The Healthy Workplace

How to Improve the Well-Being of Your Employees---and Boost Your Company's Bottom Line

The Healthy Workplace

Author: Leigh Stringer
Pub Date: July 2016
Print Edition: $27.95
Print ISBN: 9780814437438
Page Count: 256
Format: Hardback
e-Book ISBN: 9780814437445

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“I realize it has become too easy to find a diet to fit in with whatever you happen to feel like eating and that diets are not there to be picked and mixed but picked and stuck to, which is exactly what I shall begin to do once I've eaten this chocolate croissant.” ― Helen Fielding, Bridget Jones's Diary

“Does this chair make my butt look fat?” After laughing, my husband, John, got a worried look and stopped in his tracks. “Uh, are you serious?” I realized, of course, that no man in his right mind would dare answer this question. But I really wanted to know. “I’m not saying you need to answer me, but honestly, I spend all day at work sitting at my desk and starting at a computer. I feel like I’ve been working this way ages and that it’s finally catching up with me. Do you think being chained to a chair has something to do with my midsection spread?” John agreed – very carefully – that yes, he felt that his job, similarly involving staring at a computer for many hours, was not exactly benefiting his health, and slow weight gain and stress were bothering him too. Up until recently, we both regularly complained that we did not get enough time to work out and we felt continuously frustrated and guilty about it. At least in my case, I was surprised, almost shocked by how my health was deteriorating. I mean, I thought I was doing everything right. But the truth was that I had been neglecting my body and avoiding the stress toll of work for years, and it was finally time to do something about it.

To give a little history, I have spent the last 25 years of my life being a very hard worker. From the time I graduated from high school to today, I have been employed by eight different companies, in six different cities and in two countries. When the company I worked for needed me to move, I moved. When I needed to cancel my vacation because of a big project, I cancelled it. When my boss or my team needed me to work overtime, I did it. Then I had two beautiful girls. But I kept going because I really love working and the pride I feel having accomplished something at the end of the day. I want my girls to know that women can do anything they set their minds to doing and that being a mother and a having a career is totally possible. I wrote my first book, The Green Workplace, with my first daughter, two years old at the time, swinging from my legs. I moved to New York City with my second daughter, still a newborn, to build up my firm’s consulting practice there. I was awarded the “top 40 under 40” award for professionals in the building industry, one of the youngest people appointed to my company’s board of directors at the time, and became a Senior Vice President at what most would consider an early age. I have had some of the best clients on the planet and considered one of the world’s leading workplace design experts. I attribute this success to an amazingly supportive family, brilliant and inspiring colleagues, great mentors, but also to really, really hard work.

I guess you could say things were going pretty well for me career-wise. Then, almost out of nowhere, I just hit a wall. After several months of supporting an important client on a major project, I became physically and mentally drained and had no energy for work, family or friends. The months and months of overtime, and years of bad health habits had caught up with me. My mood was terrible – I was snappy, lethargic and tuned out. I was drinking large amounts of coffee during the day and then compensating with a glass or two of wine at night to settle down. I was eating cupcakes, chocolate or snacks around the office and at home and ordering take out pretty regularly. I was not really exercising, and when I did, it would really “mess up my day” and get in the way of other more important tasks, like work or taking care of my kids. At one point in my life I actually ran a marathon, but that was years ago. At this point, I could barely run two miles without feeling I would pass out. Health just was not a priority.

I was the queen of excuses when it came to weight gain. At one point I added up all the reasons I had put on pounds. The list reads a bit like Bridget Jones’ diary.

Legitimate excuses for weight gain

Over 40 years old, add 5 pounds. I was over 40, so that meant I was “supposed” to add on 5 more pounds. I mean, at 40 your metabolism slows down and there is not much you can do about that.

• Birthing 2 children, add 5 pounds each. Having two children clearly gave me a free pass for going up at least a dress size. Again, body changes happen when you are pregnant and afterwards, and other people gain weight due to kids, so I have to be fair to myself.

Working in a stressful industry, add 10 pounds. I work for a design firm and architects are supposed to work really hard and throw everything into their work. It’s the culture of our industry! In college we used to brag about “how many all-nighters” we pulled in a row. In most of the design firms I have worked for, there has been an unspoken rule that “hours put in” are required for advancement.

Working in the modern age, add 5 pounds. Even if I am not at the office, I am expected to respond to emails at all hours of the day. Hey, the world is global and 24/7. It’s just how work is today. So shouldn’t I get a few bonus pounds because I’m just being a good employee and sacrificing health for my trade?

