The Covid-19 pandemic has cast new light on a historically under-recognized issue: mental health in the workplace. And employers have taken note, making changes to office design so employees feel supported and can thrive in the work environment.
According to Mind Share Partners’ 2021 Mental Health at Work Report, three-quarters of U.S. employees reported feeling at least one symptom of a mental health condition in the last year, and over one-third of reported symptoms lasted five months to an entire year. A staggering 84% reported at least one workplace element had negatively affected their mental health in the past year, including emotionally draining work (37%) and work-life balance issues (32%).
These numbers are cause for concern in more ways than one. For starters, it’s well documented that employees who feel engaged at work are happier and more productive. Respondents who felt supported by their employer through the pandemic were 2.4-times more likely to report satisfaction with their job and twice as likely to stay at their company. Meanwhile half the respondents said they’ve left previous roles in part due to mental health reasons—compared to a third in 2019.
Aside from being ‘the right thing to do,’ supporting mental health at work supports the bottom line. Harvard researchers reported medical and absenteeism costs fall between $3.27 and $2.73 respectively for each dollar spent on wellness programs.
All this points to a huge opportunity for organizations to rethink the role of the office in employee mental health.
Supporting Mental Health Through the Physical Office Space
Many employers have turned to policy and programming to promote mental health and well-being, from offering flexible schedules and counseling apps, to freeing employees from the ‘always-on’ email culture.
Using the physical workplace as a central role to create a welcoming and healthy environment can bring broader initiatives full circle. The following are suggestions for how organizations can design space with mental well-being top of mind.
Design a Mix of Flexible, Experiential and Experimental Spaces
Humans are naturally social creatures, but at times also crave quiet places where we can focus, and/or decompress. To support employees’ different needs in a given day, provide a menu of locations they can choose from based on their task and mood. Incorporating flexible, “experimental space” empowers employees to use and even modify their environment based on their own needs and desires—incremental actions that over time can also help inform future workplace design.
Foster Belonging and Inclusion
According to a CV Library survey, nearly half of employees report feeling lonely at work. Providing spaces for connecting and socializing is a good way to tackle loneliness out of the gate. Employers can also help their teams feel a positive connection and sense of pride in the organization by prioritizing various corporate social responsibility certificates—like WELL, Greenstar and LEED—as well as by reinforcing brand identity.
Consider How Engaging the Senses Can Create Meaningful Employees Experiences and Behaviors
Physical comfort or discomfort has a direct bearing on mental wellbeing. Design for the former by, for example, ensuring designated quiet areas have robust acoustic treatment to keep outside noise at bay. Also incorporate mood-soothing colors, textures and scents to help encourage relaxation and/or focus. Pro tip: Use desk lightboxes and scents to combat Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD).
For starters, design for energizing experiences by offering movement-oriented areas like a gym or walking path. Beyond that, incorporate fun into the workplace by celebrating success, encouraging one another, and allowing the team to make mistakes and share the lessoned learned. After all, we are all human and, in this journey, together.
Minimize Stress with Calming Colors and Biophilia
Live greenery and natural views can help refresh the mind and spirit—and there are many creative ways to bring this perk to the workplace, from rooftop gardens and sunrooms to attractive planters and living walls. Meditation or yoga rooms with calming color palettes and greenery can also help people find moments of respite during a busy day.
The Office of the Future Will Support Mental Health
Where and how we work has fundamentally changed, affecting how we experience and interact. Looking ahead, office space will no longer be measured by its efficiency, but by its ability to inspire and support talent.
One first step forward? Help banish the stigma of addressing mental health by pledging to be a StigmaFree Company. To create human centric workplaces, organizations must first recognize the critical role of mental health—and support it through thoughtful, welcoming, and inclusive design.
About the Author
Hannah Hackathorn is Senior Principal, Head of Design for the Americas at Unispace. At Unispace, Hannah lends 20 years of large-scale corporate workplace expertise to the design of progressive environments for a myriad of client types. Connect with Hannah on LinkedIn here.