How Your Office Design Could be Stressing You Out

Most offices are engineered with two objectives in mind: productivity and collaboration. There’s nothing wrong with those two design goals. But more and more research is showing that modern work environments can have a negative impact on your mental wellbeing.

“People who are employed full-time outside the home spend approximately 33 percent of their waking hours at their workplace,” writes Jennifer Veitch, Ph.D., in a 2011 report on workplace design and mental health. That’s a lot of time to be cooped up in a less-than-optimal space. “Exposures to physical conditions at work that can affect one’s physical or mental health are both lengthy and frequent,” Veitch adds.

Here are some of the ways the design of your office may be impacting your mental health—and how to cope.

It’s Dark

People who work in windowless or dark offices experience impaired sleep and lower wellbeing than those who have exposure to natural light. That’s according to a 2014 study from Northwestern University.

Natural light, especially first thing in the morning, helps regulate your body’s circadian clocks in ways that promote healthy sleep, says Ivy Cheung, Ph.D., coauthor of the NU study. Spend the whole day in a dark or artificially lighted space, and these clocks can be thrown off—which may increase your risks for wonky sleep patterns, which in turn raises your risk for depression and other mental health disorders, her study suggests.

If you can’t move your desk near a window, spending 15 to 20 minutes outdoors in the morning can help regulate your sleep-wake cycles, Cheung says.

It’s Noisy

The popularity of open-plan workspaces means most of us are forced to listen to our colleagues’ conversations, paper shuffling, and obnoxiously loud typing. According to a 2016 studyfrom Germany, exposure to distracting ambient noise is associated with a drop in mental health—probably because noise increases stress.

The more annoyed you are by background clatter, the more your mental health will suffer, that study suggests. Noise-cancelling headphones can help, experts say.

It’s Isolating

Research from Harvard Business School has found that, ironically, open office plans actually discourage face-to-face interaction. “Open architecture appeared to trigger a natural human response to socially withdraw from officemates and interact instead over email and IM,” the Harvard researchers write. Employee face-to-face interactions dropped by 70% in open office spaces, their study found.

Relying on digital forms of communication may lead to worsening mental health. A lot of research, including a just-published study on military veterans, has shown in-person, face-to-face interactions are associated with lower rates of major depression and other mental health disorders, while digital communication does not have the same effect.

Going out to lunch with your colleagues may be one effective antidote. Getting out of the office and away from your computer should facilitate real face-to-face conversations. And even a few of these each week seems to benefit mental health, that veterans study found.

It’s Artificial

Researchers have found that exposure to “natural environments”—including green spaces like parks or forests, and blue spaces like rivers and coastlines—can improve wellbeing.

And a 2016 study in PLOS ONE linked “natural elements” in the office—stuff like plants of fountains—with lower levels of depression. If your office is a gray warren of plastic and metal, that’s bad.

Spruce up your space with plants, the PLOS ONE study advises. Decorating your office or cubicle with photographs of forests or other outdoor scenes may also help combat stress, finds a 2015 study from the Netherlands.

It’s Impersonal

The lack of privacy in open-plan offices can make you feel like your boss or coworkers are always looking over your shoulder. This can lead to “emotional exhaustion”—also known as burnout. That’s according to a 2013 study in the Journal of Environmental Psychology.

But that study found personalizing your office space with your own stuff—pictures, memorabilia, tchotchkes, etc.—can make your desk or office feel more like your own personal space, which helps counteract the negative effects.

It’s Disorganized

Some people do just fine in cluttered environments. In fact, a messy desk can stoke creativity. But research has also shown that, for many of us, a sloppy or disorganized space leads to a loss of emotional control. This means you may struggle to maintain your attention—or to keep your stress or anxiety levels in check—if your workplace is a pit.

If you feel like your messy office is doing you more harm than good, cleaning up is an obvious remedy. If you can’t control the disorganization around you, try to arrange your desk so that the mess is outside of your field of vision. Research from Princeton University suggests this can help reduce the clutter’s impact on your attention.

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