In our competitive society with its war on talent, employees are recognised as an organisation’s most valuable asset. Therefore, more and more workplace managers seek a better understanding of the role of the physical environment in supporting employee wellbeing in a positive way.

Where previously, workplace design research focused on preventing sick leave due to physical diseases, i.e. back problems, headaches, a cold etc, nowadays mental health – predominantly stress – is the number one work-related disease to be dealt with.

In line with Person-Environment fit (P-E fit) theory, a poor fit between the provided work environment and an employee’s needs is deemed to result in stress. So more attention must be paid to how workspaces can prevent mental health deterioration and possibly even relieve stress symptoms.

The current landscape

So far, studies on healthy workplaces have focused mostly on isolated design aspects, such as plants and the indoor climate.

However, knowledge on the impact of Activity-Based Offices (ABOs) - defined as: “An office that allows employees to choose from a variety of settings according to the nature of what they are doing, combined with a workplace experience that empowers them to use those spaces throughout the day” - on health is currently limited, though they are increasingly being implemented through office renovations worldwide.

Several healthy workplace studies have been performed amongst employees in activity-based and other open office environments, and more are ongoing. Workplace related research at Eindhoven University of Technology’s department (TU/e) of the built environment has increasingly focused on tackling this research gap.

Workspace design and burnout

People’s psychological relationship to their job is claimed to be a continuum between the negative experience of burnout and the positive experience of engagement.

Burnout is associated with both psychological and physical health problems (exhaustion), low levels of commitment and reduced productivity. Work engagement, defined as a positive, fulfilling, work‐related state of mind that is characterised by vigor, dedication, and absorption, has been associated with high levels of energy, pleasure, activation and commitment. Engaged workers are also more open to new experiences, leading them to explore their work environments and, in doing so, becoming more creative.

Research at TU/e tested five physical work environment characteristics:

  • Office design
  • Office comfort
  • ICT
  • Office use
  • Option to work from home

...on their relation with the three ‘strains of burnout’:

  • The individual strain (from exhaustion through to high energy)
  • The interpersonal strain (from depersonalisation to involvement)
  • The self-evaluation strain (from inefficacy to efficacy - i.e. getting ‘the job done’ to a satisfactory degree)

An online survey of 184 knowledge workers from fourteen organisations in the Netherlands showed that only three physical work environment characteristics appear to have a significant relation with burnout-engagement.

  • Distraction has a direct and indirect negative association with the individual strain – meaning increased exhaustion/burnout
  • Office comfort has an indirect link to recognition and appreciation with the interpersonal strain – meaning increased involvement/engagement
  • The possibility for home working has an indirect relationship to the self-evaluation strain – meaning increased efficacy/engagement

Additionally, many personal characteristics, especially personality traits, relate to burnout-engagement, especially the self-evaluation strain. Effects of age and gender largely remain unclear.

The findings show that during decision-making on design and management of a healthy physical work environment, workplace managers should particularly look at creating a comfortable workplace, with little distraction, and consider the option of homeworking. Apparently, employees (in this sample) already seem to perceive a good fit between their needs and abilities and the activity based office design/layout.

The impact of office layout

Overall, our research showed some surprising results:

  • Office layout did not play a role in supporting mental health and the engagement of employees.
  • Office use was measured through interaction, distraction, desk switching and desk claiming, but only distraction showed a significantly negative response. This is because a lot of distraction can be frustrating, which costs energy on its own, but employees also have to work longer to get their work done by making up for the lost time.
  • Desk-switching did not seem to improve efficacy. This is one of the basic assumptions of the ABO concept. Claiming the same desk by personalising it did not seem to support efficacy or provide less exhaustion either. This suggests that those who claim desks do this for different reasons than stress, for example, to express status.

While there is still much research to be done on the topic, TU/e and other research bodies are helping designers to understand the link between workspaces and their impact on employee wellbeing. In my next article, I will focus on the impact of noise distractions in the workplace.

Rianne Appel-Meulenbroek Associate Professor of Corporate Real Estate (CRE) & Workplace Management, TU/e

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