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FMs set to takeover the wellness world

For as long as anyone can remember corporate wellness has been run by HR departments. Often untrained in health and overloaded, it’s something most are lumbered with. Too often the only output is a poorly attended ‘wellness week’ squeezed between re-organisations.

Now, however, things are starting to change and change fast. The focus in corporate wellness is shifting towards property - towards the buildings in which corporate employees spend the vast majority of their working time.

Look no further than the plans released last week for Google’s new London HQ. Designed by Olympic Cauldron architects Heatherwick Studios and Bjarke Ingels Group (BIG), the building promises a masterclass in ‘active design’. A vast diagonal staircase will slice through the building's 11 stories to encourage face-to-face interaction and constant physical movement among the 7,000 Googlers to be based there. There’s a 25 metre swimming pool, a 200 metre rooftop running track, and a sports hall. Massage rooms, meditative gardens and lactation rooms will further protect and boost employee health, mental as well as physical.

For facilities managers of a glass-half-full disposition, the shift in wellness to focus on property offers dramatic and career enhancing change. The big driver for high-fliers over the past two decades has been the boom in environmental standards and engineering. Looking forward over the next 20 years, it’s a good bet that those expert in the interaction between human health and the built environment will be in high demand.

What’s driving the change? There are a number of factors but chief among them is the spread of long term health conditions such as obesity, type 2 diabetes, heart disease, and the realisation among public health experts that they are in large part ‘environmental’ conditions.

In some ways, this is a return to basics. The first major gains in public health were also environmental. The StepJockey office I write this from sits only a matter of meters from the water pump in Soho where, in 1854, the physician John Snow realised a fatal outbreak of cholera was spreading from. Over the next 100 years, infrastructure changes were made across Europe and America that allowed for better access to fresh water, light and air. Deaths from infectious diseases plummeted.

Today the challenge is not infectious disease but chronic long term conditions such as heart disease that are lifestyle (or ‘workstyle’) related. It’s not poor water or infection that drive their spread but a lack of movement and overconsumption. Put simply, the sedentary office is the stagnant water pump of our time.

“A significant body of research and historical case studies demonstrate that the design of the built environment can have a positive impact on population health”, says the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in the US. “Designers, real estate developers, building owners, and managers must play a key role in reversing these troubling health trends, by prioritising health in their facility investments”.

What’s the best way for facilities and property professionals to make the most of this change? How difficult can it be to become expert in something as simple as leading a healthy workstyle and applying it to office design?

It’s not difficult but it does require that you put what you think you know about health aside and start afresh. For example, it is almost certainly not coincidence that Thomas Heatherwick - the designer behind the Google building - is not an architect. He was brought in after the original firm, a conventional architectural practice, failed to impress, perhaps because they brought their conventional thinking with them.

The best place to start is with the scientific evidence-base for the interplay between health and the built environment which is extensive and growing fast. The two big new healthy building standards - Fitwel and WELL - both offer excellent induction schemes which walk you through the basics and provide a personal certification - assuming you pass the exam at the end!

Of the two schemes, Fitwel is the more basic, keeping things very focused on the evidenced essentials. WELL is considerably more detailed. It too covers the basics but also touches on some of the more cutting edge thinking (eg, circadian lighting) for which evidence is just emerging.

Needless to say both have a chapter on the natural gym in all multi-storey buildings - the stairs.

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