June 21 2022

Exploring the link between office design and mental health

Since the easing of COVID-19 restrictions, one third of workers report that returning to the office has affected their mental health. We’ll explore how office design and mental health go hand in hand, and the steps that you can take to promote mental wellbeing in your workplace.

Employers are more aware of their employees’ mental wellbeing than they ever have been before. That being said, not all employers will have stopped to consider the link between office design and mental health. We’re going to explore some common office design issues affecting employee mental health and then consider how to resolve these. 

How office design can impact mental health

When considering mental wellbeing at work, your office design can have a major impact on your employees. A poorly designed office space can lead to lower levels of mental wellbeing and can even result in stress and, eventually, burnout

Here are some of the common issues that employees experience in the workplace:

  1. Low light levels within the office
  2. Overcrowding
  3. Sustained working without breaks
  4. Isolation of employees 
  5. Unpredictability 

Reassessing workplace design to promote mental health

Are you using design to promote employee mental health? Or is your current setup only adding to the issues?

Busy schedules, staffing issues, and priorities and targets can all keep us from the important task of ensuring our working environment provides a positive experience for employees. Few organisations understand the importance of the working environment on employee mental health. 

There are often simple and cost-effective ways to resolve office design issues in a way that has a positive impact on employee mental wellbeing. Let’s look at each one:

1. Low light levels

The lighting in your workspace can have a significant impact on the way employees feel. An airy and light working space has a much more positive impact on how employees feel. There is also the possibility that low light levels will have a more serious impact.

Reduced exposure to sunlight can lead to a condition called Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD). SAD affects around 3% of the population and leads to feelings of persistent low-mood, lack of energy, and finding it hard to concentrate. 

Sometimes called winter depression, SAD can have a major impact on someone’s mental wellbeing. It can, in severe cases, make it more likely that an employee is absent from work. 

A light workspace signals positivity  

So how can you overcome low levels of light in your workspace? 

  • Use mirrors to reflect light around the whole space.
  • Consider using glass partitions instead of solid walls (that block light).
  • Explore options for bringing light in from the roof of the building e.g. skylights. 
  • Take advantage of any outdoor space with natural light and encourage employees to use it. 

2. Overcrowding stifles our senses

Office design and mental health have been on the radar more this year than ever before. That’s because we’re in a strange limbo of hybrid working, where some employees work from the office and others are still working from home. 

The downside to this way of working is that employers need more time to assess the number of desks and workstations they need to. Renting or owning too large a space is costly, and if it’s not being used by employees, it becomes a waste of valuable resources. 

In contrast, not providing enough workspace for employees creates overcrowding. This can lead to employees feeling trapped or hemmed in, creating a distraction from their work. Furthermore, overcrowding can inhibit creativity and ideas among employees.

Create more space (or if you can’t, a feeling of more space)

  • If appropriate, survey your employees to gauge how often they want to work from the office and base your space requirements on that. 
  • Use a hot-desk approach combined with a relaxed attendance policy where not every employee has to work from the office every day. 
  • Consider changing the layout of your office to maximise the space available.
  • Explore where you can reduce under-used office furniture to free up more space.

3. Sustained working without breaks

Roles and responsibilities vary so wildly in professions, but some require employees to stay in one position for a prolonged period. This can be worse when organisations are under-resourced because it can result in employees being overworked. 

Aside from this, an employee who sits in one position without taking breaks is more likely to suffer from health problems like back pain. It can also result in lower levels of productivity, as fatigue creeps in when you don’t take a break to refresh your energy. Sitting too much can also affect heart health and circulation

Short, regular breaks boost energy levels and fight fatigue

On an organisational level, it’s important to encourage employees to take regular breaks. This will have a positive effect on physical health, too. It’s a good idea to ensure that there are areas where employees can enjoy their break with facilities such as hot drinks, food, and water.

As well as looking at creating relaxed spaces for employees to take their break in, you can also encourage your employees to keep moving while at their desks. Sit-stand desks and under-desk cycles are both interesting options to explore, if resources allow. 

4. Employee isolation 

While as humans we need our own space, too much of that can lead to employees feeling isolated. Employees who work in separate rooms away from others can feel alone and unsupported. When faced with a challenge that creates feelings of stress, employees can easily feel that they have no one to turn to.

Getting your head down doesn’t have to mean being alone

An open plan office can help to create feelings of togetherness among employees. Open spaces bring people together and encourage collaboration. Using glass partitions can create divides for quiet space while still ensuring employees don’t feel alone. 

Be sure to consider communication tools too. Slack is a hugely popular communication platform that helps employees get what they need done collaboratively, whether employees are office or remote. It’s also a great space for informal chats that can help employees bond. 

5. Unpredictability 

The uptick in using hot desks is an enormous benefit for flexibility and it can spark creativity and greater collaboration. But while many employees love varying their work station, others crave certainty. For example, some neurodiverse people could feel anxious at the prospect of not knowing where they’ll be working each day.

This lack of certainty can be a common theme on an organisational level too. Lack of transparency and poor communication from management teams can leave employees feeling insecure in their jobs and nudge them towards looking for another job. 

Listen to your employees and their individual needs

It’s important to acknowledge that everyone is different and what one person needs can be starkly different from the next person. The same goes for your employees. But how can you know this?

The best way to understand the issues affecting your employees is to ask them! Get them involved in designing your workspace if that’s appropriate. Consider employee surveys to gauge interests and needs. Using this information, it’s possible to create a space where employees feel comfortable and therefore are able to perform at their best. 

Mental, physical and financial health are linked

Supporting employee mental health is good for your organisation and good for employees themselves. When you have a workforce that is mentally well, you tend to find that their general wellbeing also increases. 

It’s important not to overlook financial health too. Financial wellbeing relates to how we feel about money and having enough to be comfortable in life. The pandemic has highlighted the importance of financial wellbeing and increasing numbers of organisations are striving towards holistic wellbeing

Discover Openwage – the employee financial wellbeing benefit

Openwage is an employee financial wellbeing benefit that enables employees to access a portion of their earnings at any time in the month. There’s no cost to your organisation and no impact on your payroll. 

Find out more about Openwage on our employer page or by contacting us today.