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Well-being can no longer be considered a luxury in a post-COVID workplace

June 10, 2020

By Heather Greene

Stantec supports Harvard study that shows incorporating natural elements indoors reduces stress and improves creativity

Biophilia hypothesis suggests that humans possess an innate tendency to seek connections with nature and other forms of life. Biophilic design, or biophilia, which literally means “love of life and living systems,” was popularized by Edward O. Wilson in 1984 suggesting that human beings’ innate connection with nature was essential for well-being. Several studies have started to explore biophilic impacts related to physical health, specifically in healthcare design. We wanted to explore whether biophilic design would have a positive impact on our physical and mental health in the spaces where we spend so much of our time: the workplace.

As we spend more and more of our time indoors, what impact does our indoor environment have on our mental health? As a society, we are constantly battling cognitive and emotional overload—now through this pandemic more than ever. We receive more information through email, social media, and our daily interactions than we ever have before. Now we’re integrating our work lives with our home lives and trying to educate our children from home while managing our own anxiety and fear of the unknown. Interruption is constant. All while we search to create the next innovation and evolve our businesses to stay relevant, resilient, and purposeful in the future.

Could we thoughtfully use biophilic design to positively effect physical and cognitive health? We wanted to find out.

Access to daylight and greenery are important tenets of biophilic design.

The details of the study

Through a funding stream dedicated to encouraging creativity and innovation in design, Stantec sponsored researchers from the Healthy Building Program at Harvard University’s T.H. Chan School of Public Health to study the impact of biophilic design.

Harvard researchers initiated a Biophilic Interventions in Office (BIO) study, in which they designed and implemented a randomized crossover study. The study let participants experience different versions and levels of biophilic design in open and closed office spaces within an immersive virtual reality (VR) lab.

Stantec design teams used our knowledge of the biophilic patterns and explored ways to integrate and layer them into the space to meet the study requirements, utilizing real-life solutions that we could implement in the future. Through the VR lab, researchers were able to capture physiological stress measurements including blood pressure, heart rate, heart rate variability, and skin-conductance level. Additionally, participants took cognitive tests to measure their reaction time and creativity. Lastly, through VR and eye-tracking collection data we were able to capture the variation in intensity of the virtual exposure to biophilic design.

Current data linking biophilic design directly to human performance is limited. Additionally, the data that does exist is almost entirely focused on the benefits of “nature in the space,” including views of the outdoors through windows or utilizing plants. Our study focused on the participants’ responses to natural elements, natural analogs, and a combination of both across two workstyles: open and enclosed office spaces.

Participants’ physiological and cognitive responses were measured repeatedly during the study, which utilized three biophilic environments and one non-biophilic environment, which acted as the control. To better understand the intensity of virtual exposure, eye-tracking devices were used to record the participants’ attention during the testing. 

The results showed that biophilic interventions had consistent positive impact on blood pressure, heart rate, heart rate variability, and skin-conductance levels (the body’s reaction to stress). The greatest impact to reducing blood pressure and heart rate were noted where natural elements were present and, specifically, in the open office spaces. 

Putting safety and physiological health concerns first provides the foundation for good design. (Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs)

Eye-tracking data showed that participants spent most of their time looking at biophilic elements, specifically on green plants and biomorphic shapes and patterns, which are generally inspired by forms found in nature. Demographics also played a role, where we found that people who were raised in rural and suburban areas spent more time looking at biophilic elements in the space. 

To measure cognitive function, two tests were used to measure divergent and convergent cognitive processes. Convergent functions are most associated with attention, and divergent tasks are related to creativity and innovation. We found that creativity scores improved where biophilic design was present; however, a longer reaction time was noted in computational tasks.

What does this mean for the reimagined workplace of the future?

In a global world that has paused, health and well-being have come to the forefront of everyone’s mind. Prior to this pandemic, we would have coached our clients to consider design initiatives that prioritized health and well-being as a competitive advantage in attraction and retention of top talent. Today, we can no longer say employee well-being is a luxury that can be used by companies with more capital to tap—it now needs to be the norm.

For years, the US has faced a significant and paramount mental health crisis. One in five adults suffer from a mental disorder, and last year alone American businesses lost collective earnings of $193.2 billion due to mental illness, according to the American Journal of Psychiatry. These numbers and their respective implications are expected to grow through this pandemic.

As we spend more and more of our time indoors, what impact does our indoor environment have on our mental health?

While we can’t replace the benefits of psychological assistance and medical support, we now know that by using biophilic design we can reduce occupant stress, lower blood pressure, and provide healthy strategies to mitigate pressures in the designed environment.

We can also utilize biophilic design principles to communicate social distancing and safety changes. Imagine for a minute the feeling of panic you might feel walking into a place with bright orange safety cones directing traffic or yellow caution tape identifying prohibited use of certain spaces. That feeling of uneasiness can be mitigated by using a biophilic pattern sign that conveys the same message. Color, texture, pattern, and biomorphic shapes can be used as design tools to maintain and communicate a more thoughtful message.

Additionally, direct views to the outdoors, daylighting, and connections to nature support overall well-being when we do ask employees to return to the workplace. Prioritizing access to those amenities for all versus a select few will continue to be of critical importance. Now is the time to take a closer look at finish materials, lighting, and ideas of prospect and refuge as design tools to develop a thoughtful and layered approach to biophilic design. Holistically integrating these patterns focused on safety, occupant health, sustainability, and well-being will foster a culture that prioritizes its people.

Direct views to the outdoors, daylighting, and connections to nature support overall well-being.

When we focus on biophilic patterns and their impact on promoting positive health, we are looking at a changing world of design. We can begin to design for the whole person. We can create environments that do not trigger additional stress, that support physical wellness, and allow people to maximize their cognitive and emotional potential. Now more than ever, we cannot discount the importance of designing for health in all spaces. We cannot say that they can be afforded only to the companies and spaces that are progressive, amenity focused, or fiscally sound enough to support them. In the silver linings of a global pandemic, a shift to prioritizing health has already happened in our society. Now the buildings we invite our workforce back to must step up to support them.

The Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health study was among the top 10% of downloaded papers in Indoor Air, the International Journal of Indoor Environment and Health, 2018-2019—a great indication that people are paying attention to this important topic. You can read the full study here.

We’d like to thank and acknowledge our project team members:

Stantec Architecture Project Team: Heather Greene, Lindsay Woods, Justin Wieber, Kari Rostek, Courtney Hovey, Bethany Janik, Brittany Walker, and Erin Demaray

Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health Project Team: Jie Yin, Nastaran Arfaei, Piers MacNaughton, Paul Catalano, Joseph G. Allen, John D. Spengler

  • Heather Greene

    Focusing on workplace strategy, storytelling, optimization, and branding, Heather works to synergize design and strategy.

    Contact Heather
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