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URMC / BHP / BHP Blog / November 2022 / Improving the Physical Work Environment to Improve Well-being at Work

Improving the Physical Work Environment to Improve Well-being at Work

Whether your office is in your home or somewhere else, chances are that many of you spend more of your waking hours at work than not. When so much of life is spent in the work environment, it is surprising that there is so little focus on creating workplace design, function, and atmosphere that promotes mental health and well-being. The workplace is often neglected as a setting for implementing positive preventive approaches for mental health and well-being, yet it represents a significant area of potential benefit in this area (Grtizka et al, 2020). The physical environment is known to influence mental health, with impacts on productivity and workplace culture; having an impact not only on employees at a personal level but also on the organization's productivity as a whole, suggesting that time and resources focused on creating an environment that promotes well-being would benefit employers in multiple ways (Norouzianpour, 2019).

The harmful consequence of occupational stress can be sorted into three categories: psychological, medical, and behavioral. Office space occupation, satisfaction with environmental features of the workplace, and psychosocial work characteristics have been associated with employee health and job satisfaction (Herbig & Nowak, 2015). Higher numbers of employees in one enclosed office space are associated with higher psychosocial work stressors and environmental dissatisfaction, which in turn, are related to psychosomatic symptoms, irritability, and reduced focus and productivity (Herbig & Nowak, 2015). A study in 2020 found that the relationship between interior office space and health are threefold; with open-plan offices, shared rooms, and higher background noise being the characteristics most likely to have a negative impact on well-being (Colenberg et al, 2020). While significant changes to architecture and building space can be costly and time consuming, there are other ways to consider improvements to office space that may seem more attainable, and within one’s control. Here are a few of the most researched areas in improving and promoting well-being through changes in the office environment:

Noise mitigation and distraction reduction - Noise contributes to levels of stress, demotivates and adds to distraction, and high levels of noise detrimentally influences employee performance (Minutillo et al, 2021). Health promotion improvements in an office or home workspace can depend on the room size, noise insulation, and furniture (Bergefert et al, 2022). Aside from using furniture or structural means to buffer noise, other interventions from the literature include break out room space, noise canceling headphones, and lighting systems that alert staff to high noise volume in shared spaces.

Ability for movement or change in environment - Open-plan office space rarely allows for employees to control features of their physical environment, with employees who work in these types of spaces being more likely to report insufficient privacy, as well as lower overall environmental satisfaction when compared to employees in traditional office space (Herbig & Nowak, 2015). Features like standing desks, outdoor views or outdoor space, and increased distances to communal rooms are found to have a positive relationship with employee physical well-being, while increased exposure to natural light and individual control on certain aspects of design and placement provide improvements in both physical and psychological well-being (Colenberg et al, 2020). Activity-based workspaces that allow employees to choose the most appropriate workplace for a task has also been found to improve employee wellness and productivity (Bergefert et al, 2022).

Access to outdoor and green space - There is widespread agreement regarding the positive effects of exposure to nature, leading to nature-based interventions in the workplace as a cost-effective approach to promoting workplace health (Grtizka et al, 2020). There is evidence that supports access to nature and greenery as a significant intervention for stress reduction (Norouzianpour, 2019). The open spaces outside of office buildings have great potential to become a hub for employees to socialize, engage in active relaxation, and provide a space to step away and regroup after a stressful experience (Norouzianpour, 2019). Nature-based Interventions have the ability to increase positive emotions at the workplace, and can lead to long term improvements in functioning and well-being (Grtizka et al, 2020).

Use of plants - Studies on the use of indoor plant installations have found that they positively effect temperature, perceived comfort, psychological well-being, visual fatigue, and air purification (Genjo et al, 2019). A number of studies have been conducted with the use of plant installations in the office setting, with special attention paid to improvements in the psychological state of workers. One study measured the psychological/physiological responses and changes in productivity of office workers by measuring indoor environmental factors such as temperature, air quality, acoustics, and illumination environment, as well as staff satisfaction surveys. Data was collected for one week with and without plant installations. Results showed that there were improvements in multiple areas when the plants were present; workers’ evaluation of the indoor air environment improved, subjective symptoms improved, and the work efficiency prediction rate improved by 3.4% (Genjo et al, 2019).

In summary, work environments can play an important role in helping employees manage increased work demands and stress. There may be small steps you can take to adapt your environment that may have a positive impact on your well-being. That being said, employees have faced many challenges over the past few years and continue to do so on a daily basis. If smaller steps to alleviate stress aren’t helpful or you are experiencing more stress than you can handle, there are programs available through Well-U that can offer support including Behavioral Health Partners at (585) 276-6900 and UR Medicine EAP at (585) 276-9110.


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