Today is Blue Monday, the most depressing day of the year. Though it may seem like a frivolous calendar marker, the Office for National Statistics recently reported that just under a fifth of people in the UK suffer from anxiety or depression.
Though today is a day when we are all feeling particularly low, Blue Monday must also serve to remind us of the importance of mental health awareness all year round – not just in January.
For businesses, employee mental health is increasingly high on the agenda. Employee wellbeing has long been known to correlate closely with productivity.
Indeed, a report from Deloitte puts the cost of poor wellbeing and mental health to UK businesses at £30 billion, with 60% caused by reduced productivity at work. Conversely, 61% of respondents to the 2018 Global Human Capital Trends survey agreed wellness and wellbeing programmes improved employee productivity and bottom-line business results.
At the same time, recent research from The Stress Management Society showed that 95% of workers agreed the physical work environment is important to mental health.
Furthermore, a study from research and advisory company, Gartner, found that employees who are satisfied with their work environments are 16% more productive, 18% more likely to stay, and 30% more attracted to their company over competitors. With more people spending more time at work than ever before, there is much that employers can do to improve workplace wellbeing and productivity.
However, changes to the workplace need not involve a huge design overhaul. Whilst Google is known for its kooky office playgrounds, changes on a far smaller scale can have a significant impact on workers’ mental health. From better lighting to a change in wall colour, it is the no-frills features that really keep workers happy.
For instance, poor lighting is associated with a range of ill-health effects, both physical and mental, such as eye strain, headaches, fatigue, stress and anxiety.
Yet, 40% of office workers are struggling to work in poor lighting every day. A study from Staples also found that 80% of office workers agreed good lighting in their workspace is important to them, and a third said better lighting would make them happier at work.
Of course, natural light is the most desired feature employees look for in the workplace, according to reports from the UK Green Building Council, with studies showing that workers with good access to natural light are up to 40% more productive.
For many businesses, it may not be practical to provide all workers with access to natural light throughout the day. And, in the winter months, good natural light is hard to come by. But, by providing workers with UV lamps – or light therapy boxes – that emit strong light to combat Seasonal Affected Disorder (SAD), employers can easily counteract problems caused by poor lighting.
Meanwhile, the presence of natural elements such as plants has been shown to increase productivity by 15%. Some companies have taken biophilic design – the incorporation of natural materials into built environments – to the extreme. For instance, Apple recently opened an office space crammed with more than 10,000 trees – dubbed ‘Apple Park’. On a smaller scale, by introducing plants or a living wall to the workplace, employers can improve employee happiness considerably.
Natural elements are not the only workplace environmental factor that can impact employee wellbeing. Drab, grey office spaces are predictably poor at inspiring creativity. Conversely, wall colour can improve workers’ mood: calmer colours, such as greens and blues, encourage productivity by reducing distraction, whilst also reminding workers of nature, helping them to relax.
On the other end of the colour spectrum, red should be avoided in the workplace, having been linked to reduced analytical performance and aggression.
Employee mental health can also be improved by access to exercise facilities. The Stress Management Society found that 46% of workers did not have enough time to focus on wellbeing and exercise, resulting in poor mental health. Meanwhile, many of those surveyed agreed that better workplace facilities and amenities would help them combat these issues: 49% called for a yoga and meditation room, half wanted exercise facilities, such as a gym, and more than a third claimed breakout spaces would help improve their mental health.
Inevitably, not every employer will be able to install a top-of-the-range gym in the workplace, but there are less costly means of encouraging wellbeing. For instance, reassigning underused rooms as break-out space, giving employees room to chat, mingle and hold informal meetings; or using the space for lunchtime yoga or meditation sessions. If space is at a premium, businesses could offer to supplement gym memberships, or establish walking or running groups.
Of course, there are multiple factors contributing to mental wellbeing and workplace design is just one of those. Nevertheless, as mental health issues climb higher on the agenda, employers should not discount the power of the workplace environment to improve wellbeing.