How Do We Design Workplaces That Support Mental Health And Well-Being
June 24, 2018 | Dr. Pragya Agarwal
There is an increasing awareness of the importance of mental health and supporting well-being of employees in the workplace.
According to the American Psychological Association (APA), a healthy workplace should include 5 components:
- Work-Life Balance
- Health and Safety
- Employee Growth and Development
- Employee Recognition
- Employee Involvement
In 2016/2017 Mind charity for better mental health carried out an exhaustive wellbeing in the workplace study in the UK. 30 organizations took part in this first ever Workplace Wellbeing Index with 15,000 employees participating in the staff survey. As part of the process, participating organizations submitted their policies for review and completed an employer assessment. These were assessed for how well they address mental health and whether they effectively support and promote employee wellbeing. In addition, employees completed a staff survey which gave them the opportunity to share their experiences of their organization’s culture and support around workplace mental health. The research shows that organizations creating the right environment for their staff can have a positive impact on employees’ health and wellbeing, as well as their job satisfaction and productivity levels.
Physical design has been shown to affect our mental health and happiness. A review of existing research and literature in design of workplaces to support mental health and well-being by Jennifer A. Veitch in 2011 showed that there is still a huge gap in literature that explicitly measures and analyses workplace design. Most of the research has been carried out solely in very traditional office environments and study outcomes such as productivity. Mental health has not been explicitly studied. Research in Environmental Psychology has long argued that physical environments play a key role in promoting mental and physical health. Again, much of this research in sense of place has been applied in external built environments and places.
Dr. Richard Jackson, University of California Los Angeles School of Public Health says that “We now know that developers and architects can be more effective in achieving public health goals than doctors in white coats.”
Leah Stringer, a workplace strategy expert and author of The Healthy Workplace believes that “human health should be the foundation of workplace design and of business 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.”
Soma Analytics carried out a study in 2017 which showed that FTSE 100 companies that prioritize employee engagement and wellbeing outperform the rest of the FTSE 100 by 10 per cent.
In the Mind Wellbeing Index carried out in the UK, over three quarters of organizations (22 organizations) reported that staff have exposure to natural daylight which is conducive to supporting employee wellbeing. However, almost a quarter (6 organizations) do not have access to a garden, park or outside green space.
Research has shown that air quality and lighting at work can have significant effects on brain function and productivity. Poor lighting can cause headaches, eye strain, and tiredness which can all contribute to stress, and thereby anxiety and depression.
A study with 444 employees from United States and India via an online panel showed that natural elements and sunlight exposure related positively to job satisfaction and organizational commitment, and negatively to depressed mood and anxiety. Direct sunlight was a dominant predictor of anxiety; indirect sunlight was a dominant predictor of depressed mood, job satisfaction, and organizational commitment.
How can we create healthier workplaces?
Colors have the capacity to impact our mood, and have an influence on our mental and physical well-being. Research in neuroscience and psychology has shown the effect that color has on our brains and our hormones, and therefore an effect on our mood, behavior and our physiology. Therefore, the colors that we surround ourselves with on a daily basis can affect how we feel, and therefore the choice of color in our workplaces is so important. Light is made of colors, and when it strikes our retina, it converts into electrical impulses that passes onto the hypothalamus, which in turn affects our hormones. Different colors have different wavelengths and therefore they affect the endocrine system and consequently our mood and stress levels in different ways.
Color psychology has shown that green is a mood-enhancing color and is known to be a very effective stress-buster. Natural elements such as plants can help create buffers between stress triggers and employees. Use of more plants, larger windows opening out to nature, water features and open spaces can all create a healthier and calmer workplace environment.
Creativity is another way in which we can create a happier workplace. It is a form of mindfulness, as engaging in some form of creative activity creates focus and a state of ‘flow’ which is a complete immersive-ness in an activity, and results in a state of clarity and serenity. A recent research study also found out that the participants were more energetic the day after having carried out a creative activity and it was like a domino effect, inspiring more creativity. Many workplaces are offering employees creative workshops as a means of building team morale, communication, and happiness.
Spacelab’s Director of Workplace Consultancy says that “it is essential to provide spaces for collaboration and communication, while also enabling time and space for quiet reflection.”
While unplanned and planned interactions can increase employees’ satisfaction, solitude is very essential for original creative thinking and innovation. Ester Buchholz, a psychologist, psychoanalyst and author of ‘The Call of Solitude’, emphasised the need for some alone time to let our thoughts wander, to figure things out, and to arrive at innovative solutions. Artists and writers such as Bergman and Hemingway have waxed lyrical about the need for this time where you can confront your emotions head on, grapple alone with the feelings and thoughts, live with them without being able to ignore them to create something beautiful and original. Psychologists Long and Averill note in their paper “Solitude: An Exploration of Benefits of Being Alone” that one needs to be alone to go through this process of self-transformation, where one does not feel self-conscious and obliged to play any roles, and have the time and space to focus on their thoughts.
By providing environments that support and encourage employee well-being organizations can ensure that well-being is not something that comes as an after-thought. Instead, mental health should be at the forefront of any workplace design.