State of wellness

The fundamentals of well workplaces include office exercise and shared workspaces.

From the pages of In Business magazine.

How important has workplace wellness become? When they start giving out awards for it — as in the “Well Workplace” designation from the Wellness Council of America — you know the practice of promoting health-oriented activities in the office has gained widespread acceptance.

Like other corporate programs, workplace health promotion requires executive leadership. This includes empowering employees with the latitude to take simple but significant steps to help maintain their sense of wellbeing. Some of these steps may require mutual support. For example, now that the holidays are over, we can stop bringing sugary treats to the office and start substituting water for sweet or calorie-laden beverages to help people manage their weight and maintain a higher energy level.

No stone is being left unturned — even wellness terminology is being revamped as the questionnaires once known as health risk assessments are now simply referred to as health assessments because they assess much more than physical health risks.

The emphasis, of course, is on healthy lifestyles and workplace environments. Thanks to the long-held realization that physical activity actually reduces fatigue, the former is self-explanatory, but the latter is gaining both attention and traction because it also enhances physical, emotional, and cognitive wellbeing.

Lisa Elsinger, manager of prevention and health promotion for Dean Health Plan in Madison, explains that both physical and mental stress can reduce productivity and result in “presenteeism,” when people are at work but not as productive as they could be due to physical or psychological ailments. “Fatigue is a major factor influencing people’s health, and those who are tired most of the time have lower productivity, decreased quality of work, and even poorer work relationships,” Elsinger notes.

For the sake of better health, productivity, and working relationships, this presentation will tackle wellness on two fundamental fronts: office exercise and workspace.

Getting exercised

Trainer Jesse Sherman of Harbor Athletic Club demonstrates the proper way to do a planking exercise on the exercise mat.

By now, many are aware of the health hazards of too much sitting, which has been linked to heart disease, Type 2 diabetes, and some forms of cancer. Integrating regular short breaks into our workdays actually help workers become more productive because they are less likely to be fatigued. With that, we talked to Jesse Sherman, a fitness trainer with Harbor Athletic Club in Madison, who described several exercises that people can do at their desks.

1. You don’t know squats: Squats are probably the most functional movement that human beings do every day. When people think of squats, they probably think about weight lifting, but the simple act of sitting down and standing up is a squat. The problem, Sherman notes, is that most people do them wrong, which causes knee and back pain, but they can be done the right way by using an office chair. “Start with your feet shoulder-width apart,” he advises. “Make sure your weight is on your heels, and as you start sitting down the idea is to actually start sticking your butt out. When in doubt, stick your butt out.

“You should feel and activate the gluteal muscles of your butt,” Sherman continues. “As you sit down, imagine that you’re balancing a book on your head, so you don’t want your head to tilt forward. You have to brace your abs and keep your head up. I can use my hands to counter balance sticking the butt out. As I sit down, I sit to the edge of the chair, feet flat, and then when I sit down I can move into the seat.

“It’s just the opposite when I want to stand up. I roll myself back to the edge of the seat, legs apart, I push through my heels, balancing a book on my head, and stand up feeling my glutes, and then I stand in neutral.”

Just five reps every hour on the hour for eight hours results in 40 daily squats. It's a simple body-activation exercise, using your own body weight, that works the body’s largest muscles and safeguards the knees and back. Unlike traditional weight-lifting squats, where you’d typically want to wait 24 to 48 hours to let the muscle recover, these movements can be done each day.

2. Do the dipsy-do: If you want to work the upper body, the office chair comes in handy with dips. Sitting on the chair’s edge, simply put your hands to the side of the chair or use the armrests, and keep your elbows in tight. “On this one, we’re simply going to let our butt hang off the edge,” Sherman explains. “This is going to engage the chest, the triceps, and the shoulders. From this position, all I’m going to do, keeping my weight to the heels, is let my butt drop down and let my elbows have a nice bend flexing down, dropping my butt close to the bench, and then as I push back up, straighten out those arms.”

“The range of motion that you typically want to get down is to about a 90-degree reflection in your elbow,” he adds. “Keeping your elbows in tight, you want to feel those triceps, chest, and a little bit of your abs as you’re doing that. Same philosophy. If you do five reps every hour on the hour, that’s 40 reps.”

3. Fill in the plank: Pushups are great on the desk or even the back of your chair, assuming the chair is supported and that you can maintain a “plank” position. “The deeper I go in my plank, the harder the pushup is going to be, making sure your body is always aligned from head to toe,” Sherman says. “That means the butt is not sticking out or your hip is not sagging in. Simply drop the chest down into the chair or the desk and push yourself back up. This really works the chest and the triceps and it also works the abs.”

