Work perks can make all the difference

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The research Liz did that formed the basis of our book The Healthy Office Revolution (THOR) was all about measuring performance after an office had been made healthier. But she also discovered that, when the healthy perks people had become used to were taken away because the research was over, people clamoured for them to be reinstated.

Liz realised that, as a recent Wired article puts it, ‘extras make business sense’. The article makes the point that with competition for the best talent increasing all the time, organisations need to raise their game when it comes to the perks they offer. So much so, that perks are becoming no longer a treat: an organisation being generous and going the extra mile. They’re on their way to being an essential part of a desirable job.

The Wired article gives the example of Rockstock, the two-day festival laid on for employees of creative agency The Octopus Group, paid sabbaticals and even, in the case of HubSpot, offering to pay for treatment to freeze the eggs of its female employees.

Many of the perks boil down the notion that, as Charles Cotton, performance and reward adviser at the UK Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development puts it in the article, ‘For money, the concept of time being the new money is important.’

The goal is to enable the most highly valued employees to, as the CEO of Octopus Group puts it, ‘go off and do life stuff’. This, it’s hoped, will help grow loyalty and persuade employees to stick around.

As we know, offering perks makes total sense. But, if you’re not a multinational with deep pockets, inviting people to take time off - let alone offering bespoke rock festivals or egg-freezing - is probably out of the question.

But you can do the little things that employees really appreciate. You can make sure healthy snacks and drinks are regularly available. You may not be able to arrange sabbaticals but you can allow employees to take walks throughout the day or make space for simple mindfulness exercises. You can do everything in your power to make your workspace as appealing as it can be.

Because, as Liz found out, employees really appreciate your care for them. And that has a demonstrable impact on your bottom line.

Switching off from work - easier said than done or easier done than said?

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Do you get the feeling there’s a disconnect between the reality of work for most of us and the advice offered by people who make it their business to teach us how to switch off?

In our book The Healthy Office Revolution, Liz and I prove that doing things like taking short breaks, going for short walks and being mindful definitely make us more productive.

But, when you’re in a high pressure job working for an organisation that isn’t interested in allowing the strategies we, and any number of experts, recommend, what do you do?

When everyone on your team is working to a screaming deadline, you can’t go out for a stroll or commandeer a corner of a conference room as your personal relaxation space.

The reality is that the only time many of us have to switch off from work is our own time. What’s left of it.

Here are three simple things you can do outside work:

  1. Have a hard stop so work time doesn’t leak into personal time. Don’t read emails outside of work time and, gasp, maybe even switch off your phone.

  2. Create a ritual that signals the end of work. For intance, showering and changing your clothes, closing your eyes and regulating your breath by closing your eyes and simply counting your in and out breaths.

  3. If thoughts about work continue to pop into your head when you’re trying to relax, let them come and watch them go, telling yourself they have nothing to do with you outside work. Or, write them down and, as you do so, imagine that you’re throwing them out of your mind.

Although each of these suggestions might seem blindingly obvious, they work. Like every habit, bad or good, you just have to make them such a part of your life you do them without thinking.

Now, close your eyes, breathe in through your nose for a count of four and out for four. Do this 100 times and see how you feel.

Considering a four-day working week with Aidan Harper

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When we wrote The Healthy Office Revolution, we argued for working fewer hours to fight burnout and improve quality of life. But we didn’t consider the idea of reducing the number of actual days people spend in offices. To put that right, David had a chat with Aidan Harper, the driving force behind the 4 Day Week movement.

Could you tell me how 4 Day Week came about, Aidan?

I'm a researcher for the New Economics Foundation (NEF), a think tank based in London, in my day job. In 2010, they produced a paper called 21 hours, a think piece around what would happen if the UK were to move to a 21 hour economy that looked at all the benefits of working time reduction in relation to the planet, people and markets. NEF became well known for talking about this issue.

