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Designing Workplaces for Whole-Person Health

May 17, 2023

From our Content Contributor Partner, ISS.

By Shauna McQueen, MS RD – Director, Nutrition and Well-Being

While many of us can describe what it means to be “unhealthy,” defining “healthy” or “well” requires more nuance.

The World Health Organization defines health as “a state of complete physical, mental and social well-being and not merely the absence of disease or infirmity.”

According to the National Wellness Institute, wellness “is an active process through which people become more aware of, and make choices toward, a more successful existence.”

What these definitions help convey is that health and wellness refer to more than the absence of disease—they’re dynamic by nature and exist on a spectrum rather than in distinct categories (like “healthy” or “unhealthy”). While neither of these definitions are perfect, it’s clear that health and wellness are multidimensional, relative, fluid, and go beyond specific physical symptoms an individual may exhibit.

What Is Whole-Person Health and Why Is It Important for Employers?

A whole-person approach to health acknowledges the many dimensions of health and well-being and honors its fluctuations. While there are multiple models representing the concept of whole-person health, their philosophies are similar—they tend to acknowledge that well-being can be achieved when a person is satisfied with multiple factors, or dimensions, of life.  

Although whole-person health may look different for everyone, there is a general consensus that it goes beyond physical health to include emotional, environmental, financial, intellectual, physical, social, and even spiritual health—each outlined below:

  • Emotional: includes the ability to process and express emotions productively, manage stress, connect with others emotionally, and be resilient
  • Environmental: includes everything from access to green space, weather, sustainability (green living), and built environments (including home and work)
  • Financial: includes the ability to meet financial needs in the moment and plan for the future
  • Intellectual: includes personal interests, education, mentally stimulating conversation/activities, and mastering new tasks
  • Physical: includes diet, physical activity, sleep habits, drug and alcohol use, and the use of preventative medicine
  • Social: includes community, relationships with family/friends, and making time to be social
  • Spiritual: includes one’s beliefs/values and sense of purpose and meaning

While our collective thinking has evolved from focusing solely on physical health to now include mental well-being, additional opportunities for a more holistic approach exist—especially in the workplace.

Bringing Whole-Person Health into the Workplace

The National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health (NCCIH) defines whole-person health as looking at more than a single symptom to explore all the factors that promote health or cause illness. While the concept of whole-person health is widely acknowledged as beneficial in the healthcare space, its incorporation into the workplace has been slower.

Estimates show that people spend an average of one-third of their lives at work—that’s nearly 90,000 hours over the course of a lifetime. The environment employers create contributes significantly to employee health and wellness during those 90,000 hours, but workplace satisfaction (or dissatisfaction) and feelings of stress experienced during the day affect employees’ health and wellness beyond 9:00 to 5:00.

Food Programming for Whole-Person Health

Food programming is a great place to start incorporating a whole-person approach to health because it touches on every dimension of well-being.

Of course, a diet based on whole foods helps to support longevity and reduce chronic disease risk, but a whole-person health approach acknowledges that food has value and meaning beyond nutrients—it is part of how we celebrate, how we grieve, how we honor tradition, and how we connect with one another. Our food choices today also shape the environment of tomorrow. Leaning into this truth means we can design workplace food programs strategically to nourish not only physical well-being, but also social, environmental, intellectual, and emotional well-being.

Here are some tips for fostering whole-personal health in workplace food programs:

  • Create comfortable spaces that encourage connection
  • Offer regular, engaging, and intellectually stimulating culinary nutrition demos and educational sessions
  • Use positive reinforcement with whole-food options
  • Lean into plant-based menus and options
  • Explore opportunities to preserve resources and reduce waste throughout the food cycle
  • Make the nutritious choice an easy one through thoughtful presentation and choice architecture
  • Create a veggie or herb garden onsite (some organizations even have beekeeping programs that provide training to help keep onsite gardens diverse and blossoming)

Whole-Person Health Beyond the Café

Beyond food programming, thoughtful space design and curated experiences can offer nourishment within each dimension of well-being.

One way to bring this programming to life is through dedicated well-being and experience roles. These individuals are experts in topics like well-being, nutrition, and mindfulness who can work with onsite stakeholders to initiate a cultural shift towards whole-person health via health-supportive design, educational events, and community building.

Here are some tips for fostering whole-personal health in workplace:

  • Embrace nature—outdoor gardens, indoor plants, natural light, the sound of water, and even well-placed birdfeeders can all help to relieve anxiety and boost mood
  • Offer employees opportunities for personal development beyond their role—what about a creative writing class or floral arranging workshop?
  • Provide support with financial well-being lecture series (research shows this is a top priority for employees)
  • Create a calm, clean mindfulness space where employees can take time to breathe and reflect
  • Organize a community volunteer day—helping others benefits everyone
  • Use your pay power to support equitable and sustainable companies
  • Allow opportunities for movement through fitness classes, walking clubs, or under-desk ellipticals for those who may want them

Workplaces Where People Want to Be

These are just a few of the ways facility service providers can help clients design workplaces for whole-person health while also magnetizing employees. Because each workplace is different, it’s crucial to create a whole-person health strategy that meets individual needs. To keep their best people, an organization’s food programs and workplace experiences must support holistic well-being and reflect what today’s employees expect from their employers.

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