Workspaces and Mental Health: Everyone’s Concern

Designing workspace for mental health (photo: Brandon Stengel)
Designing workspace for mental health (photo: Brandon Stengel)

There is no shortage of articles and opinion pieces concerning the layout and esthetics of business center and coworking spaces.

Recently, however, we came across an article from Business Journals written by Jennifer Stukenberg, a contributing writer, that we have reprinted below.

The article addresses workspace and mental health and, while many of its comments and suggestions will not come as a surprise, they are interesting to note, in context with the author’s unique point of view.

Today, mental health has come out of the closet and very much into the workspace. Clearly, having an environment that facilitates healthy minds and bodies is in all our best interests. What changes make sense in light of this article? What is the counter argument? We’d like to hear your perspective.

How to Design Workspaces that Support Employee Mental Health
Jennifer Stukenberg, Contributing Writer to

Photo by Brandon Stengel

Unassigned personal workspaces for employees to reserve and use on a sporadic basis can complement open-office environments and provide a quieter space for an employee to concentrate and work on tight deadlines or more personalized business.

Is your office design hostile to your employees’ mental health?

Recent allegations that the Miami Dolphins fostered a hostile work environment shocks few people who follow the culture of football. But workplace intimidation is not isolated to an NFL locker room. About 35 percent of U.S. adults report experiencing bullying in the workplace. Not only can such aggression create discord in the workplace, repeated actions can take a toll on the mental health of an employee.

While companies invest in many strategies to support the physical health of employees, from flu vaccinations to filtered air systems, ignoring employees’ mental health means businesses risk losing any gains they make in physical health support. Depression, stress, substance abuse, financial distress, work-life balance, ADHD, and, yes, even workplace bullying are all issues with which workers are dealing and that have a large drain on productivity.

As the Miami Dolphins case has shown, this is about creating culture, not simply putting in employee assistance programs. Creating a healthy culture that supports employees’ mental health, though, may not be as complicated as some think.

Room to work
Performance pressures, noise, distractions, and fast-paced deadlines can be stressful for workers.
Creating tranquil places to concentrate, especially in open-office environments, allow staff to choose their engagement level without losing the benefits of collaborative opportunities.

Positioning workstations away from busy aisles and work areas reduces distraction and noise, which glass panels also can help reduce. Respite rooms are gaining popularity, especially with customer service workers who need a quiet place to recharge from noisy phone work.

Seen and connected
Environments where employees are physically seen and connected to coworkers allow people to feel like they are part of an organization and not isolated. Good workplace design causes employees to “bump into each other” frequently – at the printer, the copier, the coffee maker. These are important opportunities for social engagement.

For good behavioral health, design elements can promote a culture of transparency and increase communication: lower workstation walls, glass windows to offices, and a view to leadership.

In an open environment, leaders not only can demonstrate good behavior, but they can have a better sense of employees that might be struggling. An open environment also encourages staff self-policing, since it is harder for employees to hide bad behavior.

Creating a home for a mobile workforce
Teleworkers can face unique challenges: social isolation, presenteeism, and undefined boundaries between work and home life. When mobile workers come into the office for face-to-face connections, supporting their needs can be as important as supporting those who regularly work in the office.

Space can send a message about how important their physical presence is: Are there adequate drop-in spaces near teams with whom they interface? Are spaces “second class?” Do office meeting rooms have the technology for remote workers to see, hear and participate in meetings? Are there social spaces for team members to interact on a personal level?

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These design strategies can communicate personal as well as professional value to an employee.

More than a perk
Regular exercise and providing access to daylight has not only shown to help reduce depression, but also improves absenteeism, increases productivity and is high on the list of employee satisfaction. Design workspace to maximize daylight for all workers. Provide a fitness area, outdoor walking paths or discounted gym membership.

Strategies that help employees balance work and personal demands sometimes have the greatest return as time is often the most precious gift. Flexible work schedules can help achieve such balance, as well as offering dry cleaning pick-up, access to food trucks, and even employee-of-the-month parking spot – all low or no cost strategies.

Lastly, workers want to be engaged, have access to leadership, and want to work for companies that have like-minded values. Having similar size workspace and workspace “perks” sends a message of “we’re all important to company success.”

Use your workplace to creatively reinforce corporate values and goals, providing subtle clues that tell staff what’s really important to a company. If marketing materials talk about environmental concerns, don’t overlook recycling containers or have a fleet of gas-guzzling cars.

With mental health issues affecting so many of us, companies are thinking beyond the stigma of mental health and developing strategies to improve the workplace. In the end, companies and employees can benefit from that.

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