Again, the goal is to get about 40 or 50 daily reps to start. It’s fine to do them all at once, but listen to your body when it comes to how much, how soon.

If you prefer pushups on the floor, use the proper technique. Sherman starts with his feet at shoulder-width apart and his hands directly underneath the chest so if he went all the way down to the ground, his hands are going to be lined up on his chest. Most people feel their shoulders because their hands are out in front of them.

Drop down your chest to about a 90-degree reflection in your arms — you don’t have to go all the way down — and then push yourself back. The muscles you should feel are the chest muscles. “A lot of people have a tendency to feel their shoulders,” Sherman notes. “That’s because their arm position is typically wrong.”



Palette of workspaces

Current workplace wellness trends aren’t confined to motion, they also touch on emotion. Julie Murphy Agnew, senior interior designer of Atmosphere Commercial Interiors, notes that people might just think of “good chairs” when they think of ergonomics or wellness, but there is a much broader, holistic approach to workspace wellbeing. “Successful workplace wellbeing encompasses physical wellbeing, cognitive wellbeing, and emotional wellbeing,” she states.

Atmosphere Commercial Interiors uses the term “wellbeing” rather than “wellness” because wellbeing is a well-rounded, holistic experience. That philosophy influences its advice to clients such as the architecture and engineering firm Mead & Hunt, which has established four basic kinds of spaces in its new Middleton facility: I/Shared, We/Shared, I/Owned, and We/Owned.

Taken together, they present a palette of workspaces of give employees choices about how they work. When Mead & Hunt moved to its new location, it abandoned a 1970s-style building with low lighting, low ceilings, six-foot cubicles, and closed offices. The very definition of a “creative class” organization was very compartmentalized, as each market served, such as transportation or aviation, was located in a separate wing of the building.

In contrast, Mead & Hunt’s new building features a more creative environment with the aforementioned types of spaces. President Andy Platz breaks each of them down as follows:

Employees from throughout the company meet, take a break, and enjoy a meal in the Innovation Café, a We/Shared space.

We/Shared: The word “we” suggests collaboration, and that’s exactly what takes place in spaces such as the central corridor with a main stairway that reaches all three levels. “That’s kind of a meeting place for everybody in the mornings, in the evenings, and throughout the day,” Platz explains. “There are constant conversations going on, and that’s in an open staircase because it centrally connects all the groups in one corridor versus having separate doors coming into the building.”

Another We/Shared space is an innovation café, an open room with soft furniture and standup bar-type tables which are used throughout the day for impromptu meetings, allowing departments to engage in cross collaboration. “It takes a while for that to take off because people are not used to having that kind of freedom to walk-through and spend that time,” Platz observes, “but we’re starting to see more interaction there.”

Dan Dankert, CAD-BIM-VDC manager, takes calls and manages other tasks while using a treadmill workstation in an I/Shared space conference room.

I/Shared: Mead & Hunt allows employees to pick the type of cubicle workspace they want. The cubicles are much lower, 4 1/2 feet tall and closed off on three sides. When people sit down the walls are at “mouth level,” and when people stand they can see one another. Some groups work more independently and appreciate the closed design. Others, who talk continuously and work in teams, chose not to have dividers between cubicles. “Depending upon how you work and what type of market you are in, you let the employees choose which type of work environment they want,” Platz says.

Scott Hasburgh, highway and bridge department manager, takes advantage of the adjustable desks and open cubicle configurations in an I/Owned space.

I/Owned: This is for head down work and naturally more private space, with help from a busy signal in the form of a small, red light on the cubicle. When that light is on, coworkers know not to approach. The red light is not required, but Platz says most employees have one, especially engineers who need quiet time when they perform consecutive hours of heavy calculating.

While conference and training rooms are generally considered We/Shared space, Mead & Hunt employees can use various conference rooms as I/Owned spaces that can be reserved for private use. Although some of them are small, 8-by-8 rooms, “you can dive into them for eight hours and just shut the door and they would be very much an I/Owned space, or they can use them for collaboration space,” Platz says. Two of the rooms have treadmills for people to get away and take two-mile-per hour walks while they are on a conference or video call.

David Way, building engineering market leader, and Anne Anderson, municipal infrastructure project manager, discuss an upcoming Dane County project in a We/Owned space.

We/Owned: Every market segment has its own space to share. If aviation owns the space, usually soft seating or standup desks positioned away from the cubicle area, it can collaborate specifically on projects specific to its market.

