If the thought of your workspace fills you with dread, it might not be your job which is the problem. Our surroundings have a huge impact on stress levels and well being. Workspaces have traditionally been dreary places, with dull colour schemes and generic furniture. But more and more people are realising that making a few small tweaks to their environment can be surprisingly powerful.
As Alain De Botton wrote in The Architecture of Happiness:
‘We depend on our surroundings obliquely to embody the moods and ideas we respect and then to remind us of them. We look to our buildings to hold us.’
In other words, wherever you work, you owe it to yourself it is an enjoyable place to be in. After all, stress is unhealthy and detrimental to productivity. Here are some of our favourite ways to create a stress-free workspace, simply by changing details of the space around you.
Add some green
It is no coincidence that many of the coolest offices are full of plants. Adding a touch of green to your workspace can have a remarkable impact on stress levels. Not only will it improve air quality, but studies have shown that plants improve our psychological health. The effect is particularly noticeable in office spaces, where plants are proven to reduce stress, increase productivity and boost resilience. Some workspaces are taking their greenery seriously, incorporating indoor or rooftop gardens.
Tip: Opt for hardy plants which can survive weekends and require minimal care. Aloe, spider plants, ivy, and peace lilies are all excellent choices. Hanging planters can make the best use of limited space.
Switch to a standing desk
Just like being away from nature, sitting all day is unnatural and can be seriously harmful. If you work in an office, the chances are high that you spend most of your day sitting down. Switching to a standing desk can reduce blood sugar spikes, improve heart health, alleviate back and neck pain, and boost your metabolism. Better health means less stress. Standing desks also have a direct impact on mental health. In one study, 87% of people who switched to them reported increased energy. Ongoing research is revealing that standing desks decrease the risk of depression and anxiety. Healthier, happier people are also more productive at work.
Some people even swear by ‘squat desks’, which are close to the ground and enable them to work in a squatting position. This stance is linked to improved hip mobility and general flexibility, plus the benefits of being less sedentary. The hardcore among us go for treadmill desks on which they can walk as they work. However, these are unlikely to be practical in most offices.
Tip: Try an adjustable desk which can be raised or lowered as required. Spending half your day sitting and half standing is recommended, especially while adjusting to the change.
Declutter the space
A chaotic work environment more often than not means a chaotic mind. Clutter is visually distracting and can lead to stress due to the time wasted in finding what you need. Taking the time to clear surfaces, organise drawers and throw away rubbish can turn a stressful workplace serene. This need not take hours of effort – a few minutes at the end of each day is easily long enough.
Tip: The best way to keep your workspace tidy is to get rid of anything unnecessary, not to waste valuable time organising it. Consider scanning documents rather than keeping paper copies, giving away duplicate stationery and equipment, and moving distracting items out of your eyeline.
Improve the light quality
Most offices are lit with fluorescent strip lights in a bid to reduce electricity bills. However, harsh artificial lights are not only toxic for the environment, they are also harmful to those who work beneath them. The risks include migraines, disrupted sleep, anxiety, and increased stress. Flickering lights and the buzzing sound they commonly emit can be distracting and harsh on the eyes too. Reducing stress at work is largely about creating an environment that is as natural as possible and suits your biology. The perfect way to do this is by getting exposure to natural light.
A number of small changes can be made to reduce the stress caused by poor lighting. If possible, try sitting by a window and keeping lights off during times when natural light is enough. Adding a specially designed filter which widens the light spectrum can alleviate the impact on stress levels. Light filters are inexpensive and can be found on Amazon or direct from fixture suppliers.
Tip: The lights in the ceilings of your workplace are not the only culprit. Blue light from devices can cause similar problems, especially when used in the evening. When working late, consider using a programme like Flux to remedy the problem. Some people wear orange tinted sunglasses in the evenings – not the coolest look, though they claim it improves their sleep quality.
An egg timer on your desk might be the easiest and cheapest change to make from this list. Using the Pomodoro technique while working is a simple way to focus and get through difficult tasks. The technique is this: set the timer for 25 minutes and work on one thing for the entire time. Once the time is up, take a 5-minute break. Repeat this, taking a longer break after 4 repetitions.
Aside from boosting productivity, the Pomodoro technique can help reduce stress. In particular, taking regular, scheduled breaks can refresh your mind, relax your eyes and enable you to get more work done. Breaks also provide the opportunity to move around, grab a drink and speak to people. No one enjoys sitting at a desk all day and the Pomodoro technique splits long hours into manageable chunks.
Tip : Some workplaces are supplying tomato shaped timers, to be used for this purpose. If a timer would annoy people around you, use a browser extension or phone. Having a physical timer, however, serves as a visual reminder to use the technique.
Reducing stress at work does not require anything drastic – a few small alterations to the environment can create a touch of serenity, even if you work in the centre of a city. A calm mind leads to better quality work, more innovation and enhanced creativity.