How do you create a safe and positive work environment?

With Rachel Hodgdon, CEO of the International WELL Building InstituteSubscribe & Listen: Apple Podcasts Spotify YouTubeWhen you think of a positive work environment, you migh

How do you create a safe and positive work environment?

With Rachel Hodgdon, CEO of the International WELL Building Institute

Subscribe & Listen: Apple Podcasts Spotify YouTube

When you think of a positive work environment, you might imagine scenes of collaborative conversations with colleagues, a work-sponsored lunch event, group yoga classes, or receiving action-oriented feedback that helps you feel satisfied and valued at work.

While all of these are crucial pieces of a positive work environment, one factor affects the impact of each: health and wellbeing.

The buildings we spend time in deeply affect our health. This is what the International WELL Building Institute (IWBI) is communicating to architects, designers, and workers across industries and borders. We spoke with the CEO and President of IWBI, Rachel Hodgdon, on the Social Entrepreneurship & Innovation Podcast about how things like air quality, water quality, and even seat placement shape not only how we perform at work, but how physically and mentally healthy we are.

In this post, well discuss how a positive work environment is shaped by the actual environment in which youre working, and how to improve your own work environment.

Lets dive in!

What Is a Positive Work Environment?

Before we can get into determining how to create a positive work environment, we should clarify what exactly a positive, healthy work environment can look like.

While definitions may change from person to person, there are some aims of every work environment that we could sensibly all agree to: a positive work environment is a workplace that prioritizes the health, safety, and professional development of all employees.

Why Is It Important to Maintain a Positive Work Environment?

A positive work environment is crucial for employee retention, empowerment, and wellbeing. Not only does a happier work environment improve productivity by 12%, but its also not as stressful.

Stress is a key indicator of health and a staggering 94% of Americans report feeling stressed at work. By going the extra mile and incorporating measures at the workplace that foster a positive work environment, employee morale can be lifted and significantly impact well-being and productivity.

A positive work environment shouldnt be a luxury, but rather a tool employers use to cultivate human potential and encourage employees to do their best work. All employees must have access to healthy working spaces, no matter their chosen profession.

What Creates a Positive Work Environment?

Many factors contribute to a positive work environment. In addition to core principles like honest communication, a work-life balance, a supportive company culture, and employee engagement, Rachel from IWBI argues that the actual space we spend time in is just as important for our productivity, mental and physical health, especially as we move to a post-pandemic world.

On the podcast, she explained that the WELL Certification has evolved to help employers create a work environment that truly benefits employee health and wellbeing in the workplace. WELL addresses themes like mental health, community connectivity, nourishment, fitness, which is a part of this larger prescription that we need to be able to thrive inside. Given that even before the pandemic we spent 90% of our time indoors.

So what does a positive environment look like for team members? According to the WELL Building Standard, it must address seven core categories: air, water, nourishment, light, fitness, comfort, and mind. For each category, a number of design qualifications must be met in order for buildings to gain enough points to qualify for the certification.

Check out this clip from the podcast to hear how Rachel describes WELLs approach to creating a healthy and thriving work environment.

Air Quality

Were now intimately familiar with the importance of fresh and circulating air to mitigate the transmission of disease indoors

because of the COVID-19 pandemic. But the importance of good air quality goes beyond our physical well being and spurs constructive, positive thinking. As Rachel mentioned, having adequate amounts of fresh air supplied to our buildings can enhance everything from cognition to problem solving.

Water Quality

Its easy to assume that the water we drink straight from the faucet in the United States is safe, but thats not necessarily true. The results of water quality testing in the US and in many other countries is really shocking., we heard from Rachel. And in fact, the Guardian just put out an article where they did water quality testing all over the United States and found that the majority of faucets that they tested had unsatisfactory, or even illegal levels of contaminants within the water supply.

The WELL Standard not only requires third-party water quality testing, it actively gives points to organizations who encourage employees to hydrate in the office, since even mild dehydration can negatively impact concentration.


Its no secret that an unbalanced diet is the cause of many health issues from diabetes to heart disease. The WELL Standards criteria on nourishment is meant to encourage healthy eating and support a workplace culture focused on nutrition.

Design elements range from easily accessible salad bars in office cafeterias to displays on nutrition and the benefits of eating mindfully.


Being stuck in a classroom or cubicle all day far from any source of daylight can impact an employees ability to be productive. As Rachel told us, Daylight has been linked to everything from improved focus to improved healing times.

Daylight also plays a role in regulating our sleep cycles, which deeply affect our overall health and wellbeing. Without adequate access to daylight when were working, our bodys natural cycles are off. In the WELL Standard, circadian lighting design, low-glare workstation design, window access, and window shading are all indicators of a healthy, productive atmosphere for employees.


It seems that new research emerges daily about the benefits of exercise for productivity, concentration, physical health, and disease prevention. Because most of our population isnt as active as it should be and many jobs are sedentary, fitness is increasingly important to integrate during the workday.

