Design For Wellbeing

By Steven MacGregor

Health and wellbeing in the professional domain continue to garner increased attention. In this article, the author wraps up the year through an elaboration of the important role of design in the betterment of wellbeing.


As we approach the end of the first year of this column I wanted to take a step back and look at this concept we decided to call “executive health”. I’ve worked in this field the past 10 years, attempting to overcome the inherent oxymoron of the professional norm that is having less health as an accompaniment to a more executive life. The first 11 articles have looked at several themes, including a typical executive life, the coming Artificial Intelligence revolution, heart rate variability, sleep, mindful flying, exercising and eating while travelling, the physical and social environment for behaviour change, work-life integration, and habits.

All of these themes address health and wellbeing in the professional domain, an area of increasing interest the past few years yet there still seems to be a significant gap between interest and companies who implement these issues in a sufficiently mature way so as to capture the available value. Wellbeing has a formal presence in most large companies today, yet it exists at a relatively junior level of the organisation and is focussed on the reduction of risks, including absenteeism and sickness. Is this type of work required? Absolutely. Yet there is another way of perceiving the opportunities of wellbeing, in the ways that it can improve executive performance – through the increased energy, creativity, resilience and leadership that it undoubtedly generates. If a more progressive definition of health exists beyond merely “the absence of sickness” why does health and wellbeing management in the enterprise still suffer from a similarly negative approach?

Demonstrating a strong business case for health and wellbeing, and linking it to performance, was the subject of my 2015 book Sustaining Executive Performance. Though the presence of such themes at the senior level of an organisation remains infrequent today there are encouraging signs. The coaching process at the most senior executive level is starting to integrate more of these issues, and there seems to be a general movement towards recognising the need for creating more human workplaces. In the coming age of the fourth industrial revolution with all its technology advancement and digital transformation, many leading enterprises recognise that their humanity will matter more than ever.

I’m spending my summer in the Scottish Highlands writing a follow-up to Sustaining Executive Performance. This will be published in the Autumn and I’m excited to share more details in the September edition of this column. I’m based at the Institute for Design Innovation of the Glasgow School of Art, one of the top 10 art schools in the world. Readers of this column will know that we frequently champion the role of design. Above all things, design is human. It looks to create a world that satisfies the needs we have as human beings. And these needs, within the context of Executive Health regard a workplace and corresponding culture that support health, wellbeing and sustainable performance.

Yet there is another way of perceiving the opportunities of wellbeing, in the ways that it can improve executive performance – through the increased energy, creativity, resilience and leadership that it undoubtedly generates.

One of the most practical uses of design is “Design for X” which comes from the engineering or product design field. X denotes the area of focus to be optimised within the development of the product, such as environment, usability and manufacturability. General best practice of design is therefore fine tuned to the specific needs of the endeavour in question. Could a Design for Wellbeing framework help move health and wellbeing to a more senior level in an organisation? I think so. Having the right tools and methods, something that the design field is so good at doing, will allow a strategic approach to a complex issue.

Given the different ways and contexts in which we can view wellbeing, the Design for Wellbeing term already exists and is developed in different research centres around the world, including here at the Glasgow School of Art. The Scottish Highlands base provides a set of unique challenges around geographical distribution that may help inspire different innovations that can be applied within traditional urban centres. For example, in the healthcare setting, if a patient requires over 2 hours travel time to get to a hospital how may the experience be re-designed? And is there any value from that re-imagination that can be applied to traditional settings? Wellbeing is driven by the Digital Health Initiative, which works with the National Health Service in Scotland and the Scottish Government in the design of public services which improve health and wellbeing through a deep understanding of the patient experience. Experience labs bring together clinicians, patients and technology providers to co-create services that better cope with an ageing population. Designing preferable futures is the vision for much of the research and teaching here and wellbeing is at the heart of that. Greater societal wellbeing is being targeted around the world and a more senior consideration of wellbeing in business will help.

I’m pulling together many of the themes touched on in the first year of this column in the development of a Design for Wellbeing framework for business. A first “prototype” of this is the ABC of wellbeing at work, which includes:

  • A: Attitude represents the senior leadership skills that can be borrowed from design thinking to create a more human workplace. These include integrating more observation, iteration and empathy as part of daily leadership practice.
  • B: Behaviour concerns the discrete behaviours that make up the daily work of the workforce at large and our understanding of how these habits may be changed. Connecting these behaviours to the top-level vision of the company seems to be of increasing interest in companies around the world.
  • C: Chronobiology looks at the natural biological rhythms that make up our daily lives. In an age where work is potentially, and increasingly, 24-7, recognising that we are not machines and subject to our human biology is critical. The vast exposure given to sleep in recent years is, I believe, the first example of many where our circadian rhythm will feature more prominently as a business concern.

I’m delighted to get to the end of the first year of this column and am looking forward to the second. Hoping you enjoy the rest of the summer and see you next year.

Feature image: The photo is of Findhorn Bay, Moray, Scotland

About the Author

Dr. Steven MacGregor, founder of The Leadership Academy of Barcelona [LAB] and author of Sustaining Executive Performance (Pearson 2015) , has delivered over 1000 sessions the past 5 years in executive health and behaviour change for clients including Telefónica, Danone, IESE, IMD, and the BBC. He holds a PhD in Engineering Design Management and has been a Visiting Researcher at Stanford and Carnegie-Mellon. His executive education teaching is informed by academic interest in sustainability and design and he is an article reviewer for, among others, Industry and Innovation, Journal of Engineering Design, and the International Journal of Design Creativity and Innovation.


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