Fitwell give guidance on how buildings can interact with human health and this movement is likely to grow in the future.

At the same time, we have already seen a wave of corporate wellness programmes in bigger organisations – think in-house yoga and Pilates classes.

However, at some stage is there possible that a company will face a choice between investing in a healthy office and a corporate wellness programme? And which way might they go?

The future of wellness

If you’re in any doubt that wellness is currently at the forefront of companies’ and employers’ minds, consider these two pieces of evidence.

In the first instance, wellness has been identified as a super trend by business consulting firm Frost and Sullivan, set to grow every year until 2025.

Second is the emergence of a metric known as Environmental and Social Governance – ESG. You may be excused if you have not heard of this! ESG is a module used in assessing what can be described as the triple bottom line in an organisation – profits, people and the environment. You might know it by another name, corporate sustainability.

If you don’t think ESG matters, think again. In America at the last count 81% of companies included in the S&P 500 index were engaged in corporate sustainability reporting. And in May 2017, the London stock exchange issued guidance on setting out recommendations for good practice in ESG reporting.

Investors are now taking ESG very seriously and Picket Asset Management‘s chief strategist suggested in the FT earlier this year that ESG is “ the next big thing to come” for major investors. Importantly, companies can show they are aligned to ESG by implementing a corporate wellness program or adhering to a healthy building metric.

The case for corporate wellness

Let’s turn first to corporate wellness programmes, which have big benefits for staff and can include fitness classes, as well as sessions on stress management, resilience, nutrition, sleep and mindfulness.

Hundreds of medical research papers are produced every year on the positive results of yoga practice for example – just to take one common offering. On a physical level, pretty much anyone who works long hours in a deskbound job will find that yoga postures or other activity-based sessions like Pilates release tension.

On a mental level too, yoga induces calm and helps relieve embedded stress patterns in the body, by working with the connective tissue or fascia. It is great to see office workers reconnect with their bodies and regular classes aren’t cost prohibitive for a business, but take-up can vary and attendance needs to be regular to feel the benefits.

Problems with participation

Herein lies a potential problem. With corporate wellness programmes, participation is voluntary. You can’t make an employee attend a class if they say they are too busy. People can also be too competitive sometimes (let’s face it corporate culture encourages it) and the thought of being a beginner can be demotivating for a senior executive. Interestingly it’s women who are generally more receptive, especially to yoga.

Recently, there has been critical press around corporate wellness programmes and the Global Wellness Institute cited two particular contradictions in their newsletter.

There was the US tech company with an expensive and all-encompassing corporate wellness programme, which also demanded that their European business executives took part in regular conference calls late at night. Then there was the large trading house, which put into place an elaborate corporate wellness program while simultaneously imposing unrealistically high KPI (Key Performance Indicators) upon its employees.

Corporate wellness cynicism

Some sceptical employees have even questioned whether corporate wellness programmes are just strategies to get more out of them. The spiritual leader Thích Nhất Hạnh (considered by many to be the father of mindfulness in the West) gives an interesting perspective on this.

When asked whether business leaders are corrupting the core Buddhist practices with wellness programmes, he said that as long as they practice “true” mindfulness, it does not matter if the original intention is triggered by wanting to be more efficient in the office or to generate more profit. That’s because the practice will fundamentally change perspective on life, as it naturally leads people to greater compassion and develops the desire to end the suffering of others.

A focus on the built environment

This debate aside, another approach to wellness is looking at making the physical environment within which you work healthy. This could involve incorporating lighting systems that work sympathetically with the body (in harmony with the circadian rhythms), ensuring better quality indoor air and providing quiet areas.

Achieving a recognised healthy building standard can be a more intensive capital project. However, changes in the environment are less intrusive than stipulated behavioural change, and we know now that over 70% of our health is determined by environment and behaviour. The science of epigenetics reveals that only about 30% of our health is pre-determined by our genes.

Recent research papers from Harvard and studies conducted by CBRE demonstrate not only that healthy buildings improve cognitive performance, but that they produce very positive attitudes in staff – encouraging better retention and attracting the best talent.

A defensive approach may come into play here too, as companies seek to avoid future litigation from employees over poor air quality or inadequate work stations.

A worthwhile investment

The cost of implementing a healthy building standard may not be as prohibitive as you might think, if a company looks at such a project as part of its fit-out. Cundall reckon that the cost of achieving a silver WELL certification at its 15,000 sq foot London office equated to £200 per person or £30,760.

As a recent paper from the Urban Land Institute entitled “The Business Case For Healthy Buildings” reports, even a 1% increase in staff productivity or a 1% decrease in staff turnover can have a noticeable effect on a company’s bottom line. And Cundall is very much of a view that the initial investment will reap long term benefits, so much so that it is applying for an even higher WELL standard on their new Birmingham office.

There are strong arguments too that when it comes to wellness, a passive intervention is more likely to work – think improved air, light, water quality, materials and work stations.

Of course, the irony here is that some of the concepts outlined in the WELL Building Standard, such as movement and nourishment, actually relate to behaviour and would require HR to be involved. Such behavioural measures can range from subsidising gym membership and the use of wearable technology, to actively promoting the use of staircases in the building, labelling calorie count and portion sizes in any canteen, and maintaining wellness resource libraries on site.

Whether companies seek to pursue a corporate wellness programme or a healthy building standard will be a finely balanced choice. Ultimately either direction will be beneficial to staff, but the pursuit of a healthy building is in my view a much better option.

This approach goes some way to addressing the way staff behave within the building as well the health benefits that come with an enhanced physical environment. You get much more than corporate wellness programmes, under which attendance and proper engagement can vary.

Enjoyed this article? Find more content on the WELL standard here


Stephen Marks is the founder of Mind Body Building and a thought leader at the Global Wellness Institute.

Content Team

Work in Mind is a content platform designed to give a voice to thinkers, businesses, journalists and regulatory bodies in the field of healthy buildings.

Subscribe to our newsletter