How to Design Built Environments That Enhance Mental Health
Architect and healthy buildings expert, Ben Channon, shares insights on how to relieve stress and support mental health through workplace design
Worldwide, people are stressed.
Even before COVID-19, mental health conditions were a growing concern in the workplace. And the pandemic only exacerbated these challenges. If you’re feeling more stressed than you did in 2020, you’re not alone, according to Gallup polling data cited in The American Society of Interior Designers’ 2023 Trends Outlook report.
This makes the design and construction of workplace environments so important, says architect, Ben Channon.
As a Director at Ekkist, a health and well-being consultancy for the built environment, he understands how spaces can be designed to support the well-being and mental health needs of employees.
When designed well, these workplaces can not only positively affect mood and productivity, but support those with conditions like anxiety and depression.
“We’re seeing more [mental health awareness] in the commercial sector largely driven through demand, whether it’s the tenant, saying ‘we are now demanding higher quality workspaces,’ or the occupants. They’re saying, ‘if we are going to go into work, you need to make it worth our while.'”
And while tenants or occupants may not explicitly know to ask for workplaces that benefit mental health and well-being, research proves office design has a significant impact on both, says Channon.
Design features that support healthier built environments
Channon has literally written a book on design approaches proven to enhance mental health. In conversation, he highlighted key elements to consider if you want to turn a workplace environment into a healthy space.
"Light can play a really important role. Light can be natural, in terms of getting exposure to enough daylight, which drives our circadian rhythm, boosts our mood, and makes us more productive. Artificial light [also affects our state of mind], whether it reflects the behavior of the sun, or whether it’s negative in terms of tricking our brain into thinking it’s a different time of day, [harmfully] affecting our sleep cycles."
“Thermal comfort is one of the biggest disruptors of productivity. The stats are about four to six percent in terms of (negatively) impacting productivity if people are too hot or too cold.”
"Acoustic comfort has been identified by the World Health Organization as quite a significant environmental concern. We think of [excessive noise] as annoying, but it’s connected to higher rates of stress, higher rates of heart attacks. The psychological impact of constantly being disturbed by noises is probably higher than most people realize."
“We think of ergonomic comfort as physical. But our physical health and mental health are closely connected. If you start to get chronic pain — a bad back is a good example — the impact that has on your nervous system and overall mood, and generally on your mental health, can be catastrophic.”
“[We should be] using materials that affect people in a positive way. Not just thinking about toxicology or air quality, but the psychological impact of materials. When you have timber and other natural materials in a space, [studies show] it can reduce people's blood pressure, slow their heart rates, make them less stressed.
[Natural materials] activate our parasympathetic nervous system, the opposite of our sympathetic nervous system, which triggers our fight or flight response. It relaxes us.”
“In design, [biophilia] is shown to be positive for mental health. We can bring nature into our projects through natural materials, but of course, it can also be through plants, water, biodiversity and even animals. There are loads of ways we can think about nature and biophilia.”
“Design offices and buildings that encourage social interaction. When you look at research into the number of social interactions that people have, and how they're affected by the layout and organization of spaces, it can be absolutely huge [in terms of our mental state]."
Exercise and activity
“When people exercise, particularly in the mornings, for even 20 to 30 minutes, the mood boosting chemicals in our systems can last for up to eight hours. It can have a really big impact on productivity, and overall mental well-being. So, can we design workplaces that allow people to be more active?
The key is allowing active commuting, thinking about walkers and runners and putting in showers, thinking about lockers and changing rooms, which often get overlooked.”
“Aesthetics are divisive because people have their style. You can’t make the case [from research] that postmodernism makes you happier than traditionalism or anything like that. But there are elements that we seem to like as human beings. We seem to like patterns and, again, we have those connections to nature.
We like visual complexity because we like things that keep us interested and draw us in. If there’s a pattern, there’s a repetition we find reassuring.”
Give people autonomy through flexible, adaptable design
There are many design features proven to be near-universally appealing, which can support most individual mental health journeys, says Channon.
“We have a lot in common. We all need daylight. We need access to water and air. We evolved as part of nature, which is why a lot of environmental psychologists and evolutionary psychologists believe we have this strong affinity to nature.”
But design that enhances mental health and well-being must also account for the fact that every person has different, unique needs as well.
This is why it’s important to give workers a sense of autonomy within their environment — so they can dictate how they choose to interact with a space, Channon explains. This can be achieved by designing flexible, adaptable spaces that also support reuse.
Channon says this might include options to work in collaboration spaces or quiet zones amid open floor plans, perhaps using movable screens or partitions to shift the use of a space as needed.
As for the structural design of a workplace, Channon suggests a grid system is inherently more adaptable — designing buildings in blocks of equal size, with structural columns spaced out evenly.
“Within that grid system, you can put up walls wherever you want. It gives you a lot more freedom.” And once again, materials play an important role, he says. “If you're using timber elements, or you’re using steel elements, it's quite easy to disassemble and move things around or use them on another site.
Ultimately, designing for adaptability and to support mental health leads to healthier built environments for everyone.
“Good design can push us all a few points up on that [mental health] bell curve, push the entire population of a building up by four or five percent,” Channon explains.
“If we could do that with all buildings, it would have a huge impact on world happiness.”
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