We spend the majority of our lives inside buildings, and a large part of that time in the office. How are we affected by built environments? Can it alter our quality of life?
Research conducted in the last few decades highlights the potential of physical environments to actively promote people's health and well-being. This is why companies are deploying an increasing amount of resources to create workplaces that can support both the physical health and the psychological and emotional well-being of their staff. If we consider that a significant fraction of a company’s annual operational expenses have to do with investing in the staff, the effort seems justified.
THE RISKS THAT THREATEN WELL-BEING
The deviation from the way of life for which we originally evolved has caused a number of imbalances, some of which could be beneficial, while others may contribute to the development of diseases and the decrease of well-being and quality of life.
- Physical Inactivity. Technology has made us the most sedentary human beings in history. The amount of physical activity we engage in has dropped below the levels we are genetically predisposed for .
Sitting for long periods of time is linked to musculoskeletal conditions, and is responsible for the current epidemic of obesity and overweight, as well as for the increased risk of suffering from type II diabetes and cardiovascular diseases.
In addition, according to some studies, people who spend more than 8 hours a day sitting are more than twice as likely to be anxious and four times more likely to be depressed than people who spend time on their feet, even for short periods .
- Stress. Stress consists in a framework of “archaic” reactions which prepare our organism for fight or flight, that is, for physical activity. It was an appropriate response when prehistoric humans had to face potential danger, but it isn't now that humans strive to adapt to urban life, increasing technological advancement and office work. Stress is usually a symptom of a larger imbalance, and it can cause both emotional reactions (anxiety, depression and phobias) and physiological effects (heart disease, diabetes, and so on) .
- Allergies and respiratory diseases. Diseases like asthma and respiratory and food allergies have increased drastically in the last century. Some studies suggest that the lack of early exposure to agents and microorganisms which occur in natural environments increases our susceptibility by suppressing the natural development of our immune system.
Evidence suggests that increasing exposure to natural environments, through outdoor activities, and spending less time indoors can help reduce the risk of allergic diseases .
An important step towards improving this situation within the workplace involves avoiding imbalances by creating a setting that resembles as closely as possible the characteristics of the environment for which we are most adapted and best prepared.
REGULATING ENVIRONMENTAL FACTORS
Workplace quality greatly influences people's professional performance, well-being and overall health. And given that we spend a significant amount of time indoors, the consequences for our quality of life make environmental factors highly relevant.
Many studies inscribed within a variety of scientific fields suggest that there is a wide array of interventions which can help to support people’s health and well-being. They usually address the following factors:
Some researchers have arrived at the conclusion that green landscapes provide the best effect, while bodies of water seem to be preferable to urban vistas . Other studies have shown that stress decreases in the presence of vegetation . In addition to reducing stress and lowering blood pressure, plants moderate emotional states and improve employees’ attitude, while simultaneously helping to cleanse the air of toxins and some harmful chemical compounds.
Other findings suggest that people prefer moderate levels of complexity in the design and sensory perception of the environment. A setting devoid of sensory stimulation and variety can lead to boredom and passivity .
→ NATURAL LIGHT
Human beings are very sensitive to the changes in natural lighting. Sunlight plays a part in several biological processes: besides contributing to our vision, it sets our internal clock, and as a stimulus, it affects our moods, activity and overall health both physiologically and psychologically.
Since 80% of people perform their jobs during the day, it seems sensible to take advantage of natural light as a resource for the performance of said tasks. Not only is it more energy-efficient, but it is also much healthier.
→ INDOOR AIR QUALITY
These days, 50% to 60% of the population lives in cities and spends more than 90% of its time indoors, which leads to the importance of adequately maintaining the conditions of the air we breathe.
Issues with air quality can decrease productivity and lead to Sick Building Syndrome, when building conditions are such that they cause non-specific symptoms in its occupants, such as irritation of the eyes, skin and respiratory tract, as well as headaches and fatigue. Eliminating sources of contamination, adequate ventilation, humidity control and air filtration are some of the strategies needed to achieve a higher quality of indoor air.
→ ACOUSTIC COMFORT
According to studies which measure employees’ satisfaction with their workplace, noise is one of the main reasons for dissatisfaction. Most complaints are related to acoustic conditions in the workplace in terms of privacy: involuntarily hearing a conversation or having the feeling that one is being overheard.
In order to reach a good level of acoustic comfort, which allows us to preserve privacy without impeding necessary communications, it is essential to include some basic acoustic principles and techniques. Acoustic comfort is achieved when the workplace provides adequate conditions for both interactions, and confidentiality and concentration.
Within current open-plan environments, private spaces have dwindled drastically. Nonetheless, it should be taken into consideration that different sorts of spaces are needed for different tasks, and that it is a good strategy to give people control over their degree of availability for others. It is therefore crucial to strike a good balance between private and public spaces, always keeping in mind the necessity to provide more protected areas, slightly distant from prying eyes, where conversations of a more private nature can be had.
In the mid-1960s, Edward Hall used the term proxemics to describe the physical distances which people maintain based on their mutual relationships and the nature of their interactions; he differentiated four basic distances: intimate, personal, social and public. These are subjective dimensions which operate unconsciously and vary from culture to culture. Violating these personal-space boundaries generates stress and various degrees of discomfort.
This is why it is beneficial to regulate the density of the office, grant spaces for privacy and avoid low ceilings, since they cause a feeling of confinement which can lead to stress and irritability.
Therefore, it is essential that the workplace is designed to support workers’ physical, psychological and social needs. Integrating these dimensions will help to create environments where people feel more committed, where they are more productive and, at the same time, where they can relax, socialise and feel comfortable in a stimulating and appealing setting. Far from being a mere 'cost’, the workplace is an investment which improves employees’ well-being together with their commitment and the overall results of the organization.
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