Designing the Workplace for Optimal Mental Health

When we spend much of our waking time in the workplace, this raises the possibility that the conditions you experience at work can influence your mental health and well-being. Existing knowledge of workplace design suggests that the physical work environment has a substantial impact on everything from happiness and mood, to productivity and focus. A poor-designed workplace can bring about unwanted consequences such as reduced capacity to work, increased error rates and absences that influence both the employee and the employer (Veitch, 2011). Conversely, optimal working conditions enable employees to work effectively and investments in the physical workplace which afford these conditions can pay back dividends (Veitch, 2011).

There are four main processes through which there is evidence that workplace conditions can benefit employees from a mental health perspective:

  1. Social Relations
  2. Attention Focus
  3. Stress Reduction and
  4. Photobiology


Personal space is defined as “the dynamic spatial component of interpersonal relations” (Gifford, 2007). This concept encompasses the space around oneself, desire to be near other people, and the degree to which one wants to know others and be known. Workplace design choices are pivotal in the worker’s experience of personal space in that the office layout and furnishings largely determine physical boundaries between co-workers, the spatial density of the workplace (floor area per person), the social density (number of people per area), and the degree of visual or audio privacy (Archea, 1977). 

Consider these findings:

  • As social density increases, in general environmental satisfaction decreases (Duval, Charles, & Veitch, 2012). If too large, workers must manage more relationships and there are more potential intrusions during the work day. 
  • The design community has adopted a social density of ~10-15 people as its rule of thumb for team spaces.


We all experience distraction from time to time, but for some workers the ability to focus attention is a persistent problem. Office environment research consistently reports a strong desire for privacy among employees (Brill, Margulis, & Konar, 1984; Veitch et al., 2003). Although individual enclosed offices may be at the pinnacle of privacy assurance, many organizations are unable to provide such a solution given the use of open-plan office design. Open office floor plans may foster a symbolic sense of organizational mission, however they can be damaging to worker’s attention span and productivity. Design features aimed at increasing privacy can assist in reducing distraction (Bradley, 2003):

  • Increasing panel height to a minimum of 1.7 meters
  • Using carpet and sound absorbing ceiling tiles
  • Adding masking sound
  • Creating an office etiquette to promote quieter speech


Exposure to nature, both directly (Morita et al., 2007) and through viewing images (Chang & Chen, 2005) can lead to physiological and affective responses consistent with stress reduction. By surrounding your office space with peaceful scenes as opposed to loud, combative imagery, you can encourage more positive emotional responses. Aries, Veitch, & Newsham (2010) also found that workers whose office views were more attractive reported reduced discomfort at work and better quality sleep at home. Having a pleasant view and access to nature is most easily provided through windows. Interestingly fact, in many European countries, employers must by law provide window access within a prescribed distance from each workstation or desk (Danish Building & Housing Agency, 1995; Government of Norway, 1985)! Given the potential to counter the adverse effects of work stress, employees who are vulnerable to stress-related health problems are great candidates for priority in receiving window access.


Light exposure monitoring has revealed that total daily light exposure among North Americans is low. The evidence suggests that people with short daily exposure time to high light levels have lower mood throughout the day. Although there is insufficient evidence to set a recommended daily dose at this time, photobiology remains an active area of research. It seems reasonable to recommend that employees have an opportunity to obtain bright light exposure each day, particularly for those who have a history of seasonal mood disorders. In fact, one study of people with mild seasonal mood shifts, bright light exposure increased tryptophan uptake (Aan het Rot et al., 2008); tryptophan is a precursor of serotonin, a neurotransmitter contributing to feelings of well-being and happiness.

Nature and light exposure can be provided via direct sunlight through a nearby window or time spent outdoors on lunch breaks. See our past blog post entitled “A Healthy Dose of Nature at Work” for more information on this topic!


Designing the workplace according to literature on workplace design will benefit all employees, not only those with mental health concerns. Using design sensibility to tailor the workplace to individual needs of all kinds will have an added benefit for both individuals and society, in that stigma will be reduced. Providing suitable working conditions for all avoids stigmatizing employees who have mental health concerns, while facilitating prevention and return to work among those who do (Veitch, 2011).

How does your workplace design contribute to mental health and well-being?  Let us know in the comments!


Aan het Rot, M., Benkelfat, C., Boivin, D. B., & Young, S. N. (2008). Bright light exposure during acute tryptophan depletion prevents a lowering of mood in mildly seasonal women. European Neuropsychopharmacology, 18(1): 14-23. Doi:

Archea, J. (1977). The place of architectural factors in behavioral theories of privacy. Journal of Social Issues, 33(3): 116-137. Doi: 10.1111/j.1540-4560.1977.tb01886.x

Aries, M. C., Veitch, J. A., & Newsham, G. R. (2010). Windows, view, and office characteristics predict physical and psychological discomfort. Journal of Environmental Psychology, 30(4): 533-541. Doi: 10.1016/j.jenvp.2009.12.004

Bradley, J. S. (2003). The acoustical design of conventional open plan offices. Canadian Acoustics, 31(2): 23–31. Doi: 10.1016/S0003-682X(02)00034-8.

Brill, M., S.T. Margulis, E. Konar, & the Buffalo Organization for Social and Technological Innovation, eds. (1984). Using office design to increase productivity. Buffalo, NY: Workplace Design and Productivity.

Chang, C. Y. & Chen, P. K. (2005). Human response to window views and indoor plants in the workplace. Horticulture Science, 40(5): 1354-1359. Doi: 10.1016/j.envint.2015.01.012

Danish Building and Housing Agency. (1995). Building regulations. Copenhagen, Denmark: Danish Ministry of Housing.

Duval, C.L., K.E. Charles and J.A. Veitch. (2002). A literature review on the effects of open-plan office density on environmental satisfaction (IRC-RR-150). Ottawa, ON: National Research Council Canada Institute for Research in Construction.

Gifford, R. (2007). Environmental psychology: Principles and practice (4th ed.). Victoria, BC: Optimal Books.

Government of Norway. (1985). Belysning og renhold m.v. In, Plan-og bygningslov [Plans and Buildings Act] (Vol. LOV-1985-06-14-77). Oslo, Norway: Author.

Morita, E., Fukuda, S., Nagano, J., Hamajima, N., Yamamoto, H., Iwai, Y., Nakashima, T., Ohira, H., & Shirakawa, T. (2007). Psychological effects of forest environments on healthy adults: Shinrin-Yoku (forest-air bathing, walking) as a possible method of stress reduction. Public Health, 121(1): 54-63. Doi:

Veitch, J. A. (2011). Workplace design contributions to mental health and well-being. Healthcare Papers, 11: 38-46. Doi: 10.12927/hcpap.2011.22409

Veitch, J. A., Charles, K.E., Newsham, G. R., Marquardt, C. J., & Geerts, J. (2003). Environmental satisfaction in open-plan environments: Workstation and physical condition effects. (IRC-RR-154) Ottawa, ON: National Research Council Institute for Research in Construction.

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