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What we know about wellbeing

The health and wellbeing bandwagon is well and truly rolling. But what is truly important and how can it be measured? And having measured it, will the numbers make sense, and will they inform better design, construction and facilities management decisions?

Roderic Bunn, building performance analyst at BSRIA, plots a course through the maze.


Improved wellbeing. Greater functionality and effectiveness. A healthier workplace and higher staff productivity. Wouldn’t it be wonderful to put firm numbers to these factors? To be able to determine causes and effects.

To say, categorically, that a particular design decision, operational setpoint, or space planning choice will lead to a particular beneficial outcome. To know, for sure, that any given set of built environment decisions will result in happier and more productive people.

Maybe even an improvement in staff health measured in lower absenteeism and sickness rates. Perhaps reduced staff turnover. Lower recruitment costs, less haemorrhaging of expensively procured staff skills and expertise, and higher staff morale.

“Where do I sign up?,” you might ask.

Absolutely, and who wouldn’t, when wellbeing consultants are claiming they can measure a vast array of environmental factors, do some sums, and present you with a ‘wellness’ rating for your building that you can promote to prospective occupiers? For a price, of course – nothing as radical, extensive and as demanding of expertise as a wellbeing assessment will come cheap.

The question is, can it truly be done? Can the complex cocktail of variables that combine to determine occupant comfort and wellbeing be poured into a statistical centrifuge and separated out to the extent that one can say that doing this, this, and that, will equate to a 15% improvement in occupant wellbeing and make an office 20% more productive than the one next door?

The sobering answer is that it’s probably not very likely. Decades of research into the relationships between physical environments and occupant health, wellbeing, and productivity have found many correlations between occupants’ perceived health and productivity and possible sources of that discomfort, such as poor indoor air quality, low air change rates, poor thermal conditions, and so on. But, as for proven causal links? No, nothing convincing.

Most significant academic studies are based on what are known as large cohort studies, where data gathered from around 600 buildings are concatenated, and statistical calculations conducted to correlate relationships between environmental conditions and self-reported comfort levels. In some cases absenteeism or sickness rates are gathered and found to closely correlate against some factors but not others.

When such studies are repeated, usually with different research methodologies and possibly more sophisticated modelling and often increasingly esoteric statistical tests, correlations between some factors lose their strength while others that were loosely or poorly correlated in previous studies suddenly gain statistical strength. All this is fair enough in the research world: developing hypotheses and testing them is vital to inch the knowledge forward, but don’t look for certainty in cause and effect. You’ll find it in one paper but not in another. Even where strong correlations are found you’re left wondering “Yes, but how important is it, and does it really matter?”

Relying on findings from productivity in laboratory settings is also risky. Laboratory research based on mental agility and mathematical exercises at different conditions does not create outputs that translate to vastly more complex world of the working office or classroom. Real offices possess many confounding variables that the laboratory researcher has to diligently strip out in order to get a purer answer, only to find that the laboratory results then don't export back to the real world for exactly that reason. Customers of such findings need to be wary of any claims that this is possible without loss of fidelity.

Most non-clinical research in this area tends to rely on self-assessed surveys where building occupants report their comfort perceptions via web or paper surveys, and/or in structured interviews. Done well this can be informative, but questions have to be ones that respondents can easily answer. Most people can differentiate between hot and cold conditions, and whether they have enough daylight, but more abstract concepts like ‘morale’ or ‘wellbeing’ tend to confuse them.

For example, this writer conducted a straw poll of BSRIA staff to define – without them conferring – what wellbeing meant to them. Many related it to a mixture of light, air, space and noise, while others included fabric, infrastructure and how the building services are managed. The image below shows a word cloud of all the responses, with some redundant verbs and conjunctive terms removed to better highlight the defining characteristics of the department’s wellbeing perceptions.


It’s immediately evident that ‘health’ is mentioned most by people, but it’s also interesting that the (admittedly small and not scientific) sample mentioned a wide variety of other factors (although curiously not temperature, which is a slap in the face of the thermal comfort specialist).

Consensus on what constitutes wellbeing is clearly difficult to achieve if people have different ideas swirling around in their heads when they answer the question. But that’s because experience is forged by many factors: gender, age, whether they are trapped at their desk all day or free to move, whether they have access to natural light, whether they have the ability to control conditions or are reliant on centralised control, and whether they sit in a corridor zone being assailed by others walking up and down talking on mobile phones. Or, indeed, whether they truly understand the question.


The image above shows the problems inherent in making sense of self-assessed comfort data from people in a hypothetical work area. In this side of a mixed-mode office, occupants have been characterised by their location to openable windows (dark blue seats), those who are part-time (pink seats) those assigned hot desks (yellow seats) those in deep-plan office space with their backs to nominated circulation routes (green seats) and their colleagues who enjoy daylight via a rooflight (yellow box).

People represented by bright blue seats sit adjacent to a management office and meeting room and have neither visual nor acoustic privacy, nor access to windows or environmental controls. They may be frequently disrupted by colleagues using the printer hub, and people wandering to and from the cellular spaces.

Let’s consider ventilation. Satisfaction with natural ventilation depends partly on the ability to manage the trade-offs between ventilation and draughts, room temperature, radiant temperature, natural light and glare, and views out to the planted external landscape. Arguably the trade-offs can be managed best by those closest to the control devices (windows and blinds) seated in dark blue seats.

A democratic consensus over the position of these devices can usually be easily reached between two to four people – what one can call the control group – but gets progressively more difficult as the control group increases in size to include the orange seats. It may break down entirely with those in the red seats who may perceive conditions very differently to those in the blue seats, but are too far away to assume control.

