Small steps to creat­ing a hu­man-friendly work­place

Em­ploy­ers have a role to play in re­duc­ing work­place stress and im­prov­ing staff well­be­ing

The Irish Times - Business - - WORLD OF WORK - Olive Keogh

In re­cent weeks, two il­lus­tri­ous bod­ies have flagged prob­lems with the Ir­ish psy­che. The OECD told us that 18.5 per cent of Ir­ish peo­ple have a men­tal health dis­or­der and that men­tal health prob­lems are cost­ing the econ­omy more than €8 bil­lion a year, while the ESRI re­ported that work-re­lated stress here has dou­bled over the past five years.

These are not ab­stract num­bers. They rep­re­sent real peo­ple with real prob­lems, and many of them are part of the Ir­ish work­force. As such, these re­ports should be of ma­jor con­cern to em­ploy­ers who have a role to play in try­ing to make things bet­ter.

Apart from the head­line-grab­bing num­bers, the ESRI’s re­port also made the point that work­place stress is a highly com­plex prob­lem, fraught with what its au­thor, He­len Rus­sell, de­scribes as “psy­choso­cial risks” in­clud­ing high lev­els of emo­tional de­mands on work­ers.

Tack­ling the big of­fend­ers such as bul­ly­ing, ha­rass­ment and un­rea­son­able work­loads is an ob­vi­ous place to start, but peo­ple’s men­tal well­be­ing – and con­se­quently their re­silience and abil­ity to deal with things – is of­ten im­proved by sur­pris­ingly small steps that em­ploy­ers can take to cre­ate a friend­lier work­ing en­vi­ron­ment.


These im­prove­ments can be sub­tle, and some – such as pos­i­tive re­in­force­ment – can be at the “touchy-feely” end of the em­ployer-em­ployee re­la­tion­ship, where not all man­agers feel com­fort­able. But even sim­ple things, such as en­sur­ing the heat­ing works prop­erly in the win­ter, can have a big ef­fect on how peo­ple feel at, and about, work, and can pay off in terms of pos­i­tive at­ti­tude and fewer sick days.

Phys­i­cal in­fra­struc­ture such as of­fice de­sign, per­sonal space, sound-dead­en­ing, good ven­ti­la­tion and ad­e­quate light all have a big im­pact on how happy peo­ple are in their work­ing en­vi­ron­ment. Get it wrong and there are con­se­quences.

For ex­am­ple, over­crowd­ing typ­i­cally leads to de­fen­sive be­hav­iour and poor in­ter­per­sonal re­la­tion­ships, as peo­ple have to pro­tect their patch.

Open-plan of­fices, once the epit­ome of pro­gres­sive think­ing, are no longer flavour of the month, as it turns out that peo­ple talk less and this can con­trib­ute to feel­ings of iso­la­tion. Open plan can also com­pro­mise em­ploy­ees’ abil­ity to fo­cus and, when peo­ple can’t con­cen­trate, they cope by dis­en­gag­ing from their col­leagues and so are less will­ing to col­lab­o­rate.

This type of open-plan of­fice be­hav­iour was an­a­lysed in a July 2018 study (The Im­pact of the “Open” Workspace on Hu­man Col­lab­o­ra­tion) by Har­vard Busi­ness School as­so­ciate pro­fes­sor Ethan Bern­stein and re­searcher Stephen Tur­ban, which showed the im­pact of open plan on em­ploy­ees’ face-to-face, email and in­stant mes­sag­ing (IM) in­ter­ac­tion pat­terns.

“Con­trary to com­mon belief,” the au­thors say, “the vol­ume of face-to-face in­ter­ac­tion de­creased sig­nif­i­cantly (by about 70 per cent) with an as­so­ci­ated in­crease in elec­tronic in­ter­ac­tion. In short, rather than prompt­ing in­creas­ingly vi­brant

face-to-face col­lab­o­ra­tion, open ar­chi­tec­ture ap­peared to trig­ger a nat­u­ral hu­man re­sponse to so­cially with­draw from of­fice-mates and in­ter­act in­stead over email and IM.”

When there is con­stant dis­trac­tion in the work­place, peo­ple’s cog­ni­tive and emo­tional re­sources are de­pleted as it re­quires so much ef­fort just to stay fo­cused. As a re­sult, stress lev­els go up, pro­duc­tiv­ity goes down, and peo­ple be­come more er­ror-prone.

Vis­ual and au­di­ble pri­vacy

Many busi­nesses need col­lab­o­ra­tive work­ing en­vi­ron­ments to thrive, but this needs to be bal­anced with break­out or quiet spa­ces where peo­ple can get away from the buzz and have both vis­ual and au­di­ble pri­vacy. There is also am­ple ev­i­dence that where peo­ple work in an aes­thet­i­cally pleas­ing space and/or have ac­cess to sooth­ing fea­tures such as an ex­te­rior view and nat­u­ral day­light, it can be restora­tive and can coun­ter­act at least some of the stress and brain drain.

One of the ways em­ploy­ers can re­duce em­ployee stress at this time of the year is by turn­ing the lights on, says Dr Sarah O’Neill, a psy­chol­o­gist with Dublin-based cor­po­rate health com­pany Spec­trum Well­ness.

“The on­set of win­ter, dark evenings and wors­en­ing weather can re­ally af­fect our sense of over­all well­be­ing,” she says.

“In the work­place, sea­sonal mood changes can re­sult in greater lev­els of ab­sen­teeism and re­duced pro­duc­tiv­ity. Staff morale can dip, di­rectly im­pact­ing the wider work­ing en­vi­ron­ment.

“For em­ploy­ers, changes may be sub­tle and they might feel it’s not their place to get in­volved, but it’s of­ten in the best in­ter­est of both em­ployer and em­ployee that emo­tional well­be­ing is­sues are ad­dressed proac­tively to re­duce nega­tive out­comes.

“Mood changes are not un­usual and peo­ple shouldn’t be overly con­cerned if they no­tice a dip in en­ergy lev­els or a change in ap­petite.

“How­ever, when such changes neg­a­tively im­pact our phys­i­cal or men­tal well­be­ing, they can­not be ig­nored, par­tic­u­larly at work, where we spend so much of our day.”

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