Even as I write these excuses down, they sound ridiculous. But the truth is, that I was overweight, in bad health and in denial about it.

And the worst part was that clothes didn’t hide it anymore. Now I am a fairly confident person, and do not tend to obsess over appearance, but there was a point when I called in to a video conference from my laptop and was shocked at my own image. My face was swollen and broken out, and no matter how subtlety I tried to “turn my head” in a way that was flattering, my face just looked like a red blotchy balloon, kind of like the face of Vernon Dursley, Harry Potter’s uncle in the movies. There was just no “good side” (no offense to Richard Griffiths, they actor who played Mr. Dursley). And then there was that time on the New York City subway, when a guy got up to give me his seat. Normally, I would be pleasantly surprised by this (I mean, I can count on two hands the times I have seen this kind of chivalry happen in the New York City subway), only he was getting up because he thought I was pregnant. Of course at certain points in my life this would have been a very appropriate thing, but around this time, my youngest child was almost three years old. At first I thought this was a fluke until it happened several more times. After about the third time I just got snappy. “You can just keep your seat, thank you very much. I don’t need it! I’m not pregnant and I’m not OLD!”

During my really stressful project when I hit that wall, I realized I needed to seriously challenge some assumptions I had about my definition for “success.” I mean, my career looked good on paper, but I was losing interest and drive and my health was really not in a good place. Plus, there were points where I found myself yelling at my children for things that just plain were not their fault. At one point, during an 8:00 pm conference call, I chased my 8-year old out of her room because it was the quietest place in the house and I needed to get work done. She was tired and it was her bedtime, but work comes first, right? And then there was the time I took my girls to the office with me because my husband was feeling like a single parent and tired of doing all of the kid duties at night (mostly because I was so busy working at home). So I dragged the girls to the office at 6:00 pm and got home three hours later. I know, bad choice. Let us just say no one was particularly happy that evening.

I think the tipping point for me was one Friday night at 11:30 p.m. when I got an angry email from a client. I probably should not have been checking my email at that time and my client probably should not have sent the email, because it prevented us both from sleeping well. The next day I sat at my desk in tears thinking, “I hate you Sheryl Sandberg… leaning in just sucks.” I just felt so frustrated that my life was so out of balance and so unhealthy and that I could not make anyone happy, not even the client I was busting my butt to support. After several long talks with my husband, who gradually talked me off a ledge, I began to imagine a different life for myself. I had been working so hard for so long, this was actually pretty difficult to do. Plus everyone around me seemed to think I was perfectly fine. One of my colleagues that I hadn’t seen for years came up to me and in a burst of generosity said, “You know, you really are living the dream!” But if this was the dream – working like a crazy person and operating on fumes all the time – then I did not want it anymore. I have spent my entire life thinking that hard work would lead to good things, and it just was not working for me anymore. It was at this time that I decided to stop working so hard, and start working smart.

Over the years, I have spoken to a range of health experts who all consistently stress how important it is to perform moderate exercise for at least 2.5 hours a week in order to stay healthy and minimize weight gain. And they are just following guidelines followed by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, the World Health Organization and notable agencies. But, in the past, the more I heard this advice, the more upset I would get. I mean, “working out” is more than working out. It requires driving to a gym, working up a sweat, showering, hair drying and applying make-up (for some of us), changing and cooling down. By my count, that 2.5 hours easily grows to 10 or 12 hours a week depending on how often and how long your work out. And how is it possible to squeeze in between waking up, getting breakfast ready, making lunches, getting my children to and from school, commuting to work, working nine hours, making dinner, doing homework and getting everyone to bed? How about just a little time to myself? I find it exceptionally difficult to take a yoga class or head to the gym most weeks, and when I do, I feel like I am taking time away from something else I am supposed to be doing. Well, apparently, I am not alone. Only one in 20 Americans actually meet nationally recommended exercise goals.

Of course the ironic thing is that I love exercise and moving around. I get great ideas and have tremendous energy when I walk, run, spin, hike, do yoga and I would love nothing more than to keep that feeling all day. In fact, there is mounting evidence that exercise, movement and “relaxing the brain” in general is an excellent way to spawn innovative new ideas. But there is only so much time available when I am working 40-60 hours a week. I mean, something had to give! And then it hit me. What if I fundamentally changed the way I work in such a way that it helps me lose weight, reduce stress and increase productivity during the workday? What if I were to change my workplace so it enables (versus hinders) healthy habits?