The WELL Standard comes at fitness from all angles. Some buildings gain points for offering employees incentives for biking or walking to work and providing showering facilities or bicycle storage opportunities. (As a former bike commuter in Washington D.C., I can tell you firsthand that these are huge perks!) During the workday, workplaces with the WELL Standard accreditation give employees opportunities to be active while theyre working with standing desks, treadmill desks, or workout facilities.


Acoustics are a common issue in office buildings. Auditory discomfort is a key source of dissatisfaction in the workplace and its something remote employees experience too.

To help create change around this, WELL integrated sound into their Comfort criteria, which also includes thermal comfort and accessibility for disabled users. Heres what Rachel told us about developing that criteria, especially as it relates to remote work: We have a category within WELL around sound and acoustics. And we thought about: whats the impact of you and I spending eight 9, 10 hours a day with these headphones on with these earbuds in and what are some of the ways in which organizations or buildings can really care for the auditory health of not just the people inside but the people who are working remotely.


Lastly, mental health is an incredibly important factor in creating a positive work environment for employees. Among American

adults, 1 in 5 experiences a mental illness. A positive atmosphere that helps employees feel valued and supported can help combat mood disorders and feelings of inadequacy.

Especially coming out of the pandemic, its crucial that employers integrate design elements at work around mental health. this is something that as leaders we cannot afford to ignore, the vast majority of our organizations will have substantial numbers of individuals who have suffered mental health crises, or trauma throughout the course of the pandemic.

Some elements of a workplace that improve mental health are employee access to child care services, workplace sleep support, the incorporation of nature and outdoor spaces into the office, and access to behavioral health services.

International WELL Building Institute: People First Places

A public benefit corporation, the International WELL Building Institute is the worlds leading organization focused on transforming the spaces we inhabit to advance human health. Through their WELL Accreditation Standard, the organization certifies buildings (or even rooms) that meet strict guidelines for human health.

The WELL AP is a credential for individuals interested in advancing human health through intentional design. More than 17,000 people globally have studied and earned this certification, furthering the discourse on the role of spaces in our health.

Rachel Hodgdon, President & CEO of International WELL Building Institute

Embedded in Rachels work history is a deep commitment to following her purpose-driven nature. In the U.S. Green Building Council, the nonprofit organization behind the LEED Certification for sustainable building design, Rachel founded the Center for Green Schools. Her work was integral to positing the USGBC LEED standard as the worlds most widely used green building rating system.

In 2016, Rachel joined IWBI intending to advance human health through intentional design. As the CEO, Rachels work impacts the health of billions of people around the world, providing healthier spaces to live, work, and play for all.

One of the things that motivate us to get out of bed in the morning, whether were showing up at the office or showing up in our living rooms are the people who we get to interact with and the cool things that we get to build together.

Creating a Positive Work Environment

Rachel gave us some simple ways to help regulate our personal work environments and cultivate a healthier, happier space to work. Here are a few ways you can improve your space whether youre working remotely or in the office!

  • Air Quality: Are you breathing stagnant indoor air all day? Try opening a window or investing in a HEPA air filter to ensure that the air youre breathing is free from harmful substances.
  • Daylight: Situating your workspace next to a window can help regulate your sleep cycle and maintain your circadian rhythm. If you dont have access to a window, consider taking a walking break outside to keep your body in sync with the time of day.
  • Ergonomics: Does your job require you to sit all day? Try stacking up some old books and create a DIY standing desk or invest in a converter like Fully. Standing is an effective way to keep your muscles active while you work and improve posture.
  • Wear Headphones: Whether youre fighting the utter silence of being home alone or trying to drown out city noises, a good pair of headphones can go a long way. Noise cancelling headphones can help you get in the zone and stay motivated too!

Closing: A Positive Workplace & Job Satisfaction

When employees feel valued and supported in a healthy work culture, the opportunities for innovation and employee engagement are endless and feed a companys success. Creating a positive work environment and culture without including human health is an oversight that affects productivity and creativity of all employees.

As our society begins to shift out of this global pandemic weve all endured in our own ways, its more crucial than ever that employee happiness, health, and safety are top priorities for workplaces.

Additional Resources & Links Mentioned from the Episode:

  • International WELL Building Institute on Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn and YouTube
  • U.S. Green Building Council
  • Regeneration: Ending the Climate Crisis in One Generation, by Paul Hawken (Pre-Order)
  • Strengths Finder 2.0

Jacqueline Goodwin

Sustainable Workplaces Manager & Writer

Jackie is the Sustainable Workplaces Manager at Urban Green Lab, a sustainability education nonprofit in Nashville, Tennessee. Shes passionate about connecting people withactionableways to make a positive impact on the environment. She graduated from Dickinson College with a degree in Environmental Studies and a certificate in Social Innovation & Entrepreneurship. Jackie worked in the nonprofit world in Washington D.C. for Ashoka and the National Building Museum.

Jackie enjoys hiking with her rescue dog, finding craft breweries, and traveling the globe in search of plant-based eats.

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