Gensler Atlanta — Atlanta, GA
A person walking in a room with windows and a couple of people sitting at a desk with computers.

Does a healthy workplace improve the bottom line?

Research Project Name

Toward a Wellness-Based Workplace

What We Did

We conducted an exploratory data and secondary source analysis to uncover organizational and workplace design factors that influence employee wellness. Our goal was to understand and document the importance of employee well-being to business productivity and success, and to use that knowledge to uncover opportunities for leveraging workplace design to improve well-being and, ultimately, worker performance.

We first reviewed existing research to gather data on the medical, social, regulatory, and economic implications of employee health in the workplace, as well as to document the state of workplace wellness strategies today. We conducted internal interviews and a survey of Gensler employees to understand how design professionals see themselves within larger well-being conversations. We also leveraged Gensler’s significant database of Workplace Performance Index (WPI) responses specific to health and wellness-related questions, and examined relationships between workplace design factors, employee behaviors, and well-being indicators such as absenteeism and energy levels.

The Context

According to a 2012 study by the Society for Human Resources Management (SHRM), the vast majority of companies see workplace wellness as an opportunity to reduce health insurance costs, increase productivity, and reduce absenteeism. Yet half of the companies surveyed rated their wellness initiatives as ineffective—a possible explanation for the stagnating implementation of wellness initiatives over the past five years even as knowledge of the potential benefits gains traction. A survey conducted by Virgin HealthMiles Inc. confirms both the importance and the challenge of wellness initiatives: 89% of employees reported a company’s health benefits as significant to their choice of employer, but only 36% of employers reported having the necessary information to make actionable decisions about an employee health strategy.

The Results

An estimated 7% of employer health-related costs can be attributed to absenteeism, and another 58% to “presenteeism”—the act of attending work while sick—according to SHRM data. This totals a potential 65% of health-related costs that are directly connected to the well-being of workers.

Addressing the wellness-focused aspects of the workplace is an opportunity to reduce these costs according to our analysis of 9,600+ Gensler WPI respondents who provided data related to health and wellness concerns. Employees who are dissatisfied with their workplace are more likely to call in sick: 35% of those who are dissatisfied called in sick four or more days per year versus only 13% of those who are satisfied. The result was even more dramatic when asked if they find their workplace energizing: 74% of workers satisfied with their workplace reported their space as energizing versus only 4% of those dissatisfied with their environment. Functionality, comfort, and adjustability of furniture showed particular relationships to employees’ reported level of energy at work. Air quality, noise, and natural light also influenced energy levels, and showed direct relationships to the likelihood of employees calling in sick.

What This Means

High-quality work environments improve employee health and satisfaction. Employees satisfied with the physical and performance factors of their workplace report higher energy levels when at work, and take fewer sick days than peers in underperforming environments.

Healthy workplaces empower workers to make better wellness choices. Employees whose physical environments are healthier and higher performing are not only less likely to call in sick, they are also less likely to come to the office when they are sick—they’re working more, and staying home when they should.

Empower designers to have wellness conversations. Only one in five designers currently sees health and wellness as an issue they can raise with clients, and only one in three feels equipped to implement a design strategy addressing health and wellness concerns.

Shift conversations from medical costs to healthy behaviors. Tackling wellness requires a shift in focus from treatment to prevention. Design is an opportunity to address incidental factors, instill a culture of wellness, and keep low-risk employees at low risk by providing healthy environments and promoting healthy behaviors.

What’s Next?

To better communicate how design can directly influence wellness factors, we organized our findings into 10 categories that form the basis for our continued investigations, ranging from physical factors such as air quality and acoustics to experience factors like levels of autonomy. Within each category, we continue to develop metrics and tools to measure impact more directly.

These factors, paired with our exploratory WPI analysis, also form the foundation of a new survey-based performance assessment tool targeted toward measuring the wellness and performance aspects of the workplace. This survey is currently being piloted with select clients.

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Steve Meier, Cindy Coleman, Rod Vickroy, Nina Charnotskaia, Robert Mariduena, Ashley Rinella

Year Completed