It is worth mentioning that this book started out as a self-help book. I swore that if the research for this book only helped just one person, me, it would still be worth all the effort! But after some due diligence, I found that vast numbers of people like me are already trying hard to be healthy at work, as measured by lots of anecdotal evidence, but also by our spending habits. The health and wellness industry is exploding, estimated to top $1 trillion by 2017. Most workers really want to be healthy. The message about the importance of being healthy at work – at least for individuals – is not new at all. But there is a gap in the marketplace for ways that employers can keep their workers engaged, healthy and productive. Most companies today are fairly reactive when it comes to employee health, offering insurance or counseling to save on insurance costs, but they do not take a proactive role in improving the health of their workforce. So, at the advice of many, the focus of this book took a turn, and I started to investigate ways to not only help employees, but also ways to help employers better support, and improve the performance of a workforce that is desperate for their help.

I know a great deal about the workplace and how it can be used as a “force for good” from my practice and research on the topic over the last couple of decades, but most of my work has been focused on work from a space perspective – how people use space and adapt it to better suit their needs, how space can be a catalyst to change behaviors at work and the physical aspects of a healthy work environment. But to really dig into the topic, I needed to better understand all facets of health as it relates to work and the workplace, including nutrition, movement, mental health and sleep. So I jumped in with both feet, Tim Ferriss style, using myself as a research tool, trying on new fitness techniques, eating different foods and taking on new, healthy behaviors. I visited Miraval, a state of the art health and wellness center in Tucson, Arizona. I participated in the Corporate Athlete® program in Orlando at the Johnson & Johnson Human Performance Institute, where I was analyzed physically from head to toe and learned how elite athletes manage and maintain their energy and performance, and how this applies to the rest of us. I attended a conference in New York called “Wisdom 2.0 for Business” about mindfulness in the workplace and stress reduction techniques that progressive business leaders are using to keep their cool and focus. And I talked to a lot of people.

I think it’s fair to say that in researching this book, I become completely obsessed with the topic of engagement, health wellness and human performance. I interviewed paleoanthropologists, environmental psychologists, educators, sport coaches, medical professionals, nutritionists, sleep specialists, ergonomists, exercise physiologists and companies on the leading edge of providing health and wellness programs for their employees. I began working with the Harvard School of Public Health on a new “Health and Human Performance Index,” that measures health, engagement, and a healthy work environment – and the impact of these factors on the bottom line. I also joined in with the Center of Active Design in New York, to create Workplace Wellness Guidelines, which will provide a new standard for how the physical environment can support health and performance when it comes to work. As a companion to my research and to the book content, I created a Facebook page ( where I continue to post tips and health-related articles daily. It taught me what people were really starving to hear about and what they felt worthy of “sharing.”

With the lessons and case studies from this book, employers and employees will be empowered to make the simple changes necessary to turn their workplaces from a drain on employee health and engagement to a contributor to it.

How to read this book

In the first few chapters, we will take a look at some of the health issues out there caused by work and why work is the place to help solve them. We will take a step back and look at our distant past, digging into how early humans have lived over the last several thousand years and how the relationship between work and human health has changed. We will dissect productivity and performance from a business perspective, and discuss ways to maximize this by tapping into flow, group flow and the more creative parts of our brain.

Then, starting in Chapter 4, we’ll take a deeper look at the “human engine” itself, to better understand how it can be calibrated to its maximum efficiency and effectiveness at work. In order to do this, we will challenge the current paradigms at work today that shape the way we move, eat, handle stress, where we sit… even how we sleep. More importantly, we will identify specific strategies that research validates, leading edge companies have tested, and hopefully will work for your organization, your team, or even you as an individual.

The last two chapters in this book put all of the elements of a healthy workplace together. Chapter 8 tells the stories of companies that have integrated many of the strategies listed in the book and embody a culture of health – which has impacted their bottom line. It also lays out some of the more effective ways to change employee behavior. Chapter 9, the last chapter, will help you build a business case and create a roadmap for improving the individual performance of employees in your organization. It also gives a couple of different views into the future. And finally, there is a “checklist” of healthy strategies in the Afterword.

I encourage you to skip around. Don’t feel like you have to be a purist and read this book from start to finish. I promise, I won’t be offended! Honestly, the last thing I want to do is to add more stress to your life. Try reading a chapter that has the most interest for you personally or start with a topic where you think your organization could use the most help. If your organization has already addressed some of the ideas described here, fantastic, just move on to the next section. And if you read this book all the way through and find yourself hungry for more, try reading some of my favorite books about all things health, well-being and productivity listed at the end.

I wish you well on your journey to health.

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