But when I started at NEF nearly three years ago, they weren't really discussing the issue as much as I’d have liked. There was also a big gap between how well the arguments were understood inside NEF compared to the wider world. I wanted to explain the mechanism that would get us to a 21 hour week, to bring the ideas together and give them a sense of direction. I created 4 Day Week to put something out into the public space that is exactly what it says on the tin, so people can say “I know exactly what this is and, if I agree, I can get on board.” So far it seems to have worked.

How is it going?

Well, so far. An increasing number of small businesses are picking up the issue, thinking that they should be moving to 4 days to increase staff loyalty and productivity and decrease staff turnover, improve wellness, provide opportunities for parents and decrease gender inequality. It’s being talked about as a response to the spread of automation at work. In the UK, pretty much every think tank from the centre to the left is discussing the issue of working time reduction.

But this is happening at a time when the reality of working life, especially as it affects Millennials and Generation Z,  is longer and longer working hours and rising stress. I was horrified to see a photo of a message carved onto cucumber in a water cooler in a WeWork space that read ‘Don’t stop when you’re tired stop when you’re done.’ There seems a massive disconnect between what you’re talking about and the reality for most of us.

I don't know anyone who would respond to that as normal. Maybe it's my bubble. You could argue that sending messages like that one that are obviously meant to be kind of hip is a pathetic attempt by bosses, business space owners and working spaces to instil this idea that overwork is somehow good but, intuitively, people rebel, I think. And the results of overwork aren’t funny. In November 2018, the UK Health and Safety Executive (HSE) revealed that “work related stress anxiety or depression accounts for over half of all working days lost due to ill health in Great Britain”. People are being made physically sick by this culture of overwork.

How do you think the glorification of overwork has come about?

It’s symbolic of changes in the workplace over the last 30 to 40 years – the arrival of neoliberalism, which argues that hard work always results in a competitive advantage for corporations, the crackdown on unions and the way workers in general have lost their power.

You paint a pretty bleak picture.

It is. But I believe any form of progressive politics shouldn’t be a response to a bad situation. It should be positive. The 4 Day Week movement allows us to plant our flag in the ground and say “We don’t want that. We want this.”

Look at the protests against the Hungarian government’s introduction of what’s being called the “slave law”. Protesters are not just saying they don’t want a 60 hour week. They’re also calling for a 4 day week.

How do you attempt to persuade large employers?

What's good is that it's very easy to make the case from virtually every single angle. For example, on the macro level, the UK works longer hours than the Netherlands, Scandinavia and Germany but their economies are far more productive. In fact, it seems the longer hours worked in a country, the less productive it is – look at Mexico. So it’s clear that reducing the amount of hours worked is not going to screw up a country’s economy.

Throughout the history of capitalism, its heroes have reduced working time. Kellogg introduced a 6 hour working day and Ford a 40 hour week. They didn’t exactly lose out. More recently, look at New Zealand’s Perpetual Guardian, one of the company’s oldest trust businesses. When they introduced a 4 day working week, employees performed better at their jobs and enjoyed them more. It’s obvious that reducing working hours works.

If that’s the case, where do you think resistance comes from? Do you think there’s a general fear that if you give people more time on their hands, it’s somehow dangerous?

I don't know. It depends on how abstract and philosophical you want to get. Work is a great form of control. For most of us, it’s the largest constraint on our freedom and the biggest way we internalise power dynamics. So we find it scary to think about working shorter hours. We’re also unused to thinking about how we can change our own working environment as opposed to employers doing it for or to us. A 4 day working week would mean a jump into the unknown and figuring out how to change our daily routines.

But I think that, in a few years, we’ll think of the 5 day week in the same way we now do the 6 day week, as something archaic.

Your manifesto is: “We demand a 4 day week. We demand an increase in hourly pay. We demand a stronger welfare state.” How would you describe your wider agenda?

