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Workspace Design & Employee Wellbeing

Wellbeing is a big deal for companies. A place where we spend many hours in the week has a very real and substantial impact on our mental health. If employees are not functioning at their best, there are implications for lost hours, reduced productivity, and falling profits. Today, employers are aware of the responsibilities they have towards their employees’ mental health more than ever before. This has been enhanced by a shift from why people have mental health problems, to looking at how more people can benefit from good mental health. 

Place attachment, the bond that forms between individuals and their important settings, is often overlooked by employers, despite the growing body of evidence that demonstrates the psychological benefits. How do your employees feel as they enter their workspace? Look around you now… does your setting reflect positive experiences and positive expectations? Does it encourage calm, comfort, fun, connection, safety and a place to be happy and thrive?


Psychologist Matthew Davis analysed more than 100 studies about office environments and found that, though open office plans foster a

“Symbolic sense of organizational mission,” [they are actually] damaging to workers’ attention spans, productivity, creative thinking, and satisfaction.”

Employees in open offices dealt with more uncontrolled interactions, lower levels of concentration, less motivation, and higher levels of stress. Noise distracts everyone. That’s a strong price to pay for trendy architecture. And recent innovations in workspace organisation such as hot-desking have undermined our sense of belonging. Yet clever office design can give their employees the best chance of lowering stress and thriving, and it provides employees with a greater sense of autonomy when they are involved in the decision-making process.

So what does the ideal work space to promote good mental wellbeing look like? 

Lighting: A bright space, ideally with natural light. Poor lighting can cause headaches, eye strain, and tiredness and contribute to stress, anxiety and depression. Daylight exposure is linked to office workers’ sleep activity and therefore mental and physical health.

Personal space for employees to call their own, with positive mood primers e.g. photos and belongings that evoke positive emotions.

Sociable zones where people move around, collaborate, mix with colleagues, have fun and play. A creative example of this is an adult playground at a Cisco conference! There should always be some space or time when work talk is actively discouraged in order to connect the non-work parts of ourselves. We are more than our job!

Temperature and air quality: A poorly ventilated, cold or hot office can impact on productivity, mental and physical health. 

Modernisation: Employees want their job to reflect their personality, so they feel at one with the company. The workplace should reflect the identities of your workforce. The Human Spaces* global study of 7,600 office workers from 16 countries found that office design was so important to workers that a third (33%) of respondents stated it would unequivocally affect their decision whether or not to work somewhere. 

Relaxation zones: A place to step away from it all when the stresses of work feel like too much, to relax. Time for quiet reflection allows our thoughts wander, to figure things out, and to arrive at innovative solutions. 

Health: Healthy food choices, water, good quality drinks and opportunities to exercise. 

Recognition: Visual reminders that demonstrate appreciation for employee contributions: photos, awards, certificates. This is a great opportunity to showcase your employees’ sense of team and fun, and brilliantly modelled by Inhouse Estate Agents. 

Colour: Neuroscience and psychology research has shown the effect that colour has on our brains, hormones, mood, behaviour and physiology. Greens and blues, particularly from landscapes and nature, are mood-enhancing colours that help to create a state of calm. 

Activity-based Working (ABW): Providing a variety of work settings and more opportunities for movement. Staff at Australian health insurer Medibank have more than 26 different work settings to choose from at its Melbourne headquarters such as indoor quiet spaces, collaborative hubs, wi-fi-enabled balconies and places to work standing up.

Connection to Nature: Access to outdoor space such as a garden or park are ideal. Organizational psychologist Professor Sir Cary Cooper, has revealed that employees who work in environments with natural elements report a 15% higher level of well-being, are 6% more productive and 15% more creative overall. This plant-filled sphere at Amazon’s headquarters in Seattle is a great big-budget example. A more achievable solution might be the introduction of plants, water features and natural light.


Biophilia (meaning love of nature) sounds complex but it’s about involving natural elements in your office or workplace. Oliver Heath has found that biophilic design has been closely linked to good mental health and wellbeing; it increases concentration and productivity and reduces stress at work. It’s a “human-centred” approach to creating workspaces that make employees feel happy, calm, healthy and valued at work, as well as making them more creative and productive. Businesses Google and Amazon are investing heavily in Biophilic Design elements to improve worker concentration, engagement, cognitive ability and to attract and retain staff.


Such investments in the physical workplace that create conditions for positive mental wellbeing pay back quickly.


Cost is an obvious hurdle but, as Oliver Heath says:

“Ninety per cent of business costs are human costs, so there’s a financial benefit from making sure staff are well and happy. “


John Alker identified in Guardian Sustainable Business that companies need to look at their data in order to make the business case for investing in work space:

o  Financial e.g. absence rates, medical complaints and costs, staff turnover, revenue

o  Perceptual e.g. attitudes about health, wellbeing and productivity in the workplace

o  Physical e.g. information about the building itself. Some of these are very direct measures (lighting, temperature, air quality) and others will be evaluations or assessments (quality of views, local amenities).


With the evidence stacked up, can you afford not to take the mental wellbeing of employees seriously? Get the physical and emotional environment right. Business and their workforce will reap rewards.


Lisa LLoyd is a Psychologist, Trainer & Consultant for Workplace Mental Health, Wellbeing and Thriving Cultures at It’s Time for Change.