The debate on mental health has come a long way over the past few years. Mental Health Awareness Week, which took place last week, is testament to our willingness to discuss mental health – be it with friends, family or colleagues – but there are still stigmas to be stamped out.
Businesses have been vital in blowing the winds of change, advocating workplace wellbeing and corporate wellness initiatives, such as flexible working, gym memberships and mental health days. This progress is welcomed, but as mental health charity Mind have found, one in four people will experience mental health problems every year. Tackling such a ubiquitous problem requires a comprehensive approach. This approach must take into account office design.
As architects and designers, we have an opportunity to be at the forefront of this push. As an industry we can, and are, shifting the dial on the relationship between workplace design and wellbeing. The spaces we design affect the way people feel, act and work. Considering that we spend between 80 and 90 percent of our time indoors, designing with wellbeing in mind is crucial to building on the progress that has already been made, as is now being recognized by initiatives such as the WELL Building Standard.
Sociability and employee engagement are imperative factors in workplace wellbeing. Designing spaces that encourage interaction benefits employee morale, with social interaction shown to have positive effects on our happiness, which in turn can make us up to 20 percent more productive, according to the Social Market Foundation.
Social spaces can be both professional and non-professional. Pool tables or games areas offer employees an opportunity to unwind, have fun and chat about non-work-related matters. But most pertinently, social interaction helps us to develop friendships in the workplace. This is vital to ensuring employees feel comfortable at work and are able to approach their colleagues when stressed or other difficulties ensue. Creating office support networks protects employees and can eliminate feelings of isolation. Design can be instrumental in connecting people to space, as well as to each other.
Communal kitchens can play a similar role in encouraging interaction between colleagues. Taking some time away from the desk and engaging in conversation relaxes the mind and offers employees the opportunity to find shared interests. Communal eating is also proven to nudge us into healthier and more diverse food options, as we learn and explore people’s preferences in taste, culture and cuisine. And it goes beyond the nutrients; taking a dedicated lunch break gives us more time to eat and digest our lunches, which has health benefits in itself.
But while creating in-work support networks are fundamental, people still need time to themselves. Designing quiet and secluded spaces, such as private booths, can give people a chance to enjoy some peace and quiet away from their team, and in fact are one of the recommendations of the WELL Building Standard. Whether this is for a digital detox or to escape the office chit-chat, architects and employers must remember that every employee is different, and for some the open-plan office will never be their most productive environment. By creating a range of environments, we can increase autonomy and boost mental wellbeing.
Perhaps the simplest and most affordable design solution for improving wellbeing is bringing nature indoors. Incorporating greenery into our offices improves air quality – proven to be better for our minds and bodies – while watering plants has been shown to be beneficial for our sense of self-worth through the nurturing and caring process involved. The use of more natural and tactile materials can also help us engage more positively with a space and make us more mindful of the present moment.
Nature has also been proven to have an incredibly positive influence on our state of mind and has even been shown to lower our heart rates. Designing offices that incorporate greenery can give employees space to relax and connect with the natural environment. The incorporation of growing gardens into office spaces is becoming increasingly popular and can deliver benefits no matter the size. Garden spaces can complement workplace engagement with a more scenic and tranquil environment – the perfect remedy to a stressful and tumultuous office.
There is little doubt that corporate wellbeing initiatives are leading the charge in supporting workplace mental health, with considerable success. But companies must also be aware of the impact that design can have on our wellbeing and how it shapes our daily interactions. Investment in corporate wellbeing programmes and employee benefits will only go so far if our offices still lack conscious architectural design principles that support our mental wellbeing. If we are to continue the progress made over the last few years, design must be central to the way we approach workplace and employee wellbeing.
Ben Channon is an associate and wellbeing ambassador at Assael Architecture and author of ‘Happy by Design: A Guide to Mental Wellbeing and Architecture’