How to Design Your Office Around Well-Being

There are countless ways we can improve our well-being; making changes to our habits, diet, and overall lifestyle can help us feel as good as we deserve – but what about the huge amount of time we spend at work?

Office environments have the potential to either support and supplement our well-being, or actually, make things worse – research has shown that there are a number of key ways the design of an office space can affect our health, both physically and psychologically.

If you’re responsible for the work environment of your staff, it’s important to be aware of the best steps to take – and the pitfalls to avoid – to ensure your workspace supports well-being.

If you’re an employee, it’s also important to be aware of these factors, and, if necessary, take steps to suggesting improvements to your workspace.

 

What is Workplace Well-being?

 

In essence, workplace well-being relates to all aspects of working life, from the quality of the physical workspace, to how workers feel about their role, their workplace and their attitude towards a company; and the design of the working environment plays a big part in this.

While it might seem easy to split well-being into physical and the psychological categories, it’s important to recognise the significant links between the two (1).

The traditional office workspace can be a source of everything from mental stress to physical strain, and unfortunately, many employers still approach these either by ignoring them completely, acknowledging them only as clinical or medical issues, or attempting to tackle them in a psychological way with counseling and other employee assistance schemes (2).

 

What are the Risks of a Poorly Designed Workplace?

 

A badly designed office space can have all kinds of detrimental effects on employee well-being.

This is particularly true if the nature of your work involves sitting at a computer for extended periods.

Physical problems like back pain have become worryingly commonplace (3), and while there’s plenty of advice out there for how to deal with these problems, the fact that they’re an intrinsic part of the workplace needs addressing.

Other physical problems include issues with the vision from screen use, headaches, and even poor eating due to the prominence of vending machines.

Similarly, a badly designed workspace can lead to psychological problems.

Isolating cubicles, claustrophobic spaces and a lack of natural light can lead to stress, anxiety, and depression, all of which can have a detrimental effect on overall health and productivity.

 

Things to Think about When Designing Your Office

 

Whether you’re designing a new office space, reorganizing a current environment, or even undergoing a complete structural redesign, employee well-being should be top of the list of your considerations when making your plans.

There are a few areas which research suggests can make the most difference:

 

Physical Well-being

 

Natural Light

 

Natural Light is absolutely crucial for our bodies and overall well-being.

It’s our primary source of Vitamin D, and it plays a huge part in our bodies’ natural circadian rhythm regulation.

It’s so prescient in the scientific community, that Oxford University has been conducting research, with the help of architectural glazing firm Cantifix, to determine how living in a glass house could benefit our health.

Research has found that among surveyed EMEA offices, a shocking 47% of offices have no access to natural light.

It’s no surprise, then, that 44% of employees listed it as their most desired element in the workplace.

If you’re designing a working environment, natural light should top your list of features to include.

Ensure that windows aren’t covered by shutters or blinds (if screen glare is an issue, invest in some polaroid window films) – and organize your desks/workspaces so that employees get to work in the light itself.

If your office doesn’t have a window, then encourage employees to take breaks and step outside regularly – you could also consider investing in a ‘lightbox’ to emulate the feel of natural light.

 

Allow Room for Movement

 

One of the biggest perils of a traditional office job is the lack of physical movement it encourages.

Old-fashioned, cramped cubicle office designs restrict the space in which employees can move around, leaving little room to walk around, and the ‘chained to the desk’ effect means employees don’t take enough regular breaks, which can result in issues like Repetitive Strain Injury, as well as the aforementioned back problems associated with desk work (5, 6).

Favor an open-plan office design, and allow/encourage people to move around at regular intervals.

Studies have shown that taking frequent short breaks is beneficial to well-being and productivity (7).

Design your office spaces so that it’s easy for employees to step away from their computers or desks at regular intervals – keep desks far enough apart so that if someone needs to get up and walk around, they won’t have to worry about getting in anyone’s way.

 

Ensure Good Air Quality

 

Poor air quality in office environments has been linked to a concerning number of health issues.

Among the many negative effects associated, common problems include (8):

  • Fatigue
  • Spread of infections
  • Asthma and breathing disorders
  • Headaches
  • Serious disorders, such as cardiovascular etc.

Air quality is a hugely important thing to factor into office design, as it dramatically affects productivity as well as well-being, with evidence suggesting that a large number of sick days can be attributed to office environments with poor air quality (9).

Arguably the most important thing to factor into an office design is ventilation.

The obvious choice is to ensure windows can be opened and the workspace well ventilated naturally, but for colder months, when open windows would cause discomfort, air conditioning systems offer a good alternative.

Consider the likely ‘pollutants’ that are likely to be present in your work environment.

These can range from printers and photocopiers, all the way to coffee machines – anything that emits ozone or decreases the air quality.

Arrange office spaces so that workstations aren’t placed close to these pollutants, and position ventilation systems appropriately.

For smaller offices, many plants have been found to be surprisingly effective at removing toxins from the air, and including several of these throughout your environment can make a big difference – they’re aesthetically pleasing and psychologically beneficial, too (10).

