Picture a room. The ceiling is low, the paint is peeling and there’s a smell of damp. The furniture has seen better days and there are no windows.
Now, picture another room. The window is open, letting in natural light and the salt smell of the sea. There are cosy blankets and lush-looking house plants.
As you pictured each of these rooms, how did it make you feel? Did you feel dispirited or trapped as you visualised the first one? Did you feel happy or calm when you thought about the second one?
It’s no surprise that your physical environment has a profound impact on your mental health; in fact, researchers have found that differences in environments contribute to differences in wellbeing in people who are seriously mentally ill.
With estimates that one in four adults have a diagnosable mental disorder in any given year, this information is relevant to all of us.
Here’s four ways that your working environment can impact your mental health - and what you can do about it (without having to splurge on SAD lamps or remodelling your home office).
As the cultural shift in working practices has shown, working from home means that the home becomes the office. This has contributed to an increase in working overtime, as more than half of office workers say they are working longer hours than before the pandemic, caused by the lack of work/life boundaries.
As has been well chronicled, the impact is often the greatest on those who live alone or on younger employees who may be living in flat shares and as a result forced to spend most of their waking (and sleeping) hours in the same room.
It’s partly the result of being able to open your laptop at 4am when you realise you forgot to send that invoice to Debbie in accounting. But as well as the ease with which work is always available, it’s also the absence of any mental separation. The much maligned commute wasn’t always an evil. There’s a wealth of difference between hours spent in a sweaty train carriage and a literal walk through the park. For many the commute provided an opportunity to switch into work mode or wind down at the end of the day.
What you can do about it: If you are able to work from an office, try to go into work at least a few times a week to start associating work with somewhere other than your home.
If you are working from home, try to commit to finishing on time each day. You could start having a “mock commute” where you go for a short walk to mark the end of your working day. Or you could get an “accountability buddy”, a colleague who you message at the end of the working day to confirm you are both logging off for the day.
Showing once again that the mind/body division is a wobbly one, the biggest predictor of long life is your happiness in your relationships, ranking more important than cholesterol. Unsurprisingly, it also has an impact on people feeling like they belong to a community.
A really key factor in this is that it’s not just close relationships that have an impact. In fact, those casual relationships or “weak ties” are really important to that feeling of belonging, with the number of interactions we have in a day determining our happiness levels.
With the prevalence of home working, you may have seen a decline in those casual office acquaintances. Research by Microsoft shows that teams become more siloed when working from home as communication outside teams declines.
What you can do about it: Arrange to work with colleagues on the same day. If you can, try to tie coming into the office with a wider team social, like after work drinks, to encourage those outside your team to come in. Make use of any booking tools that allow you to book with colleagues or see when other people are in the office.
If you are fully remote, make sure you are making connections outside of work so that you have in-person interactions. Going to a local workspace gives you more than a desk and internet access: it’s a great way to connect with people in your neighbourhood. If you have colleagues living in the same area, arrange a social meetup; if they are all remote, set aside some time for a virtual coffee or two throughout the week.
We are only beginning to figure out what a profound impact nature has on our mental health. A connection to nature is associated with lower levels of poor mental health, particularly lower depression and anxiety. Staggeringly, even looking at a picture of greenery can help to reduce stress levels.
You might have found that working from home allows you more time in nature as you can go for a lunchtime run or pop out to the garden during your break. Or it might have reduced your time spent in nature as the absence of a commute means you spend even more time inside.
What you can do about it: Make sure you are getting outside at least once a day. If you have a 1-to-1 call, why not make it a walking meeting? Grab some headphones and switch off your video and you are ready to go. If your office has outdoor areas nearby and it’s a pleasant day, decamp in-person meetings outside.
And, if all that fails, at least change your screensaver to some cool trees.
One of the brilliant things about hybrid working is that it can benefit people in different ways but - by making it an universal policy - it doesn’t need to be requested and justified by individuals.
When it comes to mental health, almost two-thirds of people say that hybrid work has benefited their psychological wellbeing. Having the option to work from home means you are still able to work on days when getting to the office might be a struggle. Or you might find that working in a local workspace gives you the work/life separation you need while still being able to juggle at home commitments.
What you can do about it: If you don’t have the option to work from home at all, remember that all employees who have worked for their employer for 26 weeks have the right to request flexible working which includes hybrid work or remote work. Your employer does not have to grant your request but they should have a good business reason for turning it down.
If you have colleagues in the same boat, suggest signing up to Desana, which easily gives you access to local workspaces on-demand, only charging your employer for the time you use.
These are just some of the ways that your environment can have an impact on your mental health. But by making small adjustments to your routine or changing up your working environment, you can ensure that your office has a positive impact on your wellbeing - without having to reach for the paintbrush.
If you or someone you know needs support, here are some organisations and charities that may be able to help: