The Open Plan Office and Your Mental Wellbeing

Two people working collaboratively

As the majority of us find ourselves dragging our feet to work today, we can’t help but ponder why. We spend so much of our life carefully selecting an industry we’d like to work in. We take all the right classes in high school and apply to all the top universities, hoping to get into the right program. After university we spend months applying for various jobs with different companies and choosing the right fit. And a few short years after, we are sitting in the car hoping that the radio announcer eases us into the Monday buzz with a gentle touch and without that techno track that Dave keeps requesting on the text line. So why are we not excited at work today?

We don’t know the answer.

But, no surprise here that we’re going to try and pin it on the open plan office and how they’re currently utilised in the modern workplace. And to prove we’re not spruiking some sort of fake news agenda (RIP orange man), we’ve got a few top dog scientists in our corner, to back us up. The School of Psychology at Exeter University looked at the office environment and its impact on employee’s wellbeing. Their research involved more than 2,000 office workers in a series of studies and the conclusions were based on online surveys as well as experimental data. The results were consistent in demonstrating that the more control employees had over their office space, the happier and more motivated they felt about their job. Consequently, controlling the amount of distractions and noise pollution around you while you are working hard on something, forms part of the autonomy we all crave. When employees felt physically comfortable at work, they felt more positive about their jobs and identified with their fellow colleagues more.

Professor Alex Haslam at the University of Queensland, who has co-authored research in this field, has spoken out about the impact minor changes to the office space can have on an employee’s self-direction, accomplishments and professional satisfaction. Haslam goes on to say  that “employers rarely consider the psychological ramifications of the way they manage space. By paying more attention to employees' needs they can boost wellbeing and productivity at minimal cost.”

Dr Vinesh Oommen with the Queensland University of Technology has also looked directly at the impact open plan offices have on a worker’s health and wellbeing. Ooomen’s extensive research has demonstrated that the open plan office is associated with loss of privacy, loss of identity, low work productivity, various health issues (such as high blood pressure, which is the leading cause of stroke and heart disease), overstimulation and low job satisfaction. All mental health killers!

Is that enough studies for you? How about one more? Psychologists Gary Evans and Dana Johnson at Cornell University, conducted a more invasive experimental study evaluating the impact of open-plan office noise on levels of adrenaline found in clerical staff. A group of 40 employees were divided into a control group, working in quiet conditions, and an exposure group, working in low-intensity noise typical of open plan office. The group working in the simulated office had increased levels of adrenaline in their urine and a reduced level of persistence with challenging tasks indicative of motivational deficits, compared to the control group. The groups did not differ in their perceived levels of stress, raising a potential for long term health consequences of ongoing noise exposure. As we grow accustomed to the background noise that comes with our workplace, we might be silencing our own sensors for stressful environments.

It seems like the psychologists have a lot to say on the topic of our wellbeing, motivation, job satisfaction, employer identification and how all of this is impacted by our workspace. However, it’s not them and not even us who get to design our offices. Themanagement of the modern office space is typically influenced by facility managers, corporate real estate agents, and popular management theorists. Thus, the emphasis is generally on corporate return rather than psychological welfare (which we did cover here). When it comes to office management more generally, psychological factors tend to be considered only as an adjunct to business interests rather than exerting any influence over them.

We might not have the answer to how to solve your Monday morning blues on that long commute to the office, but here at Nook we think it’s time to change the conversation, and make the psychological wellbeing of employees a key factor in office design and furnishings.