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July 9, 2021
Making Workplaces Happier Spaces

Most workplace environments aren’t designed to maximise positive mental health

The Deloitte ‘Mental Health and Employers’ report makes for a sobering read, finding that a sixth of workers are experiencing a mental health problem at any one time, with costs to UK employers increasing by 16% since 2017, to a massive £45 billion. Workplace stress is an epidemic.

It’s essential reading for anyone in the mental health field, but mostly for those responsible for employee wellbeing at work; giving deep insight into how employers and employees can work together to improve standards, as well as gain ROI from wellbeing programmes (on average for every £1 invested, employers received £5 back).

But one thing was missing: the workspaces themselves.

Put simply, most workplace environments aren’t designed to maximise positive mental health. Yet office design barely got a mention in the report.

Science shows that our environments affect our mental health and yet most workplaces have plenty of space, but no dedicated private areas for people to take five. Least of all a section dedicated to boosting mental health and employee wellbeing.

And perhaps it’s not something you’ve considered before, after all it doesn’t get discussed much. We all fall into apathetic ways; this is just the way that work is.

We need change, however – and urgently.

But how?  

Designing for wellbeing

I was lucky enough to speak at a co-living meet-up on the topic of designing for wellbeing, featuring some of London’s most promising up-and-coming designers and architects.

Co-living is a growing movement that addresses the problem of loneliness in our society head on.

It’s a growing issue, and one that Natasha Reid, the other speaker on the night, spoke about: “Loneliness can be as damaging to our health as smoking 15 cigarettes a day”.

The need to design environments – at home and work – that combat issues of mental health, are much needed it seems.

This got me thinking about the balance between private and public spaces in general. We go from one extreme to another in London. On the one hand, loneliness is becoming an epidemic. On the other, overpopulation makes the city feel like it’s at bursting point at times.

So thinking about shared spaces where we can co-exist harmoniously has never been more necessary; but what thought is given to private spaces where we can have a moment of peace on our own? The office design process doesn't seem to plan for this.

Simple solutions can be the most impactful

I’ve written before about the benefits of meditation, which is scientifically proven to help a myriad of mental health issues. I’ve also written about the lack of suitable quiet spaces at work, for those needing a bit of time-out amidst growing to-do lists and stakeholder pressures.

If we are to combat mental health and employee wellbeing issues in the workplace by starting with something as simple (yet impactful) as meditation, often the only option for employees is to do it in the toilets; and I don’t need to spell out the obvious disadvantages of this as a location for tranquility. Surely we can do better than this.

A quiet moment to ourselves can help in many ways; to help refocus, reset or recharge. We’ll all work better as a result, says the Deloitte report.

The need for some respite at work, I should be clear, is nothing to be ashamed of. It should in fact be celebrated. It’s not about hiding away from people, but taking a positive step to improve your mental health and effectiveness.

History is full of examples of people stepping into nature on their own to find solitude and peace; for some tribes, solitary time in the wilderness is still an important initiation rite. So it’s not a new human need, but something that’s become harder to access in our always-on world and open plan offices.

How do we bring some of the fundamentals of human-centric design into workplaces, in a way that blends the need for a work-hard attitude with the empathy we all need to look after our mental health and each other?

Are more private spaces a solution? We’ll only know if we try.

What do you think?

I’d love to hear how your workplace is tackling some of the issues raised here.  

Leigh Chapman

Founder at Yinshi
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