The US has a problem, or rather, problems: taking the form of nation-wide deficits in engagement, motivation, productivity, and wellbeing. According to new survey findings from Gallup, less than a third of US employees are “actively engaged” in their workplace—continuing a steady decline kickstarted by the pandemic. Worse yet, nearly 20 percent of workers are “actively disengaged”—reaching a 9-year high. As a result, worker productivity is continuing to decline at a rapid pace not seen since the 1980s.
There are multiple factors feeding into such trends: For one thing, the US continues to be engrossed in a mental health crisis. Research shows that nearly four in five workers report symptoms of poor mental health, namely anxiety, depression, and chronic stress, while a new Gallup poll suggests that more than a third of workers cite their job as the catalyst behind their poor mental state. Part of the reason for this includes toxic work cultures; degrading, abusive, or—most egregiously—disinterested bosses; and lack of opportunities for growth and development. But perhaps more obviously, one factor that many experts believe is having an immense impact on employee distress and disengagement is the return to the physical workspace.
“Return to office is a terrible phrase,” Chase Garbino, co-founder and CEO of HqO Inc., a Boston-based organization specializing in workplace technology, recently told the Business Journals. “No one is passionate about an inanimate object of an office.”
According to HqO’s 2023 State of the Workplace Environment report, which surveyed over 300,000 office employees, almost a third of workers expressed the belief that their workplace environment inhibits their productivity, while nearly half expressed dissatisfaction with the conditions of their workplace.
Yet while workers’ trepidation about returning to the workplace is to be expected against a backdrop of more than two years of flexible work schedules thanks to their seemingly much-preferred remote or hybrid work models, new findings from CivicScience suggest that remote work isn’t all it’s cracked up to be; in fact, remote workers are twice as likely to be unhappy with their job compared to those working onsite, for reasons such as poor work-life balance, lack of job security or confidence, and feeling disconnected from coworkers.
That said, even with the proliferation of remote-ready work, the importance of the physical workplace still holds strong: essential for information-sharing and collaboration, team-bonding, culture-building, and organizational cohesion. In an optimized workplace environment, employees are proven to be more engaged, more motivated, more connected to their coworkers and to the overall mission of the organization, and perform better and stay for longer as a result.
Environmental Psychology: Implications for the Workplace
But cultivating that conducive working environment is not as easy as it seems.
Experts in the field of environmental psychology, the study of the relationship between humans and the external world around them, have long since posited that conditions of natural and man-made environments can have considerable impacts on the ways people feel, think, and behave. From the size, scale, and shape of an office space to its lighting, color palette, acoustics, and more, just the physical design of the workplace itself can influence employees’ level of engagement and motivation; enhance or impair their creativity, critical-thinking, adaptability, and more; and decide the state of their mental health.
With that in mind, as more employers seek to implement either hard return-to-office mandates or soft—yet nevertheless strong—suggestions to do so, for those hoping to turn some of these downward trends around and revitalize their workforce, considering how they can perhaps revitalize their office space may not be such a bad idea.
That said, the following are some key considerations pushed by experts when it comes to optimizing one’s physical work environment in the name of improving employee mental health.
Indoor Air Quality: Not Just for Physical Health
Thanks to the COVID-19 pandemic, people (and organizations) are starting to pay more attention to indoor air quality (IAQ). The growing number of people that can be seen taking public transit, sitting in waiting rooms, or making a routine trip to the grocery store with Aranet4s or HEPA air purifiers in hand (in addition to still wearing a mask) are perhaps testament to this. But while building and health experts have long recognized the relationship between conditions like high levels of CO2, high humidity, poor ventilation, and adverse health outcomes like viral diseases like COVID-19, asthma, COPD, bronchitis and respiratory infections, heart disease, and more, perhaps lesser known or examined is the relationship between air quality and adverse mental health outcomes.
In fact, research finds that long- and sometimes even short-term exposure to air pollution is linked to serious mental health issues, including depression and anxiety, a greater risk of suicide, and a “huge” reduction in intelligence, cognitive function, and memory. According to Clara G. Zundel, a postdoctoral research fellow in psychiatry and behavioral neurosciences at Wayne State University, over 73 percent of the studies she reviewed as part of a systematic review recently published in the journal NeuroToxicology reported higher levels of adverse mental health symptoms among participants that were exposed to higher than average levels of air pollution, while a whopping 95 percent of studies examining brain effects found “significant physical and functional changes within the emotion-regulation brain regions” in those exposed. And some of these exposures that led to such outcomes, she notes, occurred in air pollution ranges that are currently considered “safe” according to EPA standards.
