Five ways to design the workplace for better mental health
The built environment has a profound effect on our mental health and the building industry is uniquely positioned to lead the way. To quote Dr. Richard Jackson, University of California Los Angeles School of Public Health (previously director of the U.S. Center for Disease Control's National Center for Environmental Health), "We now know that developers and architects can be more effective in achieving public health goals than doctors in white coats." As a workplace consultant, I always have been aware of the importance of the built environment on health. But it wasn’t until I started research for my book The Healthy Workplace a few years ago, and met with a long list of physiologists, neurologists, anthropologists, physicians, ergonomists, nutritionists and sleep exerts, that I realized the full impact of design not only on our health, but also on our well-being and performance. The truth is, I’ve always thought about worker health as one item on a long list of project goals – along with saving money, being environmentally responsible and meeting my client’s business needs. But after digging deeply into the research on health, I have started to believe that human health should be the foundation of workplace design and of business too. Why? Because companies thrive on the innovation and abilities of their people, and if employees are sick, overweight, stressed, sleep-deprived or disengaged, they prevent the company they work for from thriving and maintaining a competitive advantage in the marketplace. So how can the built environment play a more meaningful role, particularly as it pertains to mental health? Here are five strategies I have found to be particularly compelling: 1. Provide workers choice on how, when and where they work Epidemiological studies from Karasek and Theorell show that regardless of their job function, workers who feel more in “control” of their work and work environment are less likely to suffer from heart disease and stress. Find ways to build flexibility and choice into the work environment for your clients, including where, when and how they work. This might mean helping set up a work-at-home or flexible schedule policy, reconfiguring the work area to better suit individual preferences (like installing a treadmill desk or second computer monitor) or providing multiple settings for employees to work.
EYP’s Boston office has “sit to stand” desks to support individual workstyle preferences. Photo Credit: Richard Mandelkorn Photography
2. Nurture “biophilia” We have a strong desire to be in and among nature. It’s only natural – for most of human history we spent all of our time outdoors. This preference, referred to biophilia and popularized by E.O. Wilson, suggests that there is an instinctive bond between human beings and other living systems. There is mounting evidence that biophilic environments can improve stress recovery rates, lower blood pressure, improve cognitive functions, enhance mental stamina and focus, decrease violence and criminal activity, elevate moods, and increase learning rates. Interestingly, biophilia-based design can be manifested in many ways:
The most obvious way is to incorporate real plants, water, and views to nature into buildings.
Another way is to create “natural analogues” which are one degree of separation away from true nature, such as materials and patterns that evoke nature, including artwork, ornamentation, biomorphic forms or the use of natural materials.
A third way to use biophilia is by the configuration of space – by organizing interior environments or a man-made outdoor landscapes using similar elements to natural environments.
This “stair gym” (below) not only encourages mental health visually with a landscape-themed environment, but also encourages aerobic exercise, which has been shown to boost mood and reduce anxiety and depression.
The “stair gym” at Children’s Hospital in Atlanta, designed by EYP Health, uses biophilic environmental graphics to create a more interesting and restorative experience.
Photo Credit: Jim Roof Creative
3. Reduce acoustical and visual distractions Noise is an issue in almost every workplace environment. Workers need acoustic (and visual) privacy, when desired, for personal regeneration. Interestingly, noise can enable or disable productivity, depending on individual preferences and the type of work being done. The key is our ability to control what we hear. Psychologically, studies show that when people have a degree of control over the noise in their environment, they are less distracted by it. Contrary to popular belief, noise interruptions during simple, mundane tasks can be just the stimulation needed to be more productive. Interruptions caused by noise during complex work, however, require a longer period of time to re-orient, and continued interruptions are likely to have negative effects on mood that reduce the motivation to resume work. 4. Install “circadian” lighting Our internal circadian rhythm or biological clock regulates the timing of periods of sleepiness and wakefulness throughout the day. This rhythm is controlled by a part of the brain at the back of the eye, which is triggered by changes in natural daylight. Unfortunately, most of the workforce spends 90% of the day indoors, which plays havoc with the human sleep cycle. To combat this, consider installing a circadian lighting system designed to trigger wakefulness into your next workplace design. Circadian lighting in workplaces takes into account natural and artificial light, a certain intensity of light at the desktop height level, and the presence of high light levels for a certain amount of time during the day. Even if your workspace is lit at 500 lux, which is more than enough light for reading and most work tasks, it will not necessarily reset sleep schedule. Note that the light that is important to our circadian rhythm is different from the light that is important to our visual system because of the spectral difference in the light sensitivity of our photoreceptors. Special LED lights are required if we want to use them to increase our wakefulness or help us sleep. 5. Locate workspace by a park Proximity of the office to parks and other recreational facilities is consistently associated with higher levels of physical activity, healthier weight status and improved mental health. Not all design projects involve moving your clients to a new location, but if they do, consider including building selection criteria that include access and views to nature. We will address the opportunities of pro-social interaction in the workplace in a future article.