We spend a lot of our lives at work and where we work can have just as big an effect as our role itself. Let's face it, most of us have been in less than perfect conditions at some point in our careers!
What is undeniable is that where we work has a strong effect on how we feel. It's a big influence on our level of safety during the working day. Almost all workplace accidents are avoidable and design can play an important role in stopping problems in their tracks before anyone gets injured.
It's rare for an employer to have the opportunity to design an office from scratch. But little changes can help too. Whether you're re-fitting an existing workplace, relocating somewhere new or simply tweaking your existing arrangements, there are changes you can make to benefit all employees.
Getting the Basics Right
The workplace's layout is one of the most important aspects of its health and safety. In lots of cases, the design features will not be consciously noticed but will nudge people towards more safe behaviour.
Try to make every area accessible to all. Don't just take your current staff members into account. Even if few employees have mobility issues now, that doesn't mean new hires won't – and existing employees can develop them too. It pays to be prepared.
Take into account evacuation procedures. Whether it's a fire, a bomb threat, flooding or another sudden event, you may need to get everyone out quickly and safely during stressful situations. Having a well thought out plan in place, backed up by sensible placing of workstations near to the exits, can make all the difference.
The lighting must always be carefully placed and strong enough to ensure maximum visibility. This is especially true around stairs and in storage areas. Many slips, trips and falls are completely avoidable but happen because people can't see where they're going. This extends to outside areas too. It could be a personal safety issue to have employees walking long distances through the dark on their way home.
Employers should also consider hygiene. Standards in this area can make the difference between one person having a bug and spreading it like wildfire through the whole office.
People should have space to move around during the day. Sitting at desks for entire working days isn't healthy for many reasons and can contribute to musculoskeletal issues.
Stress is a huge issue for UK workplaces. Millions of us suffer from work-related stress every year, with many of these cases becoming long-term and resulting in illness.
Of course, the design of a person's office isn't the only factor at play. "Working conditions" doesn't just mean physical conditions, and policies such as flexible working, a zero-tolerance approach to bullying and harassment, and fair pay can all make a huge difference to the mental health of workers. Even a perfectly designed office won't change the culture if people are overworked and bullying is rife. Employers need to look at the full picture when improving working environments and avoid the temptation to look for a quick fix.
That doesn't stop the environment itself from having a huge impact. People benefit from a wide variety of types of spaces in their offices. As well as the traditional desks, make room for areas to relax during breaks, smaller "quiet areas" for involved individual work requiring concentration and meeting rooms for teamwork. The sort of space your colleagues need will depend on the sort of work they do, so there's no "one size fits all" solution.
Bringing some elements of nature into the workspace has benefits for employee health and wellbeing. This doesn't have to be complicated: even a few well-placed plants near to where people work can make a difference.
Colour theory suggests even the décor can have an impact on stress levels. The rule of thumb suggests blue is good for productivity, green is calming and yellow is energising. No colour should be over-used but it can be a fun guide when deciding which spaces should be which colour.
There are so many factors at play that affect health and safety in the workplace. Looking at the layout and design of the office is just one step employers can take to ensure they're taking their duty of care to their workers seriously.