So, what can employers do? To start, the simplest way to improve air quality, according to Harvard Health Publishing, is opening doors and windows to allow for a consistent flow of fresh air. Arranging routine assessments of heating and air conditioning systems comes second. And in offices or buildings where windows and doors can’t be opened, experts recommend employers consider investing in some of those previously mentioned gadgets, namely, CO2 monitors and air purifiers to maintain acceptable levels of CO2. Why? Well for one thing, high concentrations of CO2 are what can cause airborne viruses like COVID-19 to spread across vast distances and linger in the air for hours, whereas lower concentrations can significantly reduce risk of infection and workplace outbreaks, leading to improved attendance rates, reductions in presenteeism, and more alert and energetic employees.
But additionally—and more importantly—CO2 levels can have a considerable impact on cognitive function, from people’s ability to make decisions, concentrate, pay attention, complete tasks, gather information, think critically, rationalize, and process emotions—especially during emergencies. In fact, high concentrations of CO2 have even been linked to anxiety and panic attacks at work. By maintaining low levels of CO2, employers can protect their employees’ physical and mental health, and reap the benefits such as enhanced cognition, creativity, and performance.
Biophilic Design: Bringing the Great Outdoors Indoors
Another sure-fire way to improve indoor air quality (and employee wellbeing), is to bring the “great outdoors” indoors. And there’s no better way to do so than by investing in some office plants, such as easy-to-care for staples like peace lilies and spider plants. In fact, according to a recent global report on the impact of biophilic design in the workplace, organizations that incorporate natural elements such as plants into their workspace report a 15 percent higher wellbeing score and 6 percent higher productivity compared to workspaces lacking in greenery.
Why is that? Well according to the modernized concept of biophilia, humans have an “innate and genetically determined affinity with the natural world,” that research shows enhances among urbanities and city dwellers as they feel their connection with nature growing even more distant. Humans crave the wonder and awe that’s inspired by their green neighbors; more importantly, they need the oxygen that they provide that reduces blood pressure, relieving stress and anxiety, calming the mind, and consequently boosting creativity, curiosity, ambition, and productivity. In fact, one study found that stress was significantly reduced when organizations added plants to their worksite, in addition to a near 40 percent drop in anxiety and tension, 60 percent drop in depression, a 44 percent reduction in anger and hostility, and a near 40 percent reduction in fatigue.
With those benefits in mind, it’s no wonder that biophilic design has become one of the most popular global interior design trends in recent years, according to Architectural Digest. These designs include filling empty spaces with plants, installing fountains and flowing water structures, using natural materials like woods and stones, and adding “living” or green walls or indoor gardens to the workspace.
For a prime example of biophilic design in action, employers can look no further than the Spheres: three spherical conservatories that make up part of Amazon’s headquarters campus in Seattle, WA. According to their website, the Spheres are home to more than 40,000 plants comprised of more than 1,000 different species of the cloud forest regions of over 30 countries, from begonias and orchids to ferns and aloes. “From the vertical gardens of the [3,400 square foot!] Canyon Living Wall to the flora-filled Fernery, each collection provides unique green spaces for employees and visitors to learn and be curious.”
Brightening Up the Place: The Power of Color and Lighting in the Workplace
Speaking of seeing green, many may have already noticed that modern workplaces—like all modernized spaces nowadays—seem to be almost completely devoid of color, following trends set forth by the model of minimalist design and its all-neutral color scheme of grays, whites, browns, and black. While such designs help organizations save money in the short-term, experts in the field of color psychology warn that such an exhaustive use of neutral colors can quickly de-energize the workplace and tranquilize workers, stunting their motivation, creativity, productivity, and—even worse—filling their heads with negative thoughts and emotions.
In fact, numerous studies have revealed that gray is the color most associated with depression, with many experts citing its “dispassion” and “apathy” or “lack of emotion” as probable causes behind the sense of emptiness, hopelessness, and despair it can evoke. Furthermore, experts agree that humans’ ability to see color serves an evolutionary purpose: there’s a reason why the brain wants to know the color of things. It’s how the brain senses danger by perceiving the redness of a hot surface or the image of blood; how it distinguishes between ripe and unripe fruit depending on whether the fruit is green (too soon), or perhaps, brown or gray (too late), or a vibrant shade of its corresponding color. And according to 2020 neural imaging research, every color generates distinct brain activity.
