Employee wellness programs are one of the driving forces behind wearables in the workplace today. Employers and insurers are seeing increased value in employee wellness. Today these programs are largely focused on basic metrics like weight loss and management, step counting, and smoking cessation. Additional health-related metrics as well as other progressive views about what constitute wellness, however, are likely to be added over the coming years and they may significantly influence the design and function of the workplace.
One of the most significant health metrics that will be tracked by the Apple Watch when it launches next year is something incredibly simple - standing.
Put simply, human bodies weren't designed to sit for long periods of time without a break. This can lead to a range of different health and fitness issues for those of us who spend the majority of the workday sitting in front of a computer.
- Poor posture can lead to a range of back, neck, and shoulder problems or significantly exacerbate existing issues and injuries.
- Workspaces with poor ergonomic design can lead to neck and eye strain as well as to repetitive stress injuries impact the hands, wrists, and forearms - the most well known of these being carpal tunnel syndrome.
- Even moderate physical activity such as standing and walking briefly can impact blood pressure, digestion, and other bodily functions.
- Some studies have even shown that sitting for prolonged periods of time can impact cardiac health, risk of certain cancers and mortality even when accounting for other risk factors and when stretching to counteract the overall impact of static posture are performed.
The Apple Watch is one mass market device that will focus attention on standing and regular physical movement. More specialized devices focused on highlighting and correcting poor posture are also in development. Going an even more basic route, reminder apps that coach users to stand and move around could be used with mobile devices or even desktop PCs to encourage standing and related ergonomic behaviors.
Some workplaces are already adapting to these issues by offering standing desks to workers - either those with diagnosed back problems or those who request them to ensure better postural health. A related option being adopted by some companies is the use of treadmill desks that encourage both better posture and physical activity. There's also a growing movement for standing meetings, which not only impact the amount of sitting, but also encourage meetings that are shorter and more productive. Some evidence even suggests that standing or walking meetings increase employee engagement, participation, and morale during meetings.
All of these factors have the potential to redesign individual and collective workspaces to one degree or another. They also integrate well with the move towards flexible office spaces. As Brandy Fulton, Citrix's Vice President of Human Resources, discussed with me in 2013, flexible workspaces allow workers to switch between a range of different work options depending on their needs. Adding standing and treadmill desks and spaces designed for standing meetings and collaboration to the mix is a natural extension of this trend.
Exercise spaces are also growing among companies offering wellness programs. The reason is simple - offer fitness classes in the office and you encourage physical activity, weight loss, and even stress reduction. Although a conference room can often serve for an occasional class, a dedicated space encourages employees to engage in exercise outside of dedicated classes. They can also make scheduling or rescheduling classes easier.
These dedicated spaces actually go beyond traditional exercise classes in some cases. A small but growing number of wellness programs take mental health and stress reduction into account as well. This can mean in-office yoga and meditation classes. It can also mean dedicated space for supporting these habits throughout the day, which can be useful in ensuring stress reduction, employee interactivity outside everyday work encounters, and even offer increased opportunities for engagement and collaboration.
Some organizations have gone even further. In her recent book Thrive, Arianna Huffington notes that at one Huffington Post office, nap rooms are provided off the main newsroom for staff that spend large amounts of time on duty.
While these programs won't immediately spell an end for the office as we know it anytime soon, they are likely to encourage notable changes in many workplaces. As more companies see a range of values in employee wellness like lower insurance costs, fewer sick days, and increased morale and productivity, however, are likely to drive incremental changes in many industries over the next several years.