Managing stress through a healthier workplace

Studies show that the average person has 150 undone tasks that are cluttering their thoughts and occupying their minds on a daily basis. From work assignments to home chores, personal tasks involving family members to financial matters — we are constantly trying to toggle back and forth among a never-ending list of to-do items. Imagine if your mind were like a computer desktop with 150 different windows open at any given time. Identifying which window to close first would be a daunting task, right?

This level of mental clutter often leads to stress because we are worrying about the things we haven’t done and the consequences of not finishing these tasks. And so begins a vicious cycle of thought, stress and more stress. This can be particularly apparent in the workplace, where unfinished assignments can affect our job performance and productivity, which in turn can have significant consequences.

Enlightened employers have begun to realize that helping employees manage stress and learn how to be resilient in trying times can ultimately produce long-term benefits for their company as a whole. In fact, in 2015, more than 80 percent of employees said they participated in a workplace wellness program to manage their stress. But reducing stress goes beyond offering short-term programs. There are numerous steps employers can take with their physical environment that will help to create a nurturing, low-stress workplace including:

  1. Consider using building elements like lighting that can help people feel more alert. When people feel tired, they tend to feel stressed more easily because the brain makes errors and become less efficient when it’s tired. People in turn tend to feel stressed when they make mistakes.
  2. Incorporate markers of life into the workplace. Plants and greenery are common fixtures in most offices, but open floor-plan workspaces can also help reduce stress. And, while this isn’t feasible for every business, a growing number of offices have begun to allow employees to bring their pets to work as a way to manage stress. Such markers of life tell your brain there are no predators around you, so they’re innately less intimidating and more relaxed.
  3. Encourage employees to take a short break every two hours; that’s about as long as your brain can function at full tilt without needing to recharge. Whether that’s encouraging a quick walk around the office (inside or out), or creating a relaxing break area where employees can escape for a brief break.
  4. Give employees easy access to water and encourage them to stay hydrated throughout the day. Dehydration decreases cardiac output, which means less blood goes to the brain, and it gets tired and stressed more easily.
  5. Make it easy and acceptable for employees to get up and stretch and move throughout the day. This releases endorphins and healthy chemicals that help your body counter its involuntary stress response. Think about the type of office furniture you use and the physical layout of your office: do employees have the option to stand, walk, move and stretch?
  6. Consider playing music or allowing employees to listen to their own music while working. Upbeat music can trigger a surge of dopamine that makes you happy and that can have lasting effects.

The Well Living Lab, a collaboration of Delos and Mayo Clinic, is studying how factors such as these affect human performance. Its first research study on this had employees relocating from their regular workplace to the Well Living Lab in a simulated office setting where they spent 18 weeks. During this time the Well Living Lab research team assessed reactions to conditions in which acoustics, lighting and temperature were manipulated in numerous combinations. The eight employees wore wearable devices and embedded sensors throughout the lab and researchers measured physiological changes (such as change in heart rate, skin temperature and moisture) that indicate an increase in stress. They also had participants complete surveys about their days and the conditions.

Findings showed that the employees were most uncomfortable when they became cold and they reported that being cold made it difficult to get their work done. They also reported dissatisfaction when they could hear conversations or experienced loud white noise and when they did not have window views or daylight. When they were cold, did not have natural daylight and could not look out a window, they experienced negative moods both at work and at home.

Conditions they found unfavorable caused them to feel less happy and energetic, more distracted, and it took more energy for them to go about their day-to-day lives. They also reported they were able to sleep better on nights when they experienced blue-enriched electric lighting at work.

The Well Living Lab is leading efforts to scientifically understand how indoor environments can be transformed to optimize health and well-being.