With these findings in mind, many workplace design experts have begun to use color as a way to stimulate specific behaviors, thoughts, and emotions. For instance, a large number of studies have found that exposure to the colors blue and green (specifically light and vibrant shades), foster creativity, likely due to their connections with nature; namely, green with plants (“growth” and “development”), and blue with the sky or the ocean (“space,” “exploration,” “possibility/opportunity,” etc.). Thus, as a general rule of thumb, experts contend that colors that are reminiscent of nature should always be a go-to color scheme in workplace settings, using greens for creativity, blues for concentration, and yellows to drive innovation and engagement, mixed in with neutral tones like browns, greys, and whites both for brightness and balance.
And akin to its perception of color, experts posit that human brains are wired to experience light not just as an indicator of time of day, but also as a “kind of barometer for how focused or laid back we should be,” as one Forbes article puts it, with the lighter and brighter the space, the more energetic, motivated, and happy workers will be. In fact, multiple studies have shown that natural light in the workplace improves satisfaction, productivity, and engagement, alleviates stress, fatigue, anxiety, and depression, and boosts overall morale and employee wellbeing.
To maximize the amount of natural sunlight that can make its way into the office, architects recommend adding floor-to-ceiling windows, skylights, glass panels, and transparent partitions wherever applicable. In locations or geographical regions that do not get a lot of sunlight, experts recommend investing in lightboxes and sunlamps that have been shown to alleviate symptoms of seasonal affective disorder (SAD), depression and anxiety, sleep disorders, bipolar disorder, and more.
It’s the Little Things: The Impacts of Noise, Temperature, and Space
In addition to visual stimulants, i.e., light and color, other sensory experiences can influence workers’ wellbeing—like sound, for instance. According to experts, there are two components to sound or noise: (1) the physical component, or what is being heard, and (2) a subjective component, or a person’s perception or reaction to what is being heard. The latter can have a detrimental effect on a person’s mental health when sounds are perceived to be overwhelming, stressful, irritating, and/or incessant.
And there are a lot of those in the workplace, from HVAC systems to office or kitchen appliances, bustling traffic or the seemingly never-ending construction going on just outside the office, and, of course, to one’s loud and rambunctious coworkers. Research has shown that such sounds can hinder productivity, focus, and memory retention through their distracting nature, in addition to increasing one’s anxiety and stress levels, especially for those with bipolar disorder.
While there’s not always a lot that employers can do to remove the physical component of noise, there are physical alterations to the workplace that can be made to significantly reduce noise and alleviate people’s adverse reactions to it. For instance, while the popularity of open-plan offices continues to grow or plateau at best, emerging studies continue to expound the negative consequences these can have on workers’ moods, performance, relationship with peers, and overall wellbeing, due to the amount of noise pollution such layouts create.
To resolve this, workplace design experts recommend playing with surface materials that trap and absorb sound, such as carpets, foam paddings, fiberglass; door seals and floor mats; and even plants. Adding hanging gardens and indoor plants are proven to be a great way to reduce sound thanks to their soft and flexible surfaces that absorb, deflect, and refract sound waves. Plants are also a great way to regulate cooler temperatures in the office—another must-have to protect workers against undue stress and anxiety.
In fact, studies suggest that there is a direct association between temperature and noise perception. As the temperature in one’s environment rises, items in the air move faster, including soundwaves. As a result, higher temperatures and humidity have been linked to a rise in symptoms of anxiety, depression, bipolar disorder, and PTSD, as noise disturbances are exacerbated, blood pressure and heart rates increase, and as people find it harder to relax. But while hotter temperatures are associated with negative mental health outcomes for these reasons, colder temperatures, on the other hand, are shown to alleviate such outcomes, as they reduce blood pressure and boost brain activity, including the production of endorphins, otherwise known as the “happiness hormones.”
While office temperatures seem to be a point of contention in most workplaces, as people’s optimal temperatures vary widely between very cold and very hot, making sure that the thermostat stays between 68℉ and 76℉ is strongly advised to avoid the harmful effects associated with extreme heat and humidity.
One of the last sensory experiences that studies show can either significantly harm or significantly boost employee wellbeing is depth perception. A study from the University of Minnesota found that higher ceilings and, by extension, a greater sense of space and psychological sense of freedom, can offer much-needed boosts to workers’ creativity, abstract thinking, and problem-solving abilities. Such findings align with what social psychologists call the construal level theory, which examines the relationship between psychological distance influences one’s depth of understanding in which greater distances are associated with abstract understanding and shorter distances are associated with concrete thinking.
Although high ceilings are somewhat opposed to the previous points about noise reduction and temperature control (as they are shown to reverberate noise and make temperatures harder to regulate), experts contend that perforated ceilings and venting skylights are a great way to add spatial depth to the workplace while continuing to reduce noise and keep the office cooler.
