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Active Attention — 5 Strategies (you can implement today) for a Healthier Workplace

Posted on Oct 31, 2018, by Michael Eckert

Over the years, the office has certainly changed. Unless you’ve recently emerged from an underground vault, the current emphasis on creating healthier workplaces certainly isn’t a surprise. As a society we’ve really come to embrace this idea — that healthier, happier employees are better employees. Everyone wins.

We usually file this discussion under the catchall category of “Sustainability” — a word we use to unify a diverse set of topics such as: environmental sensitivity, or energy savings, or material transparency. That these subjects are now front-and-center can only be seen as a positive, because it is! However — as we’ve noted before in this blog, overall thinking about sustainability has been moving into a phase we can think of as “the second wave.”

If you compare an older sustainability-focused building standard (LEED, for example), with a younger sibling, such as the WELL Building StandardTM, you’ll see what this new phase is about. The biggest difference is a shift from attention aimed primarily at buildings (“what will this building be like?”) to one that places its full focus directly on the people inside.

SO IF I’M AN EMPLOYEE, I REAP THE BENEFITS, RIGHT?

Yes. Broadly speaking. If for no other reason, because healthier workplaces can improve the bottom line, there is clearly a big incentive for companies to embrace this kind of thinking. The changes will, of course, make work life better for employees. However, while it’s certainly nice to be able to sit (or maybe sit and stand!) at your desk admiring your new digs, here’s the thing: It’s a bit like joining a gym. You still have to go to the gym.

This post isn’t so much about exercise per se, but rather: What can you do to keep your mind working at its best. There are ways to be sure your focus stays sharp during the workday. But you have to actively pursue that kind of mental acuity. It won’t just fall in your lap (assuming you’re not standing at your new desk).

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THAT’S WHAT WE MEAN BY “ACTIVE ATTENTION ”

Purposefully cultivate a sharper state of mind. Some suggestions:

  1. Walk Outside: Everyone knows that sometimes it’s a good idea to take a break. Well, most people know. Studies support this. What’s also true is that if you can get outside and connect with nature — even for just a few minutes — you’ll see a bunch of beneficial effects. That’s why we’re seeing an increased interest in biophilia during the last several years — architects and designers are trying to figure out ways to bring a bit more of nature into our interior spaces. The benefits can include an improvement in short-term memory and better concentration. Short exposure to nature can also help you to be more creative — it’s a way to recharge yourself from a stressful work environment. Try to get outside and take a short walk in the nearest park, or down a tree-lined street if you can.
  1. Deep Breathing: We modern humans take shallow breaths far too often. We do it so much that it feels natural. But all of this shallow breathing actually limits the range of motion of our diaphragms. The lowest portion of the lungs doesn’t get its full share of oxygen. That might be why you feel more short of breath, and by extension more anxious. Learning to breathe deeply — taking short breaks to really focus on full, deep breaths — can help us feel more relaxed. The benefits of feeling more relaxed are pretty obvious — and actively making an effort to breathe deeply is a perfect way to give yourself a break at the office. It won’t take long, and the results can make a real difference in how you feel. Seriously, take 3 deep, slow breaths right now (in through your belly) and you will feel more relaxed.
  1. Don’t Grab That Soda: Yes we realize this one is probably going to be difficult. If it isn’t, consider yourself fortunate. But the simple fact is: Drinking soda rather than water is just not good for you. Sure the satisfaction is there — but most of that happy feeling is coming from sugar (OK — to be fair, some of it is probably coming from caffeine). Sugar isn’t really helpful as a general rule. Plus, sweet, carbonated drinks tend to generate more trips to the bathroom, thus decreasing the hydration value of the ingested liquid, which is precisely why you were supposed to be drinking the fluids to begin with. By the way — before you ask: No. Switching to fruit juice isn’t helpful. Just rip off the band-aid. Cut down on the soda and pay attention to added sugar in all drinks. 
  1. Ask An Expert. There Just Might Be One in the Office: Here’s something we bet you never really thought about: Your company may employ an ergonomics expert. Especially if you work for a corporation of reasonable size. With the advent of sit-to-stand workstations and the continuing constant use of laptop and desktop computers, ergonomics is plainly a huge issue for every modern company. Minimizing the conditions that might lead to repetitive-stress injuries like Carpal Tunnel Syndrome is simply a sensible approach to preventative health care. Ask Human Resources if you have an ergonomics expert around. You might be surprised. The benefit may not be obvious now, but unfortunately — if you don’t set yourself up well ergonomically, the disadvantages might be very obvious sooner than you think. 
  1. Here’s One You Can Do at Home: You shouldn’t be sleeping at the office. That’s something you do on your own time, usually at night. We’re going to throw one more slightly inconvenient fact at you (this is like the soda thing). Here it is: Blue light tends to mess with our circadian rhythms. This is a very complex subject, especially because looking at light with the naked eye doesn’t really tell you what you need to know. For that you need a much more sophisticated wavelength analysis than an eyeball can provide. But as a rule, blue light is best during the day when you want to be more alert. Unfortunately, screens produce lots of blue light. They aren’t what you want to be looking at to get your best rest at night. Experts recommend a few hours of screen-free time before you want to go to sleep. Don’t yell at us! We are merely repeating the words of experts — feel free to act on or ignore this whole paragraph, based on your personal feelings.

So remember — take some breaks. Try to drink water. Breathe deeply. Be sure your workstation isn’t messing with your health, unbeknownst to you. And if you want to go for the whole enchilada, change your late-night habits. But even doing a few of these things — and some of them are really easy — should help improve the way you feel during the day at work. That’s a good thing.

Topics: Health & Wellness, Performance, Sustainability

Michael Eckert

Written by Michael Eckert

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