The body at work - fulfilment begins with physical well-being

As my dedicated readers will know, January has been purpose month here at disorder@theborder. I’ve looked at ways in which we can find a sense of purpose in our personal and working lives. And I’ve come to the conclusion that finding our way can only happen when we feel good.

It starts and ends with the body

Whether those of us who treat our bodies as a carrier for our brains to be pumped full with crap - chemical or otherwise – like it or not, a healthy body really is a healthy mind. To me, everything lifestyle coaches, mindfulness practitioners, business theorists and especially brand gurus say is hot air unless it’s backed by a belief that it all starts with the body.

Even if we’re not taking care of our bodies in the way that we should, all of us know what we’re meant to be doing. But is that the case when it comes to business? Why are most offices such grim places to work? Why don’t companies appear to really care about the health of their employees.

The healthy office

With these questions in mind, I spoke to Elizabeth Nelson of LAB. Liz and I work closely together on a digital health blog and she’s one of the most interesting, informed and opinionated thinkers in this area I know.

Liz is currently doing her PhD in biosensors and biomedical engineering at the University of Twente in the eastern part of the Netherlands, known as the entrepreneurs university. Part of Liz’s PhD involves researching into how to create a ‘healthy office’ and she’s working with the world’s leading property management company.

How would you define a healthy office, Liz?

I actually see an office as an ecosystem where lots of different elements have to be got right to help make people feel great and capable of doing good work. When companies don’t nurture this office ecosystem, they’re relying purely on the nature of employees’ own bodies. And even a healthy employee is not going to do their best work in an unhealthy office. It’s amazing how bad a lot of offices are.

Why do you think this is the case?

It comes down to money and control, I think. No matter what they say, most companies are all about making money and pushing employees to work as hard and not as smart as they can. Before the economic crisis, the reward was enormous bonuses for many people. Today, many companies exploit the so-called climate of fear and uncertainty caused by the economic crisis and its aftermath to drive people to work even harder.

But the fact that your research has been commissioned suggests this is changing, right?

It seems so. Enlightened organizations are realising that conventional workers’ health programmes are failing. Partly because just telling people to be healthy doesn’t work and also because there’s no point in people trying to stay well in a work environment that makes them unwell. And, of course, health is a large cost for many corporations and they’re always trying to save money. Healthy offices make economic sense.

Why is it so important now?

There’s a Japanese word ‘karōshi’ which translates literally as ‘death from overwork’. The major medical causes of karōshi deaths are heart attack and stroke due to stress and a starvation diet.  The notion that this has been identified as a medical phenomena is frightening isn’t it?

It is.

Also, there’s the fact that burnout is being increasingly recognised as a medically diagnosable condition – if not in the USA yet. I wouldn’t be surprised if even the supposedly most enlightened companies secretly factor burnout into their bottom line. Tech companies in Silicon Valley for instance. And the young people who work in this industry seem to wear the threat of burnout as almost a badge of honour.

That's crazy.

Sure. But we all want to feel useful and needed – to prove ourselves. Organisations that press the ‘we need you’ button can easily drive people to burnout, whether they do this deliberately or not. 

A pair of psychologists named Maslach and Leiter suggest, and I quote from Wikipedia, ‘burnout occurs when there is a disconnection between the organization and the individual with regard to what they called the six areas of work life: workload, control, reward, community, fairness, and values. Resolving these discrepancies requires integrated action on the part of both the individual and the organisation.

Which is true but there’s no mention of the fundamental thing, which is employee health. Burnout has terrible physical consequences.

What about mindfulness? It’s Silicon Valley companies who are pioneering mindfulness in business as well as things like yoga.

Mindfulness is only part of the story. For a start, can you really be mindful in an unhealthy working environment? It’s a bit like being a Buddhist in a house on fire.

And, although yoga’s better because it’s really a moving meditation, the benefits don’t stretch that far if people go back to a dark office space and keep themselves awake with caffeine and sugar.

If you don’t think about the health of your employees you’re never going to get a mindful, committed organisation.  As I say, we have to see the office as a complete ecosystem.

What about the increasing number of us who work from home?

Obviously we have more control over our environment at home. But, even though we talk about a better work-life balance, we’re still often driven by fear about our economic future to work in unhealthy ways.  How often have you got out of bed, sat down at your computer, started working, forgotten to eat or shower, looked up several hours later and seen that it’s dark outside? You worked all day without eating properly and getting any exercise or fresh air.

Many times.

Right. And then you’re ravenously hungry, so you order pizza using your cellphone.

What do you do?

I make sure I do a certain number of steps each day and I get on my bike to run errands and so on.

Where does diet fit in to your research?

When we get frustrated about our eating habits it’s because we forget that we’re still fundamentally connected to our ancient selves. We’re programmed to eat fat, salt and sugar. This was survival food that was scarce. It gave our hunter-gatherer ancestors longer lasting calories than vegetables and fruits. Because it stuck to our ribs and kept us alive until we could find food again! We’re no different but, of course, we can train ourselves to eat differently. 

The same principle applies to how we react to light and music. We know music and light can cause episodic happiness – it’s why raves filled with hundreds of young people generate mass energy that keeps us dancing until the bakeries open. None of this is new information.

Going back to the healthy office, what needs to change?

Organisations need to create healthy offices without telling people they’re doing so. The healthy office needs to be a given. My research involves finding the optimum environment for an office, to help facilitate healthier employees.

How organisations use outdoor space is also very important. Isn’t it ironic that the people who get the most fresh air are the smokers? They get to have outdoor smoking breaks while people who simply would like some fresh air are looked at as criminals.

It all sounds great but what about the cost? Can only big organisations have healthy offices?

Of course not, these are all very easy changes to make. Even if a company didn’t make any changes but encouraged employees to take some fresh air in their lunch hour rather than eat at their desk it would make a big difference.

Isn’t it just a western capitalist indulgence?

Not at all. What I propose makes universal sense. But I do agree that it’s a bit grotesque when Silicon Valley giants trumpet the fact that they offer mindfulness when the poor people that make their hardware in godforsaken Chinese factories work in appalling conditions.

So, are you optimistic about the future of the healthy office?

I really am. Companies know that a healthy workforce has a ROI. Wearable technology is increasingly being used to monitor employee health in countless different ways. People, especially the young, dynamic Milennials everyone wants to hire, are more and more health-conscious and demanding in general so organisations have no choice but to respond.

Also, it’s simply true that we’re happy to work harder for organisations we feel care about us and our well-being.

Ultimately, if hardnosed real estate companies are looking seriously at how to create a healthy office ecosystem, something’s changing.

I’m sure you’re right, Liz. Good luck with your research. I’m looking forward to hearing the outcome.


I spent several hours in Brussels airport waiting for a connection last year. The airport offers people the opportunity to recharge their electronic devices by using a kind of cycling machine to generate energy. Isn’t that a fantastic idea?

It struck me, after talking to Liz, that the corporation of the future might well be a kind of hybrid of a business and a fitness centre.

Think about it, technology is making more and more jobs obsolete but people still have to occupy their lives and, until something else comes along, most of us have a work ethic. Energy costs continue to spiral upwards, as does the cost of healthcare. Why couldn’t offices be places where people spend some of their time working and the rest exercising while generating the power to keep the lights on?