A group of eight seats perpendicular to the window may be the limit at which democratic consensus can be achieved. Rows of desks longer than this may make consensus impossible. People may start to suffer. They may even become resentful of the building in other ways, which might breed intolerance of noise or other factors that other staff tolerate.

Dissatisfaction with thermal conditions and indoor air quality may depend on exposure and dose rather than a particular instrumented level. Those only in the building for short periods (the part-timers) may be able to tolerate adverse conditions. The hot-deskers may be also moderately more satisfied if they can choose their desk, and are able to rotate positions on a daily basis to share the benefits (and drawbacks) of a window location. Those sitting under the skylight may suffer downdraughts, but this will be offset by the (greater?) benefits of direct and indirect daylight, and possibly emotionally uplifting views of the sky.

Noise disturbance is often a major issue, particularly in open-plan offices. Those by an open-able window are closest to external noise but have the ability to manage its volume. Road works can be suppressed by trading-off against ventilation, while birdsong may be welcomed. In both cases, those furthest away from the window will have less say over that control. Furthermore, those seated by the perimeter will be interrupted less by cross-talk and general movement in circulation zones, which will be suffered more by those in centrally-located desks.

Arguably, those seated in the green seats have the worst of all worlds. But they may be less tied to their desks than other workers, and may be nearer the toilets and the beverage points. They also have local planters which soften the office surroundings. Such characteristics won’t overcome shortcomings in environmental systems, but might help people tolerate them.

The point of this example is that occupant wellbeing is highly context-dependent. If one adds age and gender (particularly relevant for thermal criteria) the picture gets even more complicated. Then there is the availability of personal storage, and whether meeting rooms are readily available or always booked up, forcing staff to improvise.

Then there is the question of utilisation - how often all space is occupied. At normal times it may hover above the British Council for Offices recommendation of 1 person/8 sq. m, but at peak times occupant density may fall below 1 person/6 sq. m, which might – might – start to hamper productivity and cause people to exhibit what one might call ‘escape behaviours’ to coffee points, atriums or even a home office. Will this typically human response increase or reduce health and productivity? Who knows.

So where does this leave the construction professional seeking greater insight into the comfort and discomfort factors that determine wellbeing in buildings? And, indeed, does any of it really matter, or can we rely on the human ability to adapt to environmental conditions, rising above all but the worst conditions to do their job of work successfully?

In their influential 1997 paper Productivity: The Killer Variables (recently revised), Bordass and Leaman warned that the cats’ cradle of causality and association [of comfort factors] differs from one building to the next, making it dangerous to be over-assertive about causation without careful appreciation of context. They identified five variables that have a critical bearing on the performance of occupied spaces, particularly offices:

  • Personal control: People are generally happier with opportunities for more control and control over personal conditions and greater freedom of movement
  • Responsiveness: When people want conditions to change, they want that to happen quickly. That can be temperature levels, or a caretaker replacing a flickering fluorescent light.
  • Building depth: Greater depth correlates with greater complication, use of air-conditioning with less personal control, and more dependence on facilities management, which has to be proportionately better
  • Workgroup size: Smaller and more integrated workgroups tend towards higher perceived productivity. Increased occupant density tends to break down perceptions of being in a smaller workgroup, with benefits of ease of communication with colleagues compromised by higher levels of unwanted noise2.
  • Design intent: How well a building’s features work for its occupants. Features that are invisible, hidden from view, or not easily controllable will not be appreciated.

The inverse of the killer variables are buildings which are comfortable and controllable, with clear and well-communicated design intent, with usable systems that respond quickly to need. Shallow plan is generally better than deeper plan spaces, preferably with some form of natural ventilation. Careful management of zoning and control of density helps with control of many environmental variables, particularly ventilation, lighting and noise.

Will a greater focus on these factors in building design and management improve perceptions of wellbeing? Maybe yes – it seems reasonable and evidence suggests so, but don’t expect to be able to optimise an environment. For many contexts, elimination of fundamental causes of discomfort might be the best that can be achieved.

It’s then up to the occupier to decide how many people to pile into the building, and, for example, whether people are willing to queue for unisex toilets at peak times. In an organisation with 60% women, it’s reasonable to say “probably not”, for many reasons too graphic to describe here. Use your imagination. But, does it matter? I mean, really? No-one can put it into numbers.

Researching this area, using longitudinal studies of buildings over periods of up to 20 years, the data generated an interesting statistic. In two notable office buildings (one a large multi-tenanted office), people reported spending up to more than an hour extra per day in the building, and more than two hours a day more on screen than they reported in the mid-1990s. That’s 10 hours more on screen, per week. This might include tablets and mobiles, but it is more likely to be sitting down in front of a screen (or screens) as these offices are still desk-based environments.

How does one factor this movement over time into ‘wellbeing’ assessments? Are people being more productive at the expense of their health? How does it relate to their tolerance of the building’s environmental systems? Is it important, or is it not? Maybe they escape to Facebook or dating websites when they’re fed up with Excel. I’m not sure a 'wellbeing consultant' would be able to put a weighting to that.

I asked a well-known social scientist what tools he thought most important when researching occupant satisfaction. Instrumentation? Physical measurements? Occupant surveys? “A functioning set of eyeballs,” he said. He had a point. Buildings aren’t nearly as mysterious as some people like to make out. Most problems are right in front of you, if you bother to look properly. The big question is whether what you’ve found actually matters.

This article was originally published in BSRIA's Delta T magazine. It was written by Roderic Bunn.


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[edit] External resources

  • Bunn R., Occupation satisfaction signatures: Longitudinal studies of changing comfort perceptions in two non-domestic buildings, CIBSE Technical Symposium, Edinburgh, UK, 14-15 April 2016.
  • Leaman A. and Bordass W., Productivity in Buildings: the Killer Variables, Workplace Comfort Forum, London, 1997, October 29-30.