Workplaces designed only for production and efficiency are no longer fit for purpose. Businesses are becoming aware that their viability is dependent upon providing an environment that considers the wellbeing of its biggest asset; people.

But as people spend more than half their waking hours, and almost their entire day confined at a workplace, we have to unpack stress to create wellbeing.

Identifying the origins of stress and measuring its impact is difficult, but we can see its effects in the ever-rising numbers of people with mental health issues. At historically high levels it also has financial implications – estimated to cost the global economy US$ 1 trillion per year.

Because workplaces are a microcosm of society, offices are ideal places for intervention to improve people’s lives. They could become places that offer stress “restoration” irrespective of the stress source. An understanding of what types of places offer stress restoration may keep both businesses and people afloat.

On our way towards fixing our office designs.

We know that social, financial, technological, and spatial arrangements make-up workplaces, but research confirms that the office, and its design, i.e. the layout, look and feel of a place can hugely influence people’s daily experiences. In real life, sadly, workplace designs generally go unnoticed unless they generate distress or delight, but this is changing.

Ongoing debates such as open vs cellular layouts, assigned vs unassigned desks, focus vs collaborative spaces, active vs inclusive design, natural vs artificial light and ventilation tell us how the physical environment contributes to this distress or delight.

Alongside, several contemporary publications have provided design guidance to workplace designers, developers and organisations explaining the relationship between people and the design of workplaces. These studies have generated a human-centric focus for the workplace design industry.

Yet the guidance on design solutions for mitigating physical distress overshadows tackling psychological stress. This is because design solutions for physical distress are objective and actionable because it is simpler to measure, monitor and fix than the complex subjectivity of stress.

“Design solutions for physical distress are objective and actionable because it is simpler to measure, monitor and fix than the complex subjectivity of stress.”
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To solve the problem of stress, we have to unpack it.

Many disciplines at varying scales have studied stress, recovery and restoration. This knowledge has not translated effectively into design guidance because either different aspects are studied, or different terms are used to explain a similar phenomenon. However, there is some success. And that is less daunting than none at all.

Organisational psychologists have successfully made connections between psychological distress, restoration and workplace settings. Architectural theorists have offered guidance on designing sensory experiences for feeling well – many examples of which can be found in Tarkett’s Storeys Journal. And environmental psychologists have repopularised biophilic design, which advocates that workplace buildings incorporate nature for restoration.

Many studies highlight the impact of office layouts, aesthetics and ergonomics on performance and satisfaction. Even so, none of them focuses explicitly on design for stress reduction in the workplace.

There is an argument that stress may not require drastic physical interventions or changes in the way workplaces are designed and built, because stress promotes people’s adaptive resilience short term. The evidence is stacked against this view, especially when the stress is persistent. Also, not all forms of stress are the same; chronic and acute forms of stress have different sources, elicit different physiological responses and distinctive recovery pathways.

My own research explores how chronic and acute stress require two types of environments for recovery; tranquil and stimulating. The addition of a quiet room or a kitchen table in itself will not alleviate stress at work. More on that soon.

Looking outside the design industry for tools.

So nebulous one-size-fits-all term ‘stress’ may inadequately explain, or identify how workplace design could offer recovery opportunities. Also, in the near future, technological advancements will change the nature of work itself where people will be required to perform more cognitively intensive tasks, increasing the complexity and intensity of stress. Understanding stress and stress recovery is critical, and we are just beginning to pay attention.

Currently, research cutting across disciplines is scarce. Studies that integrate engineering, biology and psychology are needed to solve stress and support designers and businesses during the workplace design process. Moreover, design processes are complex and require synthesis of multiple and often competing factors. Therefore, simple models that can be applied at many scales, locations and project types would be most successful with the design industry.

When designers have comprehensive tools and models that connect physical attributes of places to the physical and psychological needs of users, then we have a chance of tackling the stress epidemic. Such tools will also help us understand our own need for recovery at the workplace and whether our office is designed to meet these needs.

What designers have is an unparalleled ability to look at the macro, as well as the micro. Design interventions may prove to be the biggest trigger for other organisational interventions; bringing a wave of change to social, financial and technological arrangements, as the space that people occupy changes to tackle the stress epidemic.

Ankita Dwivedi Co-Founder & Director, Scala Colab Full bio and articles

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