It may be for one, or two, or three days a week, but many of the members of this community are heading into an office once again. I’ve noticed that the health consciousness we gained during lockdown has led many of us to ask how we can keep incorporating some of the healthy habits we started while at home full-time. (In this post, for example, I talked about 5 things I refused to give up after Covid.) Many of us brought more movement into our days. Healthier meals. More walks with our kids and pets.
What about your health while you’re actually at your office, though? Have you thought at all about ways the office you go to can support (or undermine) these healthier habits?
Today, I’m delighted to welcome Nicole DeNamur to the Mindful Return blog to address this very issue. Nicole is a sustainability leader (and former law firm construction attorney) who cares deeply about creating healthy and collaborative spaces and uniting diverse groups to drive meaningful, tangible change at scale. She also believes that employers should be working to “pull, not push” people back into office spaces.
Nicole is here with us today to share a few practical examples of ways we can make our office spaces healthier. I found them helpful, even for my home office, too. Welcome, Nicole!
Office Design Matters to Our Health
Did you know that pre-pandemic, Americans spent an average of 90% of their time indoors (and one-half to one-third of their waking hours in office spaces)? Largely driven by concerns related to air quality, the pandemic brought “healthy” building design and operational strategies to the forefront.
Research demonstrates that indoor environments significantly impact our health and wellness – yet we put very little thought into the spaces where we spend so much of our time. For example, levels of common pollutants can be two to five times higher indoors than outdoors. As I explain below, these pollutants have significant impacts on both our health and on our work performance.
3 Specific Examples of Healthy Office Strategies
Healthy building strategies cover a range of aspects from air and water quality to food choices. Let’s go through a few examples and strategies you can leverage personally, no matter what your office looks like:
- Air Quality
Air quality is one of the more technical and impactful strategies for improving employee health within offices. Researchers from Harvard’s School of Public Health and Syracuse University demonstrated that when they lowered the levels of one of the most common indoor air pollutants – Volatile Organic Compounds (VOCs) – cognitive scores of office workers increased by 61%. When they lowered these levels and increased ventilation rates (the functional equivalent of opening a window), cognitive scores increased by 101%. Additionally, the largest increases were in areas related to crisis response, information usage and strategy – all key aspects for knowledge workers.
Strategies: Improving air quality at the building scale generally requires support from specialists. In the interim, consider opening a window (if you are able and if the outdoor air is safe) and / or utilizing a personal air purifier, which can be effective in small spaces. (Which one to use? Check out guidance from the EPA and from the CARB.)
- Thermal Comfort
There is also a growing body of research that demonstrates a very narrow range of temperature supports optimal human performance. As noted by the authors of the book, Healthy Building: How Indoor Spaces Drive Performance and Productivity, “Researchers at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory found a 10 percent relative reduction in performance when the temperature fell out of this narrow optimal range.”
Moreover, temperature disproportionately impacts the performance of certain building users — particularly women. This is because the thermal comfort “standards,” which govern facility operations in most commercial spaces, are based on the clothing choices and metabolic rates of men in the 1960s – the clothing worn by the cast of Mad Men. Yet the metabolic rate of women can be up to 32% lower than men. There are humidity and other reasons why the air in commercial spaces sometimes needs to be kept at a certain temperature, but women’s valid complaints about uncomfortable temperatures are regularly dismissed as “complaining,” and this needs to stop.
Strategies: Cite the above research to demonstrate that differences in temperature impact performance. Additionally, advocate for personal heating and cooling devices, as well as a flexible dress code that allows all users to match their thermal needs.
- Biophilic Design
We have essentially become an indoor species. Despite this, we continue to crave nature in our lives. A 2019 CBRE survey found that the top two most valued perks or amenities at the office were views of the outdoors and natural light. Biophilic design attempts to leverage the fact that humans are inherently drawn to nature, by bringing natural elements indoors, where we can receive the benefits, including “reduced stress and enhanced mental health.”
Strategies: Add small desktop plants within view or natural elements (like a shell or rock from a favorite location). You can even add images of natural scenery to your desk. Also consider orienting your workspace so you can view the outdoors and access natural light (always be mindful of glare).
Advocating for Healthier Offices
Conversations around sustainability and healthy spaces can be challenging, given varying perspectives and cost implications. Here are a few general strategies to get the discussion going:
- Start small, start somewhere: When starting on their sustainability journey, people often get overwhelmed, thinking they have to “do it all,” or it’s not worth doing. That’s not true. Small changes can have big impacts, and just as importantly, they create momentum for more change. If you’re looking to create firm-wide change, prioritize the strategies that resonate with your key stakeholders.
- Find a common ground: Sustainability, health, and wellness don’t resonate with everyone. If you’re having a difficult time getting buy-in, find a common value. For example, try: “I enjoy spending time outdoors. It can really help us feel relaxed and grounded, don’t you think?” This type of low-stakes observation can be a good way to get the conversation started.
- Advocate: Unfortunately, until healthy building strategies become the norm, most folks find they need to advocate for themselves. Consider starting with the lens of, “everyone deserves the right to do their best work. This is what I need to do that….”
Office spaces can have significant impacts on our health, wellness and performance, yet they are often overlooked. As we continue to spend more indoors, and consider what the “return to the office” should look like, we need to put more thought and attention into the quality of the spaces where we spend so much time. Leverage the latest research and use the strategies in this post to advocate for your health and wellness!
Nicole DeNamur (she/her) is an attorney and sustainability consultant based in Seattle, Washington. She helps companies foster sustainable, healthy and inclusive spaces. Nicole regularly presents on her holistic, proactive and collaborative approach to risk management and is known for creating engaging and innovative content. She is an award-winning contributing author and has developed and taught graduate-level courses at the University of Washington and Boston Architectural College. Nicole can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Want more practical tips on working parenthood? Check out my book, Back to Work After Baby: How to Plan and Navigate a Mindful Return from Maternity Leave