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Picture a windowless basement office lit with harsh fluorescent lighting. The walls and desks are gray and there are no potte plants or pictures on the walls.

As it turns out, this type of office setting is beyond simply unpleasant – it has detrimental effects on your health and productivity. A recent study on the effects of our work environments confirms that such conditions lead to depression and anxiety.

The study, entitled “Why We Need More Nature at Work: Effects of Natural Elements and Sunlight on Employee Mental Health and Work Attitudes,” examined how employees were affected by natural elements and sunlight in the workplace. Scientists recruited 444 online participants in the U.S. and India and published their results with the Public Library of Science in May 2016.

Sunshine and Nature — Two Keys to Boosting Your Productivity

“Exposure to natural elements is associated with decreased levels of diastolic blood pressure, depression, and anxiety, and increased attentional capacity,” the research article states. “Exposure to natural elements (e.g., green spaces) can reduce the impact of stress, increase psychological well-being, and support recovery from illness.”

Let the Sunshine in

We need direct and indirect sunlight to maintain physical and mental health – and for stress-free productivity. The sun helps us produce vitamin D, melatonin, and serotonin, besides which bright sunlight just helps us feel more alert, according to the study.

So don’t lease a basement office. The study found sunlight had a powerful effect on employees’ mental health, boosting mood and lessening anxiety.

Better moods and lower anxiety translate to more productive work. And people exposed to direct and indirect sunlight reported higher job satisfaction and organizational commitment.

So find an office with nice, big windows that let in lots of natural light. Of course, it’s difficult in a large office setting to get sunlight to penetrate every corner, but an open layout with fewer walls will allow more natural light in, and as a bonus will allow employees to see outside.

Nature will nurture

What’s the opposite of the windowless gray basement office? An open, savanna-like landscape, grasses blowing in the wind, trees peppered in the distance, vast blue sky and clouds bright with sunshine. Or a clear stream running over rocks in a crisp forest setting.

The study says these sorts of scenes “have an automatic calming effect on physiological arousal.” So natural elements in a stressful workplace should have a calming effect.

Employees were also happier in their jobs when exposed to natural elements, according to the study.

“We found that greater levels of natural elements exposure were associated with lower depressed mood and higher job satisfaction and organizational commitment."

Of course, an office building with savanna views may not be in the cards, but get this – employees find even photos of these sorts of scenes calming. 

So ditch the abstract office paintings (whose bright idea were those anyway?) and install some nice big pictures of scenes from nature. Other ways to bring the outdoors in are potted plants, fountains and natural building materials like bamboo and timber.

Office layout tips: Be open to collaboration

If your company has a little extra money or is starting a tenant improvement, we have a couple of suggestions. For starters, position the stairs centrally. Traditionally stairs were hidden behind doors and elevators were front and center, but more companies now encourage the use of stairs by putting them in the middle of the office. This has the benefit of creating more of an open feel to the office, and helps employees stay more active (active employees are healthier and more present).

Secondly, consider