 

Consider Offering Free Healthy Snacks

 

It’s a sad truth that many people when given the temptation, don’t eat very well.

Eating healthily is utterly crucial for our well-being, and throughout the working day, it’s important to eat regularly to maintain energy levels, and mood (11).

To avoid the inevitable productivity dip in the afternoon, you could consider providing employees with free fruit, or other healthy snacks.

Employees would be less likely to bring in their own unhealthy or sugary foods – thus avoiding the energy crash come 3 o’clock.

 

Psychological Well-being

 

It’s not just physical well-being that is significantly affected by our working environment, but our psychological health too.

The difference between a positive, stimulating office or workspace, and a suppressive, unpleasant environment is immediately obvious.

Employee psychology is a vast and complicated subject – everyone is unique and individual, and something that one person finds psychologically stimulating, another might find stressful or unpleasant.

Despite this, there are a few universal things to keep in mind when designing an office or working environment around psychological well-being.

 

Stress – Prevention is Better than Cure

 

Stress has become frighteningly prominent in our society, and our working lives are quite clearly one of the major causes of this (12).

The words ‘workplace’ and ‘stress’ are all too frequently associated with one another, and it’s important to pre-empt potential stressors in the office.

This will vary by industry, workforce etc. but generally speaking, there are a few things which have been shown to be universally stress inducing, and which can be avoided.

 

Don’t Force People to Work in Noisy Conditions

 

One common cause of stress in the workplace is unreasonable levels of noise.

While some people have no trouble focussing in a noisy environment, others really struggle – add this to the likelihood of already-existing pressures like tight deadlines, and you have a recipe for serious problems.

Work out in advance where the likely hotspots for noise are going to be – these will include things like loud machines, water coolers and other hubs where noisy discussions are likely to take place.

Plan your workspace accordingly.

Don’t place people’s desks or workstations close to noisy spots; it’s also becoming popular to include specific ‘quiet’ areas where employees can go to work in absolute silence.

 

Include a Recreational Area

 

As previously mentioned, when it comes to well-being in the workplace, it’s vital that employees are able to take regular small breaks and spend some time away from their workstations.

While this is in itself important, giving employees the opportunity to relax or have fun during their breaks can significantly boost psychological well-being.

The inclusion of things like bean bags and ball-pools has been frequently ridiculed and thrown in with chastising ‘hipster’ references, but research has shown that including a recreational space in an office where employees can go to have fun can have an enormously beneficial impact on well-being (13).

 

Think about Office Temperature

 

This is a potentially very simple fix, but it’s vital to the overall well-being of employees that the workspace isn’t too hot or cold.

When it comes to stress and psychological well-being, studies have found that being too hot or cold significantly increase tension and psychological discomfort.

It might seem obvious, but if your office can get hot, invest in a good quality air conditioning unit; too cold – arrange heating accordingly.

 

Working from Home

 

In recent years, it’s become increasingly common for employees to work from home.

Many jobs can now be completed remotely, and this has led to more people than ever choosing to work away from the office.

Working from home can offer great potential when it comes to well-being.

By removing the need to commute, being able to work on your own terms in a comfortable environment, and being in proximity to loved ones (as well as something as simple as a fully-stocked fridge), working from home can supplement physical and psychological well-being in a number of ways (14).

It does also mean, however, that you are now entirely responsible for the design of your workspace.

If it’s down to you to design your own ‘office’, many of the above tips apply – and some need to be adapted.

 

Choose a Room Geared Towards Your Well-being

 

Consider all of the advice above, and choose the best space/room in your home for your work.

Place desks and computers close to windows, and choose a room that gets plenty of natural light.

If possible, avoid proximity to sources of noise and other distractions.

Washing machines, televisions and other sources of household noise can be distracting, decrease focus, and increase stress, so choose a space where this won’t be a problem.

You might even choose a room further away from the kitchen (with the allure of a kettle) so that any short breaks for cups of green tea (far preferable to coffee!) mean you have to make a shorter walk – giving you chance to stretch your legs.

 

Make Your Desk a Health Hub

 

Include at least one air-purifying plant, and ensure things like water are easily accessible to keep you hydrated throughout your day.

Consider desk position and height – you don’t want to have to hunch over, or be stretching constantly in order to reach keyboards or files.

 

Invest in a Quality Desk Chair

 

It can be tempting, when working from home, to lie in bed with a laptop, or to slouch on a sofa for hours at a time.

This can lead to all kinds of physical strains and pains, and even desk chairs, if they are poor quality, aren’t geared towards well-being.

Look into ergonomic options which have been designed with well-being in mind; it will be well worth the investment in the long run!

 

Conclusion

 

Most of us spend a large percentage of our waking hours at work and will do so for many years to come.

It’s crucial that employers are aware of the impact an office space can have on well-being, and take practical steps to ensure that the environment employees work in is set up to galvanize their well-being.

From open plan office design to smart home-working there are plenty of steps you can take to supplement well-being at work.

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