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The NHS is 70 years old next week. With a long-term funding settlement now in place, in a short series of blogs from the RSA’s Public Services & Communities team, we are highlighting different approaches that NHS policy makers and senior leaders should consider in making the NHS fit for its 80th birthday.

There are 2.9 million workplaces in the UK. You might have been to one today, or be sitting in one now. How could a workplace be designed to help you achieve better health? This was a challenge that hundreds of university students from around the world tackled as part of the RSA's annual Student Design Awards competition. Tomorrow night we meet the winner. In coming years, her invention might be coming to a desk or workbench near you. And in a decade from now, Flowboard might help sustain a healthier workforce and a sustainable NHS. 

Credit: Laura Van Krieken, 2018 RSA Student Design Awards

As the NHS has aged, we are increasingly reminded that keeping ourselves healthy is a responsibility that falls to all corners of society, not just the health service. One of the most challenging aspects of poor health is that it limits the ability to work and earn a living. This is often frustrating for individuals, and supporting incomes without work represents a responsibility – and a cost – to society. Reducing poor health and disability represent important social goals and potential cost savings.

But to sustain a healthy society through the next decade, we need to focus not just on what the NHS can do to keep people healthy for work, but what workplaces can do in helping people achieve good health.

Among UK adults who are employees (excluding the self-employed), one in eight have mental health condition, one in four have a physical health condition, and one in five have both a physical and a mental health condition. In total, one in three employees in the UK workforce have a long-term health condition.

We all know people who have sustained injuries while at work, or taken time off due to stress or anxiety that becomes unmanageable. And while better workplace design can’t resolve all the health and mental health risks of a job, there is strong evidence that our work environments impact on our learning, concentration, efficiency and productivity. Yet, too often our workplaces ignore the potential business benefits from better design.

It was a privilege to chair the judging panel this year and see what Britain’s best young design talent had proposed. As you would imagine, millennials about to enter the world of work are acutely aware that working environments are already changing. One finalist proposed a way to connect people, socially, who are always working at different sites, and spend a lot of the day in a van; called BLOKES, it sought to address the tragic fact that suicide is the leading cause of death in young men. 

Credit: Holly Humphries, 2018 RSA Student Design Awards

Other finalists included a planning toolkit to help small employers implement flexible working to improve well-being. Another proposed a compelling set of posters to break the stigma around reaching out to colleagues who exhibit warning signs that they are struggling, personally.

The most ambitious proposal was for a new spinning recreation and relaxation module, simulating Earth-strength gravity for the International Space Station – where “the hardest working of the working-class” labour for months in zero gravity, and risk serious mental and physical health challenges upon return.

Credit: Vincenzo Damato, 2018 RSA Student Design Awards

As is often the case, the most compelling design – and the winning entry – is beautifully simple. It’s something that makes you think ‘I wish I had this now’. Flowboard is an exercise springboard that attaches to desk legs using elasticated bands, allowing for increased activity and movement. It has the potential to integrate with fit-tech devices. The benefits of blood circulation and calorie burn for the individual are clear, but it is awesome to think of these incremental health benefits scaling across millions of desks.

Credit: Laura Van Krieken, 2018 RSA Student Design Awards

Ill health that keeps people out of work costs the economy an estimated £100 billion a year, including £7 billion in costs to the NHS. The government is developing a strategy to help one million more disabled people in work over the next decade. To achieve this, we need to see workplaces become much more positive places to achieve and maintain good health, including for people with disabilities and long-term health conditions.

In the next decade, collaboration between the NHS and designers of the future workplace will be critical to its ability – at 80 years old – to ensure that the population is healthy for future work. A broader effort, across our society, is needed to ensure that future work is good for your health. That effort must engage the next generation who will control that future. And to engage young designers, the RSA will continue to inspire design responses with future-facing briefs.

In the 94 years of the Student Design Awards we have imagined better hospital furniture and medical devices, interactive cashpoints (1989) and zero emission transport (1993). Past winners have gone on to work in the most influential design positions in industry and in public service. So, good luck to the winners of 2018. And we’ll be lucky if they choose to contribute their talent to the support the NHS thriving by the time of its 80th birthday.

The RSA will be partnering with NHS England on a design award brief for next year.

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