The 5 Fundamentals of Designing Healthy Work Spaces

By: Elizabeth Mixson

The average person will spend 90,000 hours at work over a lifetime; roughly about a third one's life. However, as healthcare prices continue to rise (along with sedentary behavior linked chronic conditions) companies are starting to realize that they need to do more to promote healthy lifestyles at work. 

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control estimates that U.S. employers lose approximately $225.8 billion annually due to employee health issues. However, companies that invest in health & wellness programs can reap significant savings. For example, a 2010 Harvard study found that, for every dollar spent on wellness programs, medical costs fall by about $3.27 and absenteeism costs fall by about $2.73. This amounts to an ROI of 6-to-1.

Furthermore, the Fellowes Workplace Wellness Trend Report found that:

  • 87% of workers would like their current employer to offer healthier workspace benefits (i.e. wellness rooms, company fitness benefits, sit-stands, healthy lunch options and ergonomic seating)
  • 93% of workers in the tech industry said they would stay longer at a company who offered healthier workplace benefits such as the ones listed above

But how do you make it happen? Below are 5 design elements that should be built into work space in order to boost workplace wellness.

Fresh Air 

The quality of indoor air can have a significant impact on employee health, wellbeing & productivity. Though extreme cases of poor indoor quality can result in what’s known as Sick Building Syndrome (SBS), even “minor” air quality issues can impact workers minds and bodies in a number of important ways. In fact, another landmark Harvard study found that workers who worked in spaces with high levels of fresh air performed significantly better on cognitive tests than those that work in conventional environments. Specifically, 

  • 61-101% improved cognitive skills
  • 97-131% improved crisis response
  • 183- 288% improved proficiency in strategy planning & development
  • 172-299% improved knowledge usage
  • 30% fewer sickness syndromes
  • 6% higher sleep quality scores than those in high-performing but non-certified buildings

Obviously, an efficient and well-maintained HVAC system is key for circulating fresh air within a closed space. To further boost air quality, companies are also installing air quality monitors to measure for pollutants like VOCs (Volatile Organic Compounds) and carbon monoxide. Even large buildings are also increasingly installing operable windows and other natural ventilation systems to facilitate air movement. 

Natural Light

According to a 2018 survey by Future Workplace, 47% of employees admit they feel tired or very tired from the absence of natural light or a window at their office, and 43% report feeling gloomy because of the lack of light. In addition, another 2018 research paper from Cornell found that daylight in office environments resulted in a 51% drop in the incidence of eyestrain, a 63% drop in the incidence of headaches and a 56% reduction in drowsiness. Workers sitting close to windows that are capable of controlling daylight also reported a 2% increase in productivity—the equivalent of an additional $100,000 per year of value for every 100 workers (assuming an annual average salary of $50,000) or around $2 million over the life of the window.

As of now, the go to method for increasing natural light is to install glass walls throughout the interior as well as incorporating light colors to the design in order to brighten up spaces without the use of artificial lights. Choosing space efficient furniture is also key to boosting natural light. 


Did you know that 74% of people experience pain at their desks every week? This pain causes more than just discomfort for the employee, it also costs the company. However, according to a massive Washington State study, organizations who switched to ergonomic furniture saw:

  • 75% reduced absenteeism
  • 56% reduced error rate
  • 40% time on task increase

Plus numerous other non-tangible benefits such as reduced stress and increased employee engagement. 


Plants and natural analogues are the unsung heroes of workplace wellness. Humans have an innate desire to be in nature and thrive in environments that are reminiscent of the natural world. Incorporating the natural world into your workspace could be as simple as the installation of indoor plants and the use of natural materials around the office (i.e. wooden tables, wool carpets, linen curtains, etc.). Other companies go a step further by incorporating panoramic views, water features and biomorphic forms and patterns. Etsy, for example, installed 3 low-maintenance growing systems, 5 large-scale living walls and 50 planters throughout their Brooklyn headquarters. Salesforce’s San Francisco HQ incorporated 25,000 live plants, high-resolution moving graphics display of the Californian Redwood National Forest and a running waterfall. 

Since the dawn of civilization, building designers and architects have turned to nature for inspiration. However, now we have scientific proof that these nature-infused spaces boost happiness and well-being. A study at the University of Oregon found that employees with the views of trees and landscape (north and west) took an average of 57 hours of sick leave per year, compared with 68 hours per year of sick leave taken by employees with no view. The analysts behind the meticulously researched “The Economics of Biophilia” estimate that, by integrating biophilia into workplace design, companies could can save over $2,000 per employee per year due to resulting reduced absenteeism and increased productivity. Plus, live plants have the added benefit of naturally filtering the air of pollutants. 

Rooms for Reflection

Modern offices are often designed with collaboration in mind. Though thoughtfully-designed open office layouts can serve as a catalyst to innovation, what happens when the crackle and bustle of the modern workspace becomes too much? Not only do open-plan offices spread communicable diseases, these workers in these spaces are almost constantly exposed to high levels of visual and noise pollution. One study from Denmark even found that workers in open offices took 62% more sick days than those in fully enclosed offices.  

In order to give people a safe space to retreat to, organizations are incorporating quiet spaces into the workplaces. For example, Unilever offers employees a “recharge zone” for meditation and relaxation. This space is broken up into 4 quadrants: connecting, snacking, stretching and resting. Google famously offers sleep pods, fitness spaces and an onsite spa at their Mountain View HQ. Even companies with more limited budgets are setting aside space where people can simply turn off and disconnect from workplace demands.