Working Well: Office Design For Good Mental Health

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Niels Kramer
Niels Kramer
Niels Kramer is the Creative Director, EMEA at Tétris Design and Build.

The office should be a place that can heal, not hinder, our mental health. Tetris shares five ways to design for good mental health.

S Components Design For Good Mental Health
RS Components office in Milan, Italy Photo credit Davide Galli Atelier

The year 2020 is a year we will not forget. It has tested our wellbeing and mental health. Our lives have been upended and, for many, the way work has been transformed. A growing body of research shows that healthy and happy workers are more productive and companies are taking note.

The corporate focus on health and wellbeing is part of a wider acknowledgment of the advantages of mindfulness and mental health, both in the workplace and in general. There is now a focus on allowing people to experience different modes of thought throughout the day, through meditation rooms, sleep pods and increasingly dynamic and well-designed workplaces.

There is no doubt that stress, anxiety and depression have risen as people grapple with lockdown restrictions and are forced into a new way of living. Employers are taking a fresh look at the physical design of office space and how it can play an important role in improving their employees’ mental health.

Numerous studies confirm that employees’ mental wellbeing is crucial for engagement at work. Research by the University of Warwick in the UK, for example, found a 12 percent boost in productivity when people are happy, with companies that invest more in employee support reaping greater benefits. Now, more than ever, mental health in the office is an important design topic.

Interiorworks Design For Good Mental Health
Interior Works office in Amsterdam, The Netherlands, Photo credit Rick Geenjaar

Biophilia rocks

Incorporating elements of nature into workplace design can offer a significant boost to employees’ mental wellbeing. For example, plants and wooden materials have been shown to reduce stress and natural daylight with a view of the great outdoors helps reduce anxiety.

The positive impacts of biophilic design extend through other aspects of the workplace.

At the InteriorWorks office in Amsterdam, the WELL-certified space enhances wellbeing, with green walls and an abundance of plants to clean the air for a healthy indoor climate. In conjunction with a carbon-neutral energy system and enhanced ventilation that reduces the transmission of airborne pathogens, biophilic design is a sustainable means to improve air quality – and boost employees’ alertness and cognitive ability.

Open-plan offices, often linked to noise distractions and elevated stress, is minimised in favour of a layout with a range of work and meeting spaces, varying floor and ceiling heights, and multiple pathways. This not only helps with insulating noise between work zones, but also creates a sense of different types of spaces that encourages movement through the office.

Light fantastic

Natural light is vital and workers who have more exposure to daylight in the office report a better quality of life. Lenovo’s Milan office features open space along the perimeter of the office so that more desks are close to windows, with focus and collaboration zones separated by acoustic panels to maintain comfortable sound levels, reducing the stress associated with noise-related disturbance.

Also, where there is a lack of natural light due to the external building structure or in climates with short winter days, circadian lighting that mimics the changing composition of light throughout the day has been shown to improve mood, concentration and sleep quality. The use of transparent partitions also allows light to penetrate the workspace.

lenovo Design For Good Mental Health
Lenovo offices in Milan, Italy Photo credit Davide Galli Atelier

Different folks and diverse spaces

Designing various types of workspaces to accommodate the work styles of diverse employees also boosts engagement – and this employee-centric approach improves quality of life in the office.

The wellness-centric design of the SAP offices in Johannesburg, for example, combines open-plan individual workstations with breakout areas for focus or collaboration, informal work zones and enclosed concentration rooms, as well as patios, balconies and a pond for outdoor gatherings.

Furniture helps people find their ideal work environment – desks are height-adjustable, comfortable seating invites casual (and socially distanced) meetings, while high-backed booths aid uninterrupted work.

Designing for a range of personalities means someone can find a space they really like to work in. An office where you feel like you can be yourself has positive impacts on mental wellbeing.

SAP campus in Johannesburg
SAP campus in Johannesburg, South Africa

Head space

Areas for employees to take time out can help manage anxiety about the return to the office. As companies gradually adapt to calls for a better work-life balance, more offices are installing quiet spaces for reflection, meditation or prayer.

In some cases, these are small converted meeting rooms with basic furniture inside. But increasingly, firms are putting more thought into where these rooms are located and they’re spending more money on their design, from facilities to help people wash before they pray to mood lighting and temperature control.

Yet quiet rooms aren’t just meant for religious purposes; they’re also available to people who need a bit of time away from today’s constant stream of emails, conference calls and deadlines.

And quiet spaces are increasingly part of a larger corporate wellbeing strategy that aims to create a more positive workplace experience and keep people energised and engaged.

At the RS Components office in Milan, relaxation and play zones help staff reduce stress levels and enjoy a closer sense of connection with colleagues.

Spaces for restorative activities like mindfulness or multi-faith practices also provide similar benefits in lowered blood pressure and decreased stress and depressive symptoms.

As companies work to create lower-density floorplans and set clear guidelines for social distancing, it’s equally important that such measures are thoughtfully designed to alleviate worry.

Signage to guide employees in the use of the space might be customised with friendly wording and company branding, while desks removed to comply with social distancing might be replaced with plant walls to create a safe and calming buffer.

Maintaining a community

Redesigning the workplace to prioritise communal activity, whether small meetings or a socially distanced town hall, can help address the feelings of isolation linked to an extended lack of contact – and over the predicted long-term increase in remote working, cement the office as a vital space for sharing ideas and company culture.

We want to refocus on the collaborative and social features of the office in order to nurture the human experience, and the identity of the company. We all need to feel like we belong to something, and the office is an important space for people to feel part of a community and place that can heal not hinder our mental health.

Catch our recent wellbeing video series to discover the truth about what’s happening (and what’s about to happen) to businesses and discover strategies that you can put into practice immediately. Watch here.

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