In Platz’s view, these spaces contribute to workplace wellness because they encourage people to move around away from their desks, minimizing constant sitting or standing. In addition, every cube has a pneumatic desk that rises up or adjusts down, so in addition to encouraging movement, employees can alternate between sitting and standing at their desks. “They really like the flexibility to move desks up and down,” he notes. “From a collaboration standpoint, if someone comes in they raise the desk and work on projects together.”

Measure of wellness

As Elsinger notes, an important contributor to employee health and wellbeing is the overall workplace environment — relationships with coworkers and managers, perceived support and encouragement from senior leaders, and acknowledgment for contributions to the team and the organization. Nevertheless, she adds that workplace climate and culture are often underrated in terms of employee engagement and wellbeing, when in reality they are strong predictors of organizational health.

Perhaps the most important information to be validated by research and practice is that the main purpose for having a workplace wellness program is not to expect immediate lowered medical costs as the primary outcome. “The purpose is to create a positive and engaging work environment,” she states, “so that both the employees and the organization are healthy.”



Staying with it

Lisa Elsinger

When it comes to changing unhealthy habits, Lisa Elsinger uses a familiar term — sustainability. Elsinger knows the term moderation is boring, but a relentless approach to it is superior to pills, potions, and products that have led us to believe that we can accomplish fitness goals without effort. She says New Year’s resolutions fail for several reasons, including:

1. The goal is too big: People decide to lose that nagging 50 pounds by working out hard every day and eating very small amounts of food. After a couple of weeks, they are so sore “they almost have to use both hands to lift their toothbrush,” Elsinger says. This is unsustainable, so the person begins to overeat and avoids exercise. They then have a lower sense of self-confidence and self-worth. Her advice: Set small goals and appreciate achieving them, then set another goal.

2. Too many goals: Exercising every day, eating five vegetables a day, drinking eight glasses of water, and getting eight hours of sleep might be too much at one time. Her advice: Instead of a lifestyle overhaul, try for the most important one — the keystone habit — and others may follow.

3. Not working to change the environment: If you’re constantly surrounded by unhealthy food, it’s almost impossible to eat healthfully. If you’re around people with negative attitudes, it’s hard to have a positive outlook. Her advice: This might be an opportunity to ask coworkers or others for help or try to find extra resolve internally to overcome the obstacles that won’t go away.

4. You don’t own your lifestyle change: If you haven’t figured out how to incorporate new behaviors, make new habits effortless. Her advice: Tack a new habit onto something you already do — stretch every time you stand up — and build toward your goals from there.

Step-by-step wellness

Dr. Richard Parfitt believes the key to feeling healthy is strong legs, so he’s compelled to keep them moving and active. As the medical director of the Parfitt Facial Cosmetic Surgery Center and the Aesthetica Skin Health Center in Middleton, the facial plastic surgeon gets a fair amount of walking in, but he uses a special combination to supplement those steps.

Dr. Richard Parfitt on the “tread-desk,” a treadmill combined with a height-adjustable desk.

Parfitt’s dynamic duo is a treadmill desk — a treadmill for walking combined with a height-adjustable work desk — that serves both wellness and work. Call it a tread-desk if you will, but it’s an example of the “keep-it-simple-stupid” approach to staying active, and given the benefits Parfitt cites, he’s not about to kiss it goodbye.

The treadmill is only used for walking at a 3.5-miles per hour pace, but it can be placed on an incline for greater intensity workouts. As for the kind of office work he can do while walking on the treadmill, Parfitt lists phone conversations, responding to emails, reading medical journals and viewing medical videos, typing in notes about patients, and even some handwritten work.

But the best part of this tread-desk approach is the mental and physical fitness fix. Parfitt uses it to move him toward the 10,000 daily steps recommended by the U.S. Surgeon General.
“I try to get 10,000 steps in and I just can’t do that with my surgery schedule and my clinic schedule, even though I walk around the clinic,” he explains. “Without the treadmill, I probably get 5,000 steps in toward that, but having a treadmill desk assures me that I can reach that 10,000-step level more often than not.”

Parfitt believes the tread-desk setup helps him with his surgical and other medical work, but exercise in general helps, too. While his time on the treadmill varies depending on his clinic and surgical schedule, he has a fairly consistent exercise routine that starts at home in the morning and ends at home in the evening. “I’m in the medical field, and I read a lot of research,” he states, “and I read a lot of it because I’m very interested in it. So if it is cognitive ability related, a common denominator in improving health in both the physical and mental arena is exercise. It’s a benefit to both physical and mental wellbeing, so I make it a priority to exercise, but I’m having trouble finding the time to get the exercise in.”

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