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Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 23 June 2018

Is your workplace making you ill? Soon, you may be able to test it for yourself

After all, the most talented employees will gravitate towards employers who can objectively demonstrate that they provide a “great work environment”

The idea that we can design machines and environments that can protect us from ourselves may be an emerging reality.
The idea that we can design machines and environments that can protect us from ourselves may be an emerging reality.

Good design has human well-being at its heart. Ergonomists, or as they are also known, psychological engineers, strive to create devices, environments and processes that keep us safe (or protect us from human error), reduce cognitive load and make us feel good while engaged with them.

Once upon a time, we would fit the man to the machine. Now, more than ever, we strive to fit the machine to the man. In the future, we might even fit the machine to the mood.

This alliance between psychology and design is set to blossom as smart technologies evolve and with it, our appreciation for psychological well-being and how to promote it increases as well.

Imagine a time in the not-too-distant future where you work for a particularly toxic boss. The big boss has just sent you a cantankerous email that pushes all of your buttons. You feel your grip tighten on your Smartphone – the new, UAE-made, Sahim 7.0 – and you begin hammering out a livelihood-threatening, venomous response.

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The Sahim 7.0 can sense that you are pressing the touch-screen harder than usual, its biometric features can tell that your body temperature is relatively elevated and your heart rate is up as well.

You click send and the intelligent agent in the phone scans the message using the latest sentiment analytic software. The phone assigns your message an anger score of 9.89 out of 10, and, therefore, decides not to send it.

After three minutes, the phone informs you that it has quarantined the angry message. By now, you have calmed down. The phone was right. You decide that your flaming missive wasn’t the wisest idea after all. Your Smartphone – actually, let’s call it a wise phone – just saved you from yourself ... again.

While the merits of such an interfering device are questionable, the idea that we can design machines, environments and entire communities that promote well-being and protect us from ourselves is an emerging reality.

One great example of this is the international WELL building standard, launched in 2014.

Devised by the International WELL Building Institute (IWBI) after more than half a decade of medical and scientific research into the health impacts of the built environment, the WELL building standard aims to promote health and wellness through building design. The standard has seven key areas of focus: air, water, nourishment, light, fitness, comfort and at the top of the pyramid, mind.

There are tools and modes of guidance to help realise these standards, along with independent assessment to ensure that the standards are met.

In the future, it won't be enough for job advertisements to make unsubstantiated claims such as “great work environment”.

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With objective standards available, prospective employees can just ask: do you have platinum-level WELL certification? The most talented employees will gravitate towards employers who can objectively demonstrate that they provide the “great work environment” they boast.

Beyond attracting the best talent, well-being in the workplace is rapidly gaining recognition as the new front line in the war of health promotion and illness prevention. Globally, chronic illnesses cost us billions annually in lost workdays and healthcare costs. Prevention is more cost-effective than cure.

The seventh level in the WELL building standard is mind. This aspect of the accreditation relates to the psychological environment. It sits at the top for a reason, which is that ultimately, the mind is the seat of suffering or flourishing.

With the right or wrong mindset, you can be irritable and miserable or satisfied and purposeful anywhere.

Ultimately, resilience and cognitive flexibility – let's call this psychological outlook or mind – plays a huge role in determining who merely survives and who thrives within the workplace.

Helping employees foster these cognitive skills can have a powerful impact on the workplace, creating a virtuous cycle of positivity and engendering a culture of compassion, creativity and purposeful industriousness.

At present, there are at least nine projects in the UAE that have, or are pursuing, the WELL building standard. These projects include the integration of innovative features, such as real-time air quality monitoring, circadian lighting, biophilic design, mindful eating spaces and regular stress management sessions. While nine projects is a good start, more will, no doubt, follow these innovative trailblazers.

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