Are we entering the age of the superworker?

Three hot issues for 21st century employers.

With advances in managed health and wellbeing at work having an increasing effect on the output and efficiency of workers, we take the temperature of three controversial areas where everything from wearables to prescription drugs are being used in the quest for a healthier bottom line.

1. A wearable dilemma

The rise of wearable technology has already revolutionized sport and leisure, and it's set to take the workplace by storm too. Employers are increasingly using it to monitor the health and performance of their workers, from stress and tiredness levels to even how much exercise they take outside work.

But why? Put simply “it’s a management diagnostic tool”, says Chris Brauer, Director of Innovations at Goldsmiths University London. His early stage studies have found strong correlation between sleep patterns, anxiety and stress levels outside the workplace, and concentration and performance levels inside it. As well as helping bosses understand employees' performance better, introducing wearables can also be a matter of economics. By distributing Fitbit fitness trackers to its staff, BP North America claimed a health insurance premium discount when employees reached a prescribed daily step count. Swedish municipal water company Kalmar Vatten have gone even further, paying staff to exercise for two hours a week or face a two-hour salary reduction.

In a separate three-week UK trial, Goldsmiths University found that wearable technology devices boosted productivity by 8.5%. A device to monitor and improve posture, a headset translating brain activity into action and a motion-data gathering wristband all contributed.

Whilst it’s undeniable there are advantages for management and employees, objections about invasion of privacy and stress levels actually being increased by close monitoring are two of the main challenges facing the drive towards workplace wearables.

The question is, can we find a way to make them work for everyone?

2. Working on the edge

As the way we all work continues to evolve, it's becoming more important than ever to create the right spaces to nurture new processes. Not only for the sake of productivity though; the blandness of the cubicle, the distractions of open plan, and building design set up to keep us in one place could be making us all ill.

Increased stress levels from having to overhear multiple conversations, back and neck problems thanks to poor posture and too long sitting in one position are all bad news for health, and consequently productivity. To counteract this, the future work environment will literally build in opportunities for movement, and ways for us to change our space to keep up with more diverse ways of working.

For its brand new Melbourne headquarters, Medibank, the Australian health insurer, demanded a ‘healthy’ building. The result? A sci-fi swirl of stairs dominating the interior, taking the staircases out of their fire-proofed concrete columns to become a design feature linking a variety of collaborative or quiet environments, from standing spaces on balconies to lawns and conventional desk spaces.

Brand new buildings are one way to innovate, but interior design can still breathe life and increased productivity into existing office spaces. "Technology has freed people to work anywhere, and a growing proportion of that work is collaborative and social", says the US furniture designer Haworth. Equally, data and information heavy processes are increasingly being woven into everyday working, so privacy and quiet will also be increasingly valued. All of these challenges are driving its new, more holistic approach of ‘Active Ergonomics’, based on three core principles: anthropometrics – how the body relates to its environment; ambients – dealing with environmental conditions like light, air, sound and temperature; and movement – covering everything from moving between areas to posture adjustment.

This challenge of creating a multi-faceted workspace within an existing building complete with natural light, privacy and opportunities to interact has been tackled by the architects at Eriksen Skajaa in their solution, The Monastery. An ingenious design concept including partial partition walls, enclosed birch veneer boxes, niches and indoor windows to maintain connections with the wider office. A successful concept blending multiple space types with new ways of working.

3. Smart drugs?

An improved ability to plan and make decisions. Accelerated learning and creativity. Increased attention span. All high on every employer’s wish list when recruiting. Interestingly though, all of these qualities can be cultivated with performance enhancing drugs. It’s unsurprising then that more and more of these drugs are reporting for duty with more and more workers.

A 2015 study of 5,000 health insurance company workers found 6.7% regularly used performance enhancing and anxiety reducing drugs at work. Similar research has found 10-15% of students worldwide admit to using so called smart drugs including Ritalin and Modafinil. The same drugs have the power to artificially counteract jetlag and overwork, with obvious short-term benefits for employees and executives alike, all of which is making drug use a growing issue in the workplace. With covert use of smart drugs increasing, it has the potential to drive up the pressure on colleagues to adopt similar unsustainable work patterns.

The question is, how extreme will the long-term consequences of this ‘extreme working’ be?