The key thing that underpins the campaign is autonomy and personal choice. You should be able to choose what you do with your life. At the moment, the biggest thing stopping this is that we have to work to earn money to live. The wage economy is a social construct that ties us to work and all the power dynamics around which work operate – enabling us to buy food, housing and whatever.

But a tremendous amount of time and energy is wasted at work today. Look at David Graeber’s Bullshit Jobs thesis. He argues that meaningless, unfulfilling jobs are actively destructive to society. And, in Britain, according to a 2015 YouGov survey, 37% of people think their jobs are meaningless. All of that wasted time and energy could be helping to meet huge societal needs at a time when volunteer work is decreasing, certainly in the US .

We should view time as a resource that’s necessary to enable people to build relationships, be more deeply involved in politics and actively help others. I believe shorter working hours would totally revitalise our cities and our communities.

 

Microdosing is so 2018 - try meditation or microteching

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When we wrote The Healthy Office Revolution back in 2017. the fashion for microdosing at work was just coming into vogue in Silicon Valley. Almost two years on, we’re still reading articles about microdosing, most of which are all about its positive side.

Microdosing is taking small hits of LSD frequently - enough to feel a little bit euphoric, more attentive and productive but not so much that you hallucinate.

But, as we wrote in THOR, it makes sense to be wary of microdosing.

The not so bright side

First off, there’s something a bit depressing about taking LSD for such mundane reasons. After all, we’re talking about a drug with the power to transform the nature of perception to the point that users have profound insights into themselves and the nature of their reality that last a lifetime.

Using a fraction of that awesome power to come up with a new emoji just seems a bit crap.

We also need to remember that research into microdosing is in its infancy. The Third Wave, a pro-psychedelics website, said ‘It’s entirely possible that microdosing could have hidden harms. And if we unreservedly promote microdosing as a totally safe, tried-and-tested activity, it might only be a matter of time until someone gets hurt …’

Although slight, dangers could include psychological addiction, raised anxiety levels and might possibly include affecting a microdoser’s physical health.

There’s also the risk of realising that your work is utterly pointless. In her Medium story, Microdosing Isn’t a Shortcut to Professional Success, former microdoser Erica Avey writes that microdosing ‘reconnects regions of the brain and reroutes maladaptive thought patterns, so profound life changes — not just heightened productivity — may take shape.‘

In Erica’s case, this meant quitting a job she actually liked.

Use the physiology the unverse or whatever gave you

Erika makes the excellent point that ‘We don’t need to change our biology to be better at work, we need to change the way we work to be better for our biology.’

But, if we can’t change our work and we want to keep our job, we can enjoy similar effects to microdosing through mindfulness and meditation practices.

OK, 10 minutes’ meditation won’t have such a dramatic effect as dropping a microdose of acid but it can energise you, change your mood and help you see things differently. If you build up a meditation or mindfulness practice over time it becomes easier and easier to slip into a mindful state.

Or, if meditation and mindfulness aren’t for you, buy yourself a mind machine. David, co-author of THOR, uses his mind machine to regularise his brainwaves once a week and feels the effects for a good couple of days. His mood improves and, best of all, he feels inspired creatively. The mind machine David swears by is also used by medical practitioners and therapists and has been tested thoroughly.

The thing is, changing your physiology in any way can never be entirely risk-free. But if you’re using your body’s natural biology to change your mind or tech that’s been thoroughly tested and is recommended by medical professionals, you’re a long way away from gambling with your sanity.

The rise and rise of health trackers at work

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Wearable devices that tracked employee movement and sleeping patterns helped enable the groundbreaking research at the heart of The Healthy Office Revolution. We’re fans.

So we weren’t surprised to read in a round-up of the biggest workplace trends to watch in 2019 that ‘health tracking is expected to see significant growth in 2019’. Apparently, employers are starting to include devices like Apple Watches in workplace wellness plans. The report goes on to say that ‘It is anticipated that by 2021, 90 percent of wellness plans in the U.S. will include health trackers.’

