The Benefits of Taking a Leadership Role in Transit Workplace Well-Being

Posted on March 16, 2016 by Rachel Bannon-Godfrey - Also by this author

L.A. Metro's new Division 13 Bus Operations & Maintenance facility features vibrant interior finishes and materials, and naturally well-lit spaces.
Photo: Chang Kim-Maintenance Design Group for Metro
L.A. Metro's new Division 13 Bus Operations & Maintenance facility features vibrant interior finishes and materials, and naturally well-lit spaces.
Photo: Chang Kim-Maintenance Design Group for Metro
A health and wellness revolution is underway in America. Concurrently, there is a growing public health initiative to promote safer, more accessible recreation facilities and active transit options. Transit agencies are uniquely positioned in the overlap of these two movements. By promoting health and well-being, agencies have an opportunity to show leadership and innovation in a truly holistic approach to total worker health, while benefiting workforce productivity and happiness.

Studies have shown companies that focus on employee health and well-being reap significant benefits in terms of recruitment, retention and lower personnel costs. These are among the top issues facing transit agencies today in light of an aging workforce and job-related illnesses. The Society for Human Resource Management’s (SHRM) 2015 annual Employee Benefits Survey showed preventive healthcare programs that helped employees remain physically healthy and save money were the number one way to attract and retain talent, improve employee morale and reduce absenteeism. As programs become more formalized, data is coming in supporting their effectiveness. A recent survey showed that of the companies tracking the ROI of wellness and disease management programs, at least 80% had a positive impact.

Photo: Chang Kim-Maintenance Design Group for Metro
Photo: Chang Kim-Maintenance Design Group for Metro

Ensuring the well-being of transit agency employees is also an issue of public safety. For operators in charge of passenger lives, the negative impacts of mental and physical stress can quickly become dangerous, and transit is an industry where operator performance impacts the financial bottomline on an hourly basis. The direct cost of absenteeism due to illness for a typical company is estimated at 15% of typical corporate payroll costs. Adding the indirect costs of presenteeism — being physically present, but suffering reduced productivity due to poor mental well-being — brings that impact up to 25% to 35%.  

Wellness vs. Well-being
When discussing improving worker health, it is important first to understand the difference between “health and wellness,” and the larger topic of “well-being,” which adds mental health and happiness to the equation. On-site fitness centers, exercise classes and educational posters about healthy food choices are all examples of wellness program elements. Opportunities for mental breaks (e.g. quiet zones in contrast to louder break rooms and incorporating natural materials, patterns and daylight into common break areas), and recognition of the differing mental and physical needs of day-shift versus night-shift workers are key to elevating workplace strategies from wellness to well-being.
Transit operator health is both a key and unique concern due to the nature of the job.

Operators’ health issues range from lack of toilet access to crime to seat ergonomics to a lack of mobility as part of the job. Participation in wellness program activities is low due to schedule demands. With such a range of contributing factors, it is important to look at strategies that address all aspects of the “total worker environment,” and a fundamental starting point is the design and operation of agency facilities.  

RNL recently worked with the Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transportation Authority (Metro) to incorporate an elevated well-being strategy at the new Division 13 Bus Operations & Maintenance Facility in Los Angeles. Elements include an easily accessible fitness center, vibrant interior finishes and materials, naturally well-lit spaces, and a “green” roof that addresses storm water runoff and heat island effect, but also serves as a verdant break area for employees. These sorts of thoughtful design decisions add up in the long run to a happier and healthier work environment.    

Transit ridership is at its highest level in four decades, and many agencies are expanding their operations in response. Now is the time to look at your organization’s impact on its employees and the message it sends to the greater community.

Key areas where transit agencies can take meaningful steps towards improving worker well-being:

  • Leverage design and technology to walk the talk .
  • Consider how innovative approaches to features such as lighting impact well-being in spaces that are used around the clock.
  • Provide equity in amenities for all employees.
  • Design facilities for employee comfort and stimulation

Over the next several months, we’ll dive further into each of these topics and outline the ways transit agencies can approach wellbeing for the betterment of their workforce and their bottom line.

This article was written by Rachel Bannon-Godfrey, director of sustainability at RNL and Ken Anderson, principal and eastern region transit director at RNL, a national architectural firm specializing in the planning and design of bus and rail operations and maintenance facilities.

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