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How Your Office Design Could be Stressing You Out

The concept of a cubicle-ridden office is long gone. Now lives the “creative” open environments that shelter no personal space even for executives. At first, we thought this was a progressively good idea but quickly realized open spaces lead to problems equally as horrendous as the prison-like cubicles trapped us in. If we dive deeper, both lead to bigger problems within our psyche and can have damaging long-term effects on our ability to function as employees, managers and executives.

“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 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 Crowded

More employers are forgoing renting out entire office floors and opting for coworking spaces with other companies to save a buck. The idea of this is novel, but it can cause overcrowding and uncomfortable employees. The intent behind these spaces was to create a bohemian sense of community, but in many situations it results in overcrowding, competitor roof sharing and lack of privacy. If you’re stuck in one of these and it’s not working out, try moving to a corner far away from any common areas. This can help alleviate the traffic that you may encounter.

It’s Forced

It’s Distracting

Working in front of monitors all day already has been proven to be bad for you. Then why do some offices throw more than one in your direction? By adding in more monitors, it creates a space for multitasking. In a 2019 study, college students were observed attending lectures with their laptops. Students had non course-related applications open 42% of the time while the lecture was ongoing. The students were given the ability to multitask with an unnecessary monitor and used almost half of their time to multitask with something unrelated to their school work.

This distracting practice happens in more ways than one. If you find yourself in a similar situation, try turning one monitor off for a few hours a day. See if your productivity and focus change.

It’s Dark

According to a 2019 research article, the positioning, luminaire type and other factors of lighting can increase office workers mood and alertness. It can also increase performance by avoiding fatigue-like issues such as eye pain and headache. Color temperatures and renderings can be linked to satisfaction, mood, cognition, and comfort. Applying the right amount of color temperature to artificial lights can enhance workplace health and cognition.

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 study from 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 study published in 2019 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.

In Organizational Behaviour and the Physical Environment by Oluremi B. Ayoko and Neal M Ashkanasy, the idea of thriving is directly linked to the positioning of every item within an office. From the artificial plant to where sunlight creeps in.

It’s Impersonal

The lack of face to face interactions in open-plan offices can make you feel like your boss or coworkers are always reachable within minutes. This can lead to “digital leashes” where tasks and messages are sent within seconds creating unrealistic expectations on assignments. This also leads us to be readily available at any moment and increase workplace burnout faster. That’s according to a 2019 article on improving workplace mental health in Psychology Today.

Personalizing your office space with your own things —pictures, memorabilia, aromatic candles, etc.—can make your desk or office feel more like your own personal space, which helps counteract other impersonal 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.

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