There are all sorts of privacy issues around gathering data on employees in this way. But, from where we’re standing, a greater use of activity trackers has enormous potential to help make workplaces more healthy.

It’s up to employers

The employees who wore activity trackers as part of Liz’s research grew to love them. No-one ever said they felt spied upon for sinister reasons.

Liz’s research proved that people want to be healthy in their workspace. They appreciate organisations that take steps to create healthy working environments.

Employers that do ask their people to wear activity trackers should also accept that they have a responsibility to do everything they can to keep these valuable employees healthy at work. After all, it’s employers who create the conditions that cause stress and burnout. Not employees.

And, as Liz’s research proved, it’s easy and inexpensive to change the way people work so that they become more healthy. You just have to want to do it.

Is sleeping on the job the new trend for 2019?

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It’s coming up for two years since we wrote The Healthy Office Revolution (THOR) and, in the Research section of the book, emphasised the benefits of natural light and greenery in offices.

A recent article by office design and space build specialists K2 referenced a survey by the company conducted with the UK’s YouGov which revealed that one in three out of a 1000 people surveyed said they would like to see more natural light in their workspace.

The same article identified greening offices as a trend to watch in 2019, 'as more and more organizations add shrubbery and plants to their offices, as well as green moss and living walls’.

While it’s always nice to be ahead of the curve, it’s more important that changes to office ecosystems such as incorporating more natural light and greenery are placed in context. As we said in THOR, ‘to be truly effective, they ‘had to be part of an entire office environment revolution’.

One thing we’re surprised the K2 piece doesn’t include is ‘nap rooms’. As Liz said not so long ago, ‘I’m hearing that more young people coming in to offices are asking where the nap room is'.

So why is the option to sleep on the job becoming increasingly popular with the new generation of employees?

Naps boost productivity

As with everything companies introduce that sounds like it could be an indulgence, there’s sound business logic behind nap rooms.

According to Sleep.org, ‘29 percent of workers report falling asleep or becoming very sleepy at work, and a lack of sleep costs the United States $63 billion each year in lost productivity. But a short twenty-minute nap can boost alertness and improve performance—both important when you’re on the job. ‘

But, as with introducing natural light and more greenery, it’s vital to think about the entire office ecosystem.

If a potential employee is being shown round the office and the first thing they want to know is where they can sleep, it doesn’t suggest that they’re overly enthusiastic about what they’re being shown does it?

We’re all for anything that will make offices healthier places to be, improving employee well-being at work and increasing productivity but what looks like inspiring trends have to be placed in context.

It’s all about joining the dots so where we work, what we do and how we do it are as healthy as possible. Otherwise, you could find your prized new employees hiding out in the nap room or gazing up at a living wall for hours on end.

Can yoga really make offices better? An interview with yogi Rachel Johnston

Yoga teacher Rachel Johnston has an unusual approach to the practice she’s taught successfully in the offices of corporations and other organisations. We talked to her about yoga, movement and what needs to happen for the benefits of yoga to be really felt in the office.

What’s different about the way you teach yoga, Rachel?

I started yoga as a particularly active 16-year-old who was very into movement, especially dance. I now bring in inspiration from other movement modalities into my asana teaching because I don’t see a separation between them and the physical aspects of yoga. The variation is enormously valuable.

How did the corporate classes come about?

I started teaching for Stretching The City, an excellent organisation that offers yoga to firms in the City of London, mainly financial organisations and advertising agencies. Highly stressful environments where people work long hours sitting at their desks. Sessions happen at lunch time or immediately after work.

Was it effective?

I ended up using my teaching sessions as a way to introduce people to the concept of making their office environment more movement and mind-body friendly. I want the effects of yoga and movement to be felt in the office all the time, not just for an hour.

Why?

I believe that you are the way you move. So it’s all very well going in and doing an hour’s yoga but that doesn’t change the rest of your day at the office.

