What impact can the physical workplace have on mental health?

physical workplace

Need to know:

  • Employers should consider a wide range of factors, from lighting to floorplan, when considering the impact of the workplace on mental health. Above all, it is important to provide employees with variety and choice.
  • On-site wellness initiatives and dedicated wellbeing rooms can be helpful, but should be provided as part of a wider strategy, rather than as ad hoc supports.
  • Diverse workforces will have varied expectations, and there may not be a one-size-fits-all approach. Risk assessments can help drive a data-led, tailored strategy.

Awareness of the importance of mental health and wellbeing is growing, and organisations are under pressure to find ways to support their employees; this includes creating a physical environment in which they feel happy and inspired to do their best work.

Everything from the décor and lighting to the floorplan of an office can impact brain activity, while factors such as noise can affect the mental wellbeing of staff.

Something as simple as introducing plants and having staff volunteer to take care of them can make a difference, brightening the workspace and giving employees a reason to take breaks, says Emma O’Leary, HR director at business support services firm ELAS.

However, she also feels employers could be doing more: “In my experience, there’s still a long way to go to combat the stigma of mental health that employers perceive, and certainly I’ve not come across many that would be willing to change the physical workspace.”

Open plan culture

The merits of open plan offices have long been a topic of debate. At one point deemed the ideal work environment, The impact of the ‘open’ workspace on human collaboration, published by the Royal Society in July 2018, suggests that they are not necessarily conducive to collaboration, creativity and innovation, all of which can affect mental health.

Open plan workspaces can have their benefits, though. The Global culture report, published in September 2018 by workplace culture specialist O. C. Tanner, found that when a workspace enables interaction with colleagues, employees are 84% more likely to have a close friend at work and show a 28% increase in feelings of wellbeing.

Dawn Smedley, culture and engagement strategist at O.C. Tanner Europe, says: “The key is to offer employees options. The spaces must allow for a variety of work styles, so that employees can share, build relationships and connect with their colleagues in a collaborative space, but are also able to enjoy personal space if they need to focus or have one-to-one conversations.”

On-site support

As well as embracing a workplace design that can positively impact mental health, employers can provide on-site support initiatives, but these should form part of an overall wellbeing strategy, as ad hoc perks in isolation may not do enough.

“Some [organisations], for example, provide on-site massage rooms, yoga and work choirs, all of which can have really positive impacts on mental health if they are well thought through and aren’t just ‘one-offs’,” Smedley says. “On-site choirs can be especially impactful as they can bring people together from all over the business, helping to build connections and camaraderie.”

Other measures to support mental wellbeing might include the provision of meditation or wellbeing rooms. However, as mindset coach and workplace trainer Emma Langton points out, this too needs careful planning: “Meditation needs to be learnt, and then it takes practice. The sessions being provided by employers can help that, as long as the employee feels empowered to go to the sessions and learn how to meditate.”

Access to a wellbeing room gives staff a chance to take a proper break, rest their mind and reset their busy brain. Nevertheless, this could be seen to put the onus on the individual to look after their own mental wellbeing, rather than embracing an organisation-wide approach to enhancing mental health.

“This might mean training all levels from the senior team and management right down the employee chain so that everyone is on board,” adds Langton.

Mental health risk assessment

A digital health risk assessment is a good way to understand people’s needs and issues, including those relating to the physical workspace. This can help employers clearly define what provisions need to be put in place to support good mental health in the workplace.

The important thing to bear in mind is that, no matter what workplace interventions and trends might be happening elsewhere, each workforce faces different challenges. A data-driven approach can help ensure that any investment in changes to the workplace is effective.

Phil Austin, chief executive officer, Cigna Europe, says: “In today’s diverse workforce, a one-size-fits-all approach to mental wellbeing doesn’t work. Employers must consider the different expectations and requirements of an ever-changing workforce.”