And for organizations who have no intention of remodeling anytime soon, studies show that even just artwork of distant places can inspire workers to think outside of the box and explore their creative side, keeping work fun, interesting, and pleasurable.
Incorporating Diversity and Flexibility into Workplace Design: Types of Workspaces Associated with Improved Wellbeing
Just as the single-space, open-plan offices are now a no-go, one size doesn’t fit all when it comes to what workspaces work best for everyone. In fact, a brand new study from the University of Arizona found that ideal office spaces vary depending on the employee’s personality, as people who are more extroverted are often happier in offices that offer plentiful opportunities for collaboration and socialization, whereas more introverted people are shown to be happier when they have access to quieter spaces.
Nevertheless, findings from a recent Gensler survey of more than 2,000 US employees reveal that, while quiet, tech-free zones and innovation hubs are the top two most sought-after workspaces, what workers really want is mix, including:
- Informal spaces for connection and community
- Work cafes, pantries, and onsite kitchens
- Quiet working areas, focus rooms, private workspaces, and nap spaces
- Tech-enabled spaces to experiment and explore
- Conference centers and corporate rooms; project and war rooms
- Residential areas, with game rooms, lounges, and other amenities
But according to Grant Christofely, North American associate director of workplace strategy at workplace design company, M Moser Associates, not enough organizations are retrofitting their workplace to accommodate these versatile needs. In order to make their offices attractive and entice both new and old talent to return to the physical workplace, experts like Christofely underscore the necessity of creating spaces for employees to socialize and to unwind, including living room spaces, cafes, terraces and outdoor gathering or workspaces, recreation rooms with gym, sports, and other gaming equipment, and especially meditation, zen, and yoga rooms.
As employees weigh the pros and cons of remote vs. in-person work, Gensler research finds that more employees are now citing the ability to “focus on work” as their reason for returning to the physical office, a shift away from socializing and connecting with coworkers which had been the most-cited reasons back in 2020. What this signals to employers is that their workers are in desperate need of a bit of peace and quiet amidst the growing anxiety they’re facing back at home, and that they must be able to meet this need if they want their organization to run effectively. Ensuring that employees have both a space to talk and a space to relax and recharge will be essential down the road.
As Jamie Fertsch, director and co-founder of Xdesk, recently told Business News Daily, “Productivity is not directly correlated with time spent on a task. It’s important to make sure that [workers] are recalibrating and refueling once in a while.”
In fact, studies clearly show that a relaxed brain is a creative brain. By having the time to nap, to walk around, or especially to get outside and even take a quick nature walkemployees can recenter themselves, decompress, and recharge—all of which are associated with better mental health, happiness, and wellbeing.
Ergonomics: The Final Stretch
Perhaps one of the most overlooked components when it comes to the ways in which the physical workspace impacts employees’ mental health, is how it impacts their physical health, i.e. the relationship between ergonomics and psychological stress, disengagement, depression, and anxiety. For those with a desk job who spend at least half of their day sitting down, this can cause considerable physical stress on their spine and lower back, shoulders, and neck, which over time can manifest as psychological distress in the form of anxiety, restlessness, irritability, and frustration. Constant headaches or migraines caused by strain on the spine has also been shown to substantially increase workers’ risks of depression, anxiety, bipolar disorder, and PTSD.
When this happens, employees obviously cannot perform at their best, and between the frustration this causes coupled with the increased risk of injury and illness poor physical health also subjects them to, these employees are resultantly much more likely to miss an excessive amount of workdays, much more likely to be burned out and fatigued when they do show up to work, and are less likely to think creatively, abstractly, or critically—all of which have pronounced ramifications on organizational output and performance.
To combat this, experts strongly recommend employers invest in ergonomic office equipment, from adjustable-height or standing desks and anti-fatigue mats, to mid- and high-back chairs, backrests, seat cushions, and footrests, as well as wireless keyboards and wrist pads to protect against carpal tunnel and arthritis. When employees have the freedom to alternate between sitting and standing and feel comfortable at their worksite, research indicates that this can strengthen their concentration, enhance their thinking and stimulate creativity, and improve their emotional wellbeing.
Ensuring that employees have enough space to move, stretch, and walk around is also a must when it comes to helping workers give their mind a rest and get a much-needed boost of happiness. Strategically placing water-refilling stations, vending machines, and kitchenettes farther away from where employees work is a great way to help employees get in some extra steps throughout the workday and help them to not feel crammed into a single space all day.