October 10th is International Mental Health Day and this year's theme is mental health in the workplace. Unemployment is a major risk factor for mental health problems, and being employed usually protects our mental health. But since we spend a large portion of our days working, our work environment can have a wide range of effects on our wellbeing. This can affect how we feel, our relationships with friends and family, and importantly, our mental health. A challenging workplace can contribute to and exacerbate problems like stress, anxiety, depression, and drug and alcohol use, while a supportive environment can help staff thrive.
The World Health Organization says: "A negative working environment may lead to physical and mental health problems, harmful use of substances or alcohol, absenteeism and lost productivity. Workplaces that promote mental health and support people with mental disorders are more likely to reduce absenteeism, increase productivity and benefit from associated economic gains. "
Workplace design for better mental health
Many of mental health challenges at work stem from relations with colleagues, degree of support, and working hours - but design also plays a role. In developing a workplace that supports mental health, let's look at some of the opportunities for workplace design. Then at the end, watch architect, Shigeki Irie, discussing how he implemented these ideas in his design of the new Coca-Cola Japan HQ LEED Platinum building in Tokyo.
Nature: Natural settings are good for our mood and stress; they can also increase stamina and concentration, which may affect productivity. Nature can be integrated into the workplace in various ways, including views, plants and water features within the office, and nature analogues such as materials and patterns (e.g. use of wood) and other decor (e.g. artwork) that evoke nature.
Physical activity: Workplaces should be set up in ways that encourage regular physical activity in the course of people's ordinary workday, such as designing buildings that favor the use of stairways, and providing other exercise opportunities.
Social interaction: Workplaces should encourage appropriate social interaction, both formally and informally. This may involve routing decisions around the workplace, design of rest areas and meal areas, and also connect to community linkage. Being in an office building all day can create feelings of disconnection and isolation: how can designers counteract this and maintain a sense of place and connection to the local community?
Circadian lighting: Many workplaces are indoors and a lack of natural light can affect people's sleep. Since sleep is an important protective factor for mental health, and poor sleep can exacerbate mental disorders. Leigh Stringer, author of The Healthy Workplace, says: "Circadian lighting in workplaces takes into account natural and artificial light, a certain intensity of light at the desktop height level, and the presence of high light levels for a certain amount of time during the day. Even if your workspace is lit at 500 lux, which is more than enough light for reading and most work tasks, it will not necessarily reset sleep schedule."
Choice and control: Feeling in control of your workplace environment reduces your risk of workplace stress. This includes being able to set up or select different styles of work spaces depending on individual preferences, for example providing multiple settings, or flexible use of individual work stations. It also includes being able to control noise - sometimes background noise can help people concentrate; other times it provides a stressful distraction.
CASE STUDY: Coca-Cola HQ, Tokyo
At our UD/MH Tokyo dialogue, Shigeki Irie, the architect in charge of the LEED Platinum Coca-Cola Japan HQ design, explained how he integratated principles of good mental health into the design of the building. To deliver nature exposure, physical activity, social interaction, circadian lighting, and community connection, he used a 'handshake design' to deliver a staircase running up the side of the building whose glass walls provide views of greenery and local streets. This staircase constitutes a venue in itself, with 'communication steps' to hold meetings, to relax and to have lunch. Also for lunch, he brought the office's cafeteria, previously underground, to an area overlooking a park, so that the room is now bright and surrounded by nature. He further enhanced connection and communication through opening up the office to enable people to see each other, and by enacting the Japanese concept of engawa, creating a welcoming area where the outside and inside interact (a concept rather like the American porch). And increased physical activity opportunities by creating bike parking and showers - unusual for a Tokyo office building.
Watch Shigeki Irie's talk here:
Designing for good mental health is the responsible choice - and it makes good business sense. Read more about mental health in the workplace.
Sanity and Urbanity: