People + Process = Performance

The Impact of Workplace Design on Employee Well-Being and Performance


Did you know that people spend close to 90% of their time indoors?  In addition, people who are employed outside the home spend about a third (33%) of their waking hours at their workplace.  Is it any wonder then that one’s physical or mental health can be greatly affected by the physical, social and mental aspects of the workplace?  If one’s working conditions are negative the result can mean lower work performance, increased error rates, injuries and absences.  However, just the opposite can occur with a well-designed workplace.  Most often the physical design of the workplace focuses on the physical effects on the workers. Instead, the purpose of this article will address how workplace design (physical and organizational) affects the well-being of the workers.


Defining Well-Being

The first thing we need to know and understand is the term “well-being”.  Well-being or wellness are sometimes used interchangeably.  According to Merriam-Webster’s online dictionary well-being is defined as “the state of being happy, healthy, or prosperous” and wellness is defined as “quality or state of being in good health especially as an actively sought goal”.  In essence, wellness and well-being both mean being in good health, one is related to a goal and one is a state of being, respectfully.  We often think of wellness in the physical realm but it is just as important to consider mental and emotional well-being.  According to Rath and Harder, well-being has 5 universal, interconnected well-being elements: 

1.      Career

2.      Social

3.      Financial

4.      Physical/Mental

5.      Community

For the purposes of this article, we will focus primarily on the physical/mental well-being element.


Employer Costs Related to Employee Well-Being

The risks of having “unwell” employees are many and costs to employers can be quite high.  Some of the risks include:

·        Decreased Employee Engagement

·        Reduced Productivity

·        Increased Workplace Injuries

·        Increased Off-the-job Injuries

·        Increased Employee Turnover

·        Increased Health Risks

·        Increased Insurance Claims

·        Increased Benefits Utilization

·        Decreased Innovation, Customer Service, Quality

According the American Psychological Association (APA), a psychologically health workplace should include 5 components: 

1.      Work-Life Balance

2.      Health and Safety

3.      Employee Growth and Development

4.      Employee Recognition

5.      Employee Involvement

All of the above will positively or negatively impact the well-being of the employees and the culture/function of the organization itself.


Well-Being and Workplace Design

There have been relatively few studies done that have concentrated on the correlation between the physical workplace design and mental health.  Psychologists have studied the effects work environments on healthy people but what about people with existing mental health issues?  One can use the results from studies on mentally healthy people to somewhat predict the effects of the physical workplace design on those with mental issues.  According to Jennifer Veitch there are four areas in which there is some evidence that workplace conditions can benefit employees with certain mental health problems:  social relations, attention focus, stress reduction and photobiology.  Let’s take a brief look at each one.


Social Relations

Social relations can be summed up in two words:  personal space.  The amount and type of personal space within an office environment can encourage or discourage social interaction between employees.  This depends upon the employee’s desire to be near others and the degree to which one wants to know others.  Obviously, the physical layout and furnishings have a significant impact on one’s personal space.  Another factor is who many people are within that space, i.e. “crowding”.  Are there too many people in one area that it prevents effective group interaction?  Likewise, are there too few people?  Another consideration has to address the strong desire for privacy among employees.  Studies have shown that when employees have ability to control one’s privacy, the adverse effects of other workplace stressors are reduced.  It is important to remember that workplace design can positively or negatively impact social relations among co-workers.  There has been one study that showed workstation sizes that lower the risk employee dissatisfaction.  However, there have been no studies that have firmly concluded the optimal height for modular furniture panels.


Take away:  Make office assignments that are mindful of the personal needs of the individuals, especially those with mental health problems, and balance that with the needs for group/team interaction.  For example, a person with depression would not benefit from an enclosed office at the end of a hallway, but neither would be an office besides a high-traffic hallway that offers little privacy.


Attention Focus

We all know people who are easily distracted and have difficulty staying on task.  Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) is widely diagnosed in children but what happens to these individuals as adults?  For employees in which maintaining attention is a challenge, it follows that an enclosed office would be the best choice since they would be able to limit distractions.  However, from a facilities point of view this solution has been made more difficult since the advent of open-plan office design.  In this case, increasing the panel height and providing other distraction reducing elements such as sound masking and sound absorbing materials, are recommended.


Take away:  For individuals with attention challenges providing a private, enclosed office is ideal.  For open plan workspaces, distractions can be minimized through the use of higher modular furniture panels and sound masking elements.


Stress Reduction

Stress is something every person feels and experiences to some degree every day.  One thing studies have shown is that psychosocial stress is a predictor of mental health problems.  A beneficial workplace feature that has been shown to reduce stress and help people recover from stressful situations is windows.  (Ulrich 1984)  Another study suggested that viewing nature, whether through a window or images (pictures) helps to stress reduction.   Another interesting tidbit is that a few countries in Europe, including Denmark and Norway, have mandated that employers much provide window access within a certain distance from each desk or workstation. 


Take Away:  Consider prioritizing offices near or with windows to those employees who have stress-related health problems and/or whose work is very stressful.


Photobiology (Seasonal Mood Disorder)

Photobiology is the official term for people who suffer mood changes due to insufficient exposure to sunlight.  The prescribed treatment for this to provide light therapy at 10,000 lux of white light for 30 minutes daily, usually in the morning.  While this is the treatment for those with the disorder, the benefits of providing adequate light within the workplace may have mental health benefits for even non-clinically diagnosed people.  Research has shown that those with the shortest daily light exposure time to high light levels reported the lowest mood.  However, the exact light amount that would be beneficial has not been determined.  These findings led an international committee to conclude that the daily light does received by people in industrialized societies (i.e. those primarily indoors) might be too low for good mental health. 


Take Away:  Consider providing an opportunity for employees to be exposed to bright light each day, especially if they have a history of seasonal mood disorder.  This can be done by exposure to sunlight through a window or time spent outdoors or by windows during breaks.


What Does This Mean?

There is no question that the design of the workplace has an impact of the people who work in that workplace.  The impacts to consider should not be only physical but also include mental health aspects.  The design of the workplace can either enhance, support baseline levels or degrade employee mental and physical performance.  Unfortunately, the two most common methodologies that employers use when looking to increase efficiency and productivity, Lean and Process Improvement, do not include cognitive/mental aspects.  Only by incorporating ergonomics/human factors which by default includes psychology and cognitive attributes of human beings can true optimal workplace performance be achieved.



·        Chang, C.-Y. and P.-K. Chen. 2005. “Human Response to Window Views and Indoor Plants in the Workplace.”  HoriScience 40(5):  1345-59.

·        Commission Internationale de l’Eclairage. 2004.  Ocular Lighting Effects on Human Physiology and Behavior (CIE 158: 2004).  Vienna, Austria.


·        Danish Building and Housing Agency, ed. 1995.  Building Regulations.  Copenhagen, Denmark:  Danish Ministry of Housing.

·        Evans, G.W. and R. Stecker. 2004. “Motivational Consequences of Environmental Stress.” Journal of Environmental Psychology 24(2): 143-65.

·        Government of Norway. 1985. Plans and Building Act. Vol. LOV-1985-06-14-77).  Oslo, Norway.

·        Leech, J.A., et. al. 2002.  “It’s About Time:  A Comparison of Canadian and American Time Activity Patterns.”  Journal of Exposure Analysis and Environmental Epidemiology 12(6):  427-32.

·        Ulrich, R. S. 1984.  “View through a Window May Influence Recovery from Surgery.”  Science 224 (4647):  420-421.

·        Veitch, J.A. 2011. “Workplace Design Contributions to Mental Health and Well-being.”  HealthcarePapers Vol 11 Special Issue.