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How buildings can positively impact our health

We spend a large portion of our lives at work, which means finding a workplace that supports mental health and encourages wellbeing is essential to our health and happiness.

Nearly three-quarters of all Australian employees say a mentally healthy workplace is important when looking for a job in the future. These figures show Australians have an expectation that their workplace will provide comprehensive mental health support.

And rightly so. World Health Organisation (WHO) defines good mental health as "a state of wellbeing in which every individual realises his or her own potential, can cope with the normal stresses of life, can work productively and fruitfully and is able to make a contribution to her or his community". Good mental health is critical to a productive workplace and fully functional society.  

But the figures worryingly reveal that the majority of Australian workplaces are not living up to these expectations. Only half (52 per cent) of employees believe their workplace is mentally healthy, leaving 48 per cent with a workplace they believe does not provide a mentally healthy environment. 

Every morning, one in six working age people will arrive at work and begin their day while suffering from a diagnosed mental illness. A further one-sixth of the population will be dealing with symptoms associated with mental ill health, such as worry, sleep problems and fatigue, which, while not meeting criteria for a diagnosed mental illness, will be affecting their ability to function at work. 

This is having far reaching implications. Over the past year, one in five (21 per cent) Australians have taken time off work because they've felt stressed, anxious, depressed or mentally unhealthy. To put that in perspective, this can amount to three to four sick days taken each month for those living with untreated depression.  

What can be done?

While we are happy to leave analysis of the causes of mental ill health to the medical experts, we do know that the design of our built environment contributes significantly to our mental health. Today's average office worker spends nearly 90 per cent of their working day indoors, with a large part of that time in an office. This means that developers and managers of office space have a critical role to play in the provision of buildings and workplaces that enhance the productivity, happiness, human experience, health and the wellbeing of Australians.

Over recent years, there have been significant steps taken to design and manage buildings in a way that actively promotes the mental and physical health of its occupants. As well as our social care and responsibility to create sustainable, connected communities, we believe the productivity and engagement levels of a workforce are intrinsically linked and reliant upon the health of the employees.

Mirvac's headquarters within the EY Centre at 200 George Street Sydney is an example of an office where a whole range of successful wellness initiatives have been incorporated to promote and support the mental and physical health of the team. 

These include:

  • The use of over 15 SAMBA sensors throughout to monitor the indoor environment and air quality. 
  • The internal café, The Song Kitchen, provides healthy food options with high nutritional value, healthy portion sizes and clear labeling. The café is also Australia's first profit for purpose initiative, with 100 per cent of the profits going to fund YWCA NSW services for women and children experiencing domestic violence.
  • 75 per cent of workstations are located within 7.5 metres of a window, increasing access to natural light. Lights are programmed for varying brightness and darkness at appropriate points throughout the day to maintain circadian rhythms. 
  • Safe and clean drinking water is provided through proper filtration methods and is accessible 30 metres from regularly occupied spaces.
  • We've also found that innovative fitness features are key to ensuring the happiness, health and wellbeing of our tenants. A dedicated health and wellness educational seminar series is held in Mirvac's headquarters in which professionals educate staff on health and wellbeing. Pilates classes are offered twice a week in the office with a professional instructor as well as an online wellness library with a range of health and wellbeing literature. 

Mirvac's commitment to support the health of their employees led them to achieve the first GOLD WELL Certification for their new headquarters, from the International WELL Building Institute, as well as a number of other sustainability accreditations. 

The WELL Building Standard is the world's first building certification that focuses exclusively on human health and wellness. It is an international assessment method that encourages healthy eating choices and active lifestyles, as well as promoting natural light and a high standard of air quality, based on seven years of scientific, medical and architectural research.  

WELL certified facilities can help create a built environment that improves the nutrition, fitness, mood, sleep patterns and performance of workers. Focusing on a range of scientific measurements, such as how light is related to sleep wake cycles and how temperature affects employee's mental health, the certification aims to encourage and enable healthy habits.

After one year in operation, the team had participated in 62 pilates classes, four wellness talks, 4,000 keep cups were handed out and 28 bookings were made for The Burrows, the retail space and amphitheatre at the base of EY Centre.  

These learnings have been taken onboard and are being implemented across other buildings. One such example is Olderfleet, on 477 Collins Street in Melbourne, a new flagship commercial tower and targeting a Platinum WELL Certification for the core and shell of the building. 

By incorporating these features into the design of buildings and adopting initiatives that support wellness, we believe Australian businesses can successfully enrich employee mindsets but also strengthen their bottom line. 

If nothing is done, in Australia alone, businesses face a loss of $4.7 billion due to absenteeism, $6.1 billion to presenteeism (where employees are present in attendance, but are less productive due to illness or injury) and $146 million in compensation claims. That's a total of $10.9 billion lost each year. 

Now is the time to take action. 

Victoria Tavendale is Mirvac's general manager of asset management, office and industrial. 

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“Kindness is the language that the deaf can hear and the blind can see.” – Mark Twain