A recent partnership between the Mayo Clinic and Delos, a company that consults with employers on healthier indoor environments, will allow researchers to determine in a controlled way how factors such as air quality, lighting, sound and work station ergonomics can affect employee health and productivity.

The companies have built the Well Living Lab, a 6,000 square-foot building adjacent to Mayo’s campus in Rochester, Minnesota, with six experimental modules that can be formed into a variety of indoor spaces, including an open-plan or closed-off office space.

[Photo credit: Brendan Bush]
[Photo credit: Brendan Bush]

“Everything [in the Well Living Lab] is meant to be modular, sort of ‘plug and play,’ so we are not wedded to the current ventilation system, lighting or sound system,” says Dr. Brent Bauer, the lab’s medical director. “This allows Mayo to bring in actual employees with their own computers, plunk them down in the lab for two or three months and let them do their regular job.”

A new survey from Optum reveals that employers often overlook the wellness implications of their on-site environment. In 2015, 86% of survey respondents agreed that environmental changes are at least somewhat likely to help employees make healthy decisions, but only 8% of health and wellness budgets (on average) are allocated to the physical space where employees work. Furthermore, last year fewer than half of employers made changes to the health environment at work, a that trend has remained relatively flat over the past few years.

The Well Living Lab has multiple sensors which measure with great granularity, light, sound and various air components. Environmental data is matched with data from the human subjects using commercial Microsoft bands that can easily be switched or augmented with additional wearables. “The bands track information such as heart rate, light exposure and motion,” says Dana Pillai, executive director of the lab. “We also administer questionnaires to study participants and observe subjects to get additional contextual data.”

Bauer was skeptical when Delos first approached him about the partnership a few years ago. “Of course when they brought the statistics that we spend about 90% of our time indoors, it became very clear,” he says. “If we're going to work on wellness and we haven't really optimized the health aspect of our indoor environment, then we're probably missing a huge opportunity.”

For its first study on the impact of work environment on employees, Mayo is using a group of its own workers as volunteer participants. Over a nine-week period, data will be collected as changes are made to air quality, the sound systems and light levels, all of which can affect circadian rhythms and sleep patterns. Bauer believes the study will validate the WELL Building Standards — performance requirements that were pioneered by Delos regarding air, water, nourishment, light fitness comfort and mind, all of which are relevant to the health of occupants in building environments. “Once we are comfortable we can control and manipulate and monitor everything we think we can, this will set the stage for future studies,” he says.

Rich Macary, president of Delos Ventures, believes that already many building industry stakeholders are committed to creating healthier indoor environments. “It’s interesting that one of the largest commercial real estate brokers, CBRE, came on board with what we are doing and made themselves our first client,” he says. “They certified their own headquarters and they are now one of the founding alliance members of the Well Living Lab. They’ve also committed to having a number of their employees become accredited professionals for the WELL Building Standard.”

In addition to working on new buildings, Delos will conduct gap analyses for employers who want to test the environment in current buildings and make recommendations. “It’s very important that we don’t just say, ‘put in this HVAC system, replace that filter and you are good,’” says Macary. “Every environment is dynamic and once changes are made we run tests before the building can be certified based on our criteria.”

Although cost is always an important factor when employers embark on any construction or renovation, Pillai says the investment can be modest. “It may involve selecting the right kind of light bulb instead of paying more for lights,” he says.

“In a lot of our projects that have come online, incremental costs to achieve the WELL Building Standard were from 1% to 2% of project costs, which is very modest investment to achieve a more comfortable, functional building,” adds Macary.

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