How Office Design Impacts Employee Well-being

A well-designed workspace can lead to healthier, less stressed, and more productive workers. Find out how to create a healthy office where staff members love to work.

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How Office Design Impacts Employee Well-being

Here's what you need to know:

  • Office environments can impact workers’ physical and mental health
  • To boost your office design to have a positive impact on your employees’ well-being, incorporate nature as much as possible
  • Increase natural light, add plants, and bring in water elements
  • Offer outdoor spaces and use natural materials when you can
  • Focus on ergonomics and movement in the office with posture-supporting chairs, activities such as yoga, and more

Most people might think of employee well-being as a blend of something like work-life balance, engagement, satisfaction, and employee benefits.

But that’s not all that it entails. Even office design has a role to play in employee well-being. From cubicles galore to open concepts, office trends change with time. But 1 thing that always stays the same is the impact that office design has on employee well-being.

Office design doesn’t just apply to workplaces. Our homes have become our offices these days. But many of them still suffer from the same flaws that offices do. Whether it’s at home or in the office, a well-designed and intentioned workspace can lead to healthier, less stressed, and more productive workers.

Here’s how your company can get there. Especially if your company is a smaller business that can’t offer top-of-the-line benefits, office design is 1 place you can give extra attention to.

Office design has a major impact on our physical health

According to a 2019 report on the long-term health of office workers, office design has a lot to do with our physical health.

“The most common health problems in the office today are physical inactivity and asymmetric physical strain, especially around phone calling or typing,” explains Dr. Frank Emrich, German occupational and public health expert. “These can all lead to degenerative processes impacting muscles, joints, discs, nerves and tendons, and may cause pain and tissue damage. Lack of motion can lead to muscle degeneration. Overdoing motions, such as mouse-clicking, can cause inflammation and nerve compression.”

Phone calls and computer typing aren’t the only hazardous work activities, though. Trends that have risen in our digital age play a big role, too. An increased workload coupled with open-plan layouts and too much screen time take a toll on physical health, too.

Then there’s posture to think about. Without the right ergonomically designed desks and chairs, our posture can wreak havoc on our bodies. (Think back pain.)

The U.S. office environment in particular is known to be lit by fluorescent lights and blasted with cool air seemingly year-round. This is where “sick building syndrome” comes from.

Since the 1990s researchers have known of acute health impacts that result from too much time spent inside buildings. Typically, we have poor ventilation, chemicals from cleaners or synthetic fabrics, and biological contaminants like mold to thank.

Building design also impacts our mental health

The sedentary nature of most work these days can take a toll on our mental health, too. Sitting for long periods of time, researchers have found, can actually reduce blood flow to the brain. This reduction can slow brain functions and increase the likelihood of developing neurological disorders like dementia.

Sitting too much can also lead to feelings of depression. A lack of sleep or poor sleep quality can also impact our mental health and lead to depression symptoms. What keeps so many of us up at night? Stress and anxiety. What’s a major source of stress and anxiety? Work.

Finally, screen time also comes into play here. “Computer work is having a major impact on mental health. Hyper-connectivity, ‘infobesity’ (data overload), the impression of permanent urgency, having to constantly manage a multitude of things, the merging of work and personal life; these all create negative impacts such as burnout,” the 2019 report explains.

Luckily, though, thoughtful office design can come to the rescue. Here are a few ways to boost your office design to have a positive impact on your employees’ well-being.

Incorporate nature in the office as much as possible

Humans are mammals and we’re meant to be outdoors. There’s a reason why nature has such a positive impact on our mental health and physical health — we’re meant to be in it.

There are several ways to bring elements from the outdoors indoors.

Increase natural light

As much as possible, have windows in your office building or home office. If you have windows, don’t keep them shut in favor of temperature control, for example. The natural light they provide can be a major mood boost. It also helps employees’ bodies sync with the natural progression of the day.

If your office has limited windows, don’t worry. You can deploy transom windows — those little windows above doors. Mirrors are also a great way to reflect and maximize the natural light you do have.

Add plants, plants, and more plants

Even if your office doesn’t have much natural light, you can still have plenty of plants in your office. ZZ plants, snake plants, and pathos plants can all thrive in low light conditions.

When you add plants, just make sure you don’t introduce allergy-inducing pollen into the office. (It’s probably best to stay away from flowering plants for this reason.)

Maybe your office is low on physical space? Then opt for hanging planters or place plants in windowsills.

Bring in water elements

Sure, most offices don’t have the ability to host a full-blown fountain. But there are plenty of small, electric ones that will do the trick perfectly — and take up just a fraction of the space and cost.

Fish tanks are another excellent option for bringing water (and office pets!) into the decoration equation.

Offer outdoor spaces

If you can’t bring the outdoors inside, then just go straight for the outdoors. Even if your building just has a small patio or a rooftop, do what you can to make it an enjoyable and comfortable space.

Add in furniture and some outdoor plants. Make it a relaxing place to go after a particularly stressful call or meeting.

Even if your building just has a small patio or a rooftop, do what you can to make it an enjoyable and comfortable space.

If your office isn’t able to have its own greenspace, improvise. Come up with a list of all the nearby greenspaces that employees can walk to in 15 minutes or less. This helps them get a dose of nature during lunch or other breaks.

Use natural materials when you can

Offices can often feel cold and stiff. Make yours as warm, welcoming, and natural-feeling as possible by using natural materials when possible. Wood is an obvious contender as is stone and even concrete when done right.

Focus on ergonomics and movement in the office

It’s the sedentary lifestyle that comes with most office work that’s the biggest health issue to combat. That’s part of the reason why height-adjustable, walking, and standing desks can be very beneficial. Invest in posture-supporting chairs while bringing activities like yoga and meditation classes into the office as often as you can.

Finally, create some social gathering spaces that entice employees to get up from their desks. There can be quiet rooms, game rooms, and even just employee lounges that require employees to get up and walk to and from them.

Offering free or subsidized memberships to a gym that’s either in your building or close enough for employees to walk or bike to can boost well-being as well.

With these tips and tricks under your belt, you’re well on your way to being able to handle your office revamp on your own. But if it feels like too much of an undertaking to go alone, there are design firms across the country and around the world that are ready to help. Many even specialize in office design, or biophilic office design — an approach that prizes outdoor elements — in particular.

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