GWS #6 Design Healthy Habits at Work

GWS #6 Event Invitation: Vincent Hofmann

The GWS aims to enrich society by encouraging organisations to adopt more human ways of working and we do this by engaging people in lectures, research and through public events. We’ve been incredibly curious about how our habits contribute to feeling fulfilled at work and we wanted to explore this subject in more detail, in the hope that we might create a greater degree of awareness amongst our community about how their default behaviours contribute to their feelings of wellness at work.

The below is a summary of the most interesting insights that emerged at our panel discussion held on the 30th October 2018 at GIBS Co.Central.

The subject of the night was our habits at work. We explored how our habits at work influence our well-being at work, both mental, physical or social with our panel of experts, Dion Chang, Emma Sadleir and Hilit Milner, who shared their insights on the role of technology, social media and food and the negative habits, or addictions that manifest at work.

Photo Credit: Palesa Sibeko

*we really do need to acknowledge how extraordinary it was for our panelists to give away their intellectual property for free at this event (and all our previous ones).

To anchor the subject, Thabo Ngcobo from the GWS began introducing the subject within the context of Ontological Design.

“Ontological design is a way to describe the relationship between human beings and all the immediate experiences, activities, and contacts that make up the world around us. It’s main claims, in short are:

  1. Firstly, that design is something far more pervasive and profound than is generally recognised
  2. Secondly, that designing is fundamental to being human, we are the only species who imagine, create and interact with the world around us in the way that we do and this includes our tools and physical spaces
  3. Finally, that this adds up to a double movement — we design our world, and in interacting with it our world acts back on us and designs us in return, for better or worse.”

Our discussion began by asking the panelists about their own rituals and routines and what was interesting is that all 3 of them said they had no average day.

They had each created roles that allowed them to live and work flexibly: between locations (their homes, offices, institutions, cities) types of work (research, consulting, speaking, blogging) and adding things that were personally fulfilling to them (such as meditating, exercising, horse-riding, cooking) depending on how they felt on a particular day.

However, not having the traditional opportunities that come from work routines to create daily habits still has its own challenges. These are the primary challenges with choosing to work in a more unstructured way:

Struggling with Transitions Zones:

The time wasted on switching between many things and having to get your focus back can take up to 20 minutes added to each activity as you switch between tabs, activities and people.

Addicted to screens:

Technology allows people to work more flexibly but the addictive quality of screens cause burning eyes by the end of the day, sleeplessness, and a feeling of being completely wired from content overload

Scheduling Breaks:

For our panelists, work is so rewarding, and almost addictive, combined with that is a need to continuously be ‘online’ and available and so being able to switch off and rest is really impossible without an intentional “time-out’ put in place, in the form of digital detoxes, email free holidays and timers on their phones for screen usage.

*GWS Team Suggestions: when considering a more flexible approach to work, it would be interesting to start this process by deliberately designing habits to combat the above challenges — such as pre-booked calendar time for holidays, a way of dividing the day into core focus areas so there’s no need to continuously switch between things and developing a nightly ritual to wind-down screen time at night.

Photo Credit: Palesa Sibeko

The Key Themes

That emerged as facilitators or barriers of developing good habits are:


Most people believe that they don’t have time to develop healthy habits, “too busy, too stressed, not enough time” are the blanket responses to questions relating to healthy habits, and this is especially true when it comes to feeling physically healthy at work.

People are looking for a quick fix, and are not prepared for the associated lifestyle changes that are needed to become more well.

Our experts suggest doing small things, such as having a bottle of water on your desk and buying food on a Sunday to prep for healthy weekday eating. Try reducing the amount of wasted time spent on social platforms by setting a screen timer on your phone, or even limits to how much social media you can use.

Intention and Awareness:

Our panelist spoke at length about the habits that are just mindless things we do, often associated with rituals — “at 4PM every day I eat…, As I wake up I check…” and the need to bring mindfulness and intention back to our days. The brain is lazy, and creates default behaviours to limit how much we think in the day, as a result we need to work extra hard to be consciously aware of what we’re doing, why we do it and how it makes us feel.

