Salutogenic Design – what’s that?

The last couple of days I've been feeling a little discombobulated (a more expressive word than disconcerted or confused). Why this state of mind? Well I left Khartoum on the 1:55 a.m. flight – so no sleep to Frankfurt + time zone difference of 3 hours. Two hours later 8:20 a.m. I flew to London and had a four-hour layover in London Heathrow. Next flight was 7.5 hours to DC fortunately from the same terminal I'd just landed in or I would have been even more discombobulated as getting between LHR terminals is not, to use the IT term, intuitive' (or even signposted). DC is 8 hours behind Khartoum. I then got home on public transport – my choice that one as a nod towards a carbon offset – via dinner with a friend. So discombobulation is due to aircraft, airports, time zone changes, and lack of sleep. I forgot to mention temperature drop. I left Khartoum in a temperature of 37 C. (98 F) and arrived Frankfurt to – 4 C. (28 F) and then London 1C (34 F) and Washington (- 6C) 21 F. I was dressed in sandals and a thin top to begin with and in London changed into thermal gear ready for Washington.

Despite discombobulation I was interested to get some information from a colleague on 'Salutogenic Design'. Ever curious I took a look and then a deeper look. It turns out that it's about the role of the built environment within the context of health and well-being. This isn't a new concept, in fact I wrote about it in my book on Organizational Health – Chapter 7 is all about healthy space – but I hadn't come across the label before.

A name in the field right now appears to be Alan Delani who founded the International Academy for Design and Health. He tells us that

"Research on salutogenic design highlights the impact of design factors that inspire the designer and planner toward healthy society to develop conditions that stimulate health and well-being and thereby the promotion of health and prevention of diseases in all levels of society. An increase in the consideration of salutogenic design approaches leads to social innovation and economic growth that requires [the] interdisciplinary application of sciences such as architecture, medicine, public health, psychology, design, engineering, along with culture, art and music."

Good to hear that there's now a fully-fledged Academy for this and here's hoping that they immediately start work on the salutogenic design of aircraft, and airports. Maybe that would help me feel less disoriented and then I could actually work productively as I travel. I don't think they're currently designed with all the most up to date research on promoting productivity, though they do seem to be well designed for mindless shopping in expensive outlets and reading trashy detective stories while waiting in the security clearance line before having to strip off and unpack only to re-clothe and re-pack ten steps later.

Those in the field of salutogenic design are already talking about healthcare, schools, and offices. And it's the last that links to my interest in organization design – the aspect that I pick up in my book mentioned earlier. Workplaces need to be designed to stimulate motivation, productivity, and well-being. Presently there is too little linkage between facility managers and line managers, organization development people, and workplace employees. As I say in my book (in a quote from Working without Walls) healthy business functioning and the capacity for organizational adaptability 'demands attention to all four elements, challenging traditional approaches to change which often ignore the role and dynamic of the physical environment. Arguably, space has the strongest psychological impact on people and behaviours allowing it to become a key catalyst for wider change.'

Not paying attention to the physical design of the workplace in the context of the wider organizational design is a missed opportunity. Apart from any health and well-being considerations, 'the physical environment is a reflector of the culture, values, and preoccupations of the organizational members. Even now, the corner office, for instance, is the prime example of a physical space status symbol, usually reflecting positional power. The choices of marble, wood or other surfaces give clues on organizational values – lavish use of hardwood, for example, might be at odds with corporate statements about sustainability.' (Quote from Chapter 7).

A second piece that came my way this week also caught my attention. This was on napping in the workplace. That's another thing that intermittently crops up: the value or not of 'power naps' (are these a management fad – see the chapter 8 in my book. It's on management fads).

So now I learn that:

"One-third of American workers aren't sleeping enough to function at peak levels, and that chronic exhaustion is costing their employers $63 billion in lost productivity according to researchers from Harvard Medical School.

Managers at a growing number of companies, among them Procter & Gamble Co., and Goldman Sachs Group Inc. are waking up to the problem, investing in programs from sleep-hygiene courses to melatonin-regulating lighting to help employees improve their slumber."

That's pretty interesting because if the argument for power napping prevails then architects and designers might have to include sleep rooms in their office designs and managers will have to be 'developed' to think that allowing workers to sleep while at work is a good investment in improved productivity. I don't think I'll put my hand up to facilitate this program.

However, it's worth thinking about in terms of worker well-being, productivity, and organization design (systems and architecture). It might also stimulate innovation as people aim to design sleep pods, office approved pyjamas, etc.

The design that intrigued me recently on these lines was the 'ostrich pillow' – an innovation funded by KickStarter.

"OSTRICH PILLOW offers a micro environment in which to take a warm and comfortable power nap at ease. It is neither a pillow, nor cushion, bed or garment, but a bit of each all at the same time. It's soothing cave-like interior shelters and isolates both your head and hands, perfect for a power nap. You can use the Ostrich Pillow at your desk, on a bench, on the train or while you wait at the air …"

I haven't yet seen one in any of the airports I've been in recently and I can tell you that I will not be buying one in the immediate future but I say that now. Maybe next week when I'm traveling back to the UK I'll change my mind. But will an ostrich pillow clear security I wonder? (Last time I came through I had a baked sweet potato in my rucksack as a snack on the flight – it failed the security agent test. Clearly cold baked sweet potatoes have an incendiary property unknown to me. Or perhaps the security agent was hungry.)

Where am I now (not location) in my thinking about salutogenic design? Though the word 'salutogenic' isn't easy, I do think the field is well worth further exploration and if it brings together HR, IT, Facility Managers, and business operations, so much the better. The partnership of these four groups of stakeholders would, I think result in powerful new workplace designs that did improve productivity, motivation and well-being. Whether the design of aircraft and airports will achieve similar is something I keenly hope for but am not overly optimistic about at this point.

What's your view on the value of salutogenic design in your working practice?