I found that while organisations were open to yoga, the actual office environment was often not so great. For instance, the aircon in the offices I went to was so often too hot or cold. Windows were sealed so the air was stale. I was told it was because of the risk of people jumping out the window! The lights in these places are also very bright, presumably to keep people awake.

What was the mix of women and men?

We did tend to get mostly women as much as we tried to keep it mixed. Often it would be the receptionists and secretaries. We were less likely to get people doing the really high-powered jobs. The people most stressed were least likely to do yoga.

Do you believe that yoga makes people change? That you almost don’t have a choice?

I do. It’s the same for any practice combining mind and body.

How do you teach yoga in offices now?

It’s a skills-based practice. We always start with some sort of breathing practice and a gentle warm-up. Then I offer something to help people in everyday working life. I show them everything from how to relax their hamstrings to resting their eyes by looking out the window at the horizon.

We do yoga poses but my focus is on teaching people ways to do adapt these to their own particular body structure. We always do some kneeling and a squat. Our bodies are actually designed for three things – lying down, standing up and squatting. Squatting is vital for a healthy spine, knees and ankles. I want people to still be able to squat when they’re 70.

I also ask people to think about their walking patterns around the office – to walk as much as possible, as well as going outside into the fresh air when they can. It’s about using the context of yoga to help people think about movement.

What about the relaxation at the end of the class? Doesn’t it leave people too relaxed for work?

I think it’s nice to send people back to work calm. But don’t forget we’re talking about an active relaxation. It’s not like waking up groggy from a nap. Relaxation is a great way of imbedding new information in your brain.

Do you come across companies and people who are resistant to yoga?

There are still preconceptions about what yoga is and who can do it. One of the most common things I hear is ‘Oh, I can’t do yoga, I’m not flexible’.

I always say ‘You’re in the right place then’.

We also have to remember that people have fears related to their body image and a simple lack of knowledge about what their bodies can actually do. I love it when I help a person overcome their fear and do a headstand, something they may never have done before in their life. It’s a small thing but it often feels like a real achievement to them.

Time is also a factor. Some organisations believe offering yoga is a good thing but they only want people to take 45-minutes for the class rather than a full hour. And it isn’t just companies claiming to be time-poor. In office culture, being seen as busy-busy- busy is a mark of status. I’ve had experiences where the organisation itself thinks yoga at work is a great idea but its people are worried about setting aside the time.

What needs to happen for an office-yoga movement to grow?

There needs to be a paradigm shift in the way we think about movement before yoga is more widely accepted. For the sake of convenience, we’ve got rid of all the natural movement that would have happened throughout our day in the past. Now we have to take exercise rather than simply moving.

Working in offices, especially, takes so much movement out of our days so we need to put it back in. We should be mindful about movement in offices all the time and creating workspaces that really are for human bodies.

One of the organisations I approached had a great idea for how to encourage yoga in their workplace. They suggested training one person from each department to teach yoga. These people would become champions for the practice. Other employees would also be more receptive because they’d see that it’s possible for pretty much anyone to become a yoga teacher. I thought that was excellent.

Why do you think the corporate world isn’t encouraging more yoga and movement awareness? They always talk about people being their biggest asset.

To be honest, I don’t know. As far as I can see, anything that makes people healthier and happier at work means they get more done. They also take less time off work. Perhaps business simply feels it doesn’t really matter, which would obviously be wrong.

Before we finish, if you could tell people to do one thing at work to make themselves feel better what would it be?

Take your shoes off. When your feet are restricted, so is everything else about your body. I like to leave people with tennis balls so they can massage the soles of their feet when they’re working. You should try it.

Thanks Rachel. We definitely will. While we imagine offices filled with smiling, barefoot people moving gracefully as they work.

Find out more about Rachel and her wonderfully different approach to yoga at www.rachel-and-yoga.com.

 www.stretchingthecity.com