We’ve lost the ability to be intuitive about ourselves and what we need in order to feel well.

At our panel it was suggested, for example, when we want to pick up a chocolate at 4PM at work, that as we’re eating the chocolate we try and make ourselves aware of what we’re eating, how it tastes and what it makes us feel so that we trigger the right chemicals in our brains that make us feel satisfied, instead of not even noticing what we’re putting in our mouths and needing to keep eating to eventually find the feeling of being satisfied. We need to increase our emotional awareness and intuition and start developing a language to explain whats going on in our bodies.


Ironically an interesting theme that emerged in our discussion is how we’ve developed an inability to be ok with being bored, and with allowing our minds the freedom to turn off and be ‘mindless’ to see what ideas we end up with. Because of our screen addiction, all our free time is used up scrolling social media sights and our brains aren’t able to be still, and to generate new ideas.

Creativity often comes from being bored and yet we are not allowing our brains this time off.

In order to combat our mental fatigue we need to start being consciously ok with being bored, with not having a phone to look at, and an email to answer and to just allow ourselves the luxury of letting our minds go where they need to, to generate new ideas, inspiration and energy.

The Right to Disconnect:

There is this idea that email is a life sentence, a non-verbal agreement that when you join a company and sign up to receive emails you agree to respond immediately and are always available for answers no matter the time of day or night. This is now extending to company Whatsapp groups as well where the expectation of ‘always-on’ is further entrenched (because panicked group messages about work and emojis at midnight are exactly what people want from their colleagues).

In France, they have introduced a law where employees are allowed to not respond to emails after hours, giving them a right to disconnect from work, legally.

We need to start being conscious about the effects that being constantly available and ‘at work’ is having on us, our stress levels, our relationships and our actual performance at work. There is a need to consciously develop a way to acknowledge and respond to work mails and messages at the right time and place, without treating everything as equally urgent, feeling panicked, guilty or reactive. This may include actively not checking work mails at certain times or advocating for policies to be put in place to reduce what people are expected to respond to immediately.

Bombardment Stress:

One of the most important themes that emerged at the discussion is this idea that stress is everywhere at the moment, and in particular in South Africa people are bombarded with multiple sources of stress- work, financial, security, family, political, social and other environmental factors. These are all contributing to heightened depression, anxiety and loneliness amongst people and is reducing their ability to be productive at work while also trying to manage their other sources of stress. There is a rise in absenteeism, with people either not being at work physically or mentally while they negotiate with this.

In order to encourage people to be present at work, or ‘presenteeism’, there is a need for the workplace to take responsibility for their employees wellness, holistically, and while small acts such as fruit bowls are great, there are incredibly important ways companies can contribute to reducing stress at work, such as giving people days off to get a hold of their finances (maybe go to SARS to address a tax issue), or time off to address the needs of their children.

In some organisations, creating a role for a Chief Wellness Officer is what is enabling them to holistically consider how they ensure that people working in their companies are fulfilled, present and productive in all facets of their lives.
Photo Credit: Danielle Jaffit

In Summary:

More generally we spoke at length of the addictive behaviours of technology, particularly social media sites, and the suggestion to put our phones on greyscale to reduce how much we enjoy scrolling was really well received by the audience. We also spoke about encouraging young people to start experiencing different workplace environments and being in tune with what makes them feel fulfilled and happy, or unfulfilled and unhappy in certain environments.

Ultimately we concluded that the majority of our habits at work have the potential contribute to our wellness and sense of fulfilment if as people we are in tune and mindful of ourselves and what we need, from our workplaces, our devices and even our food.

We concluded the workshop by giving everyone a habit design card to complete, encouraging the attendees to deliberately design a new healthy habit based on what they’d learned from the discussion to tackle or address a negative habit at work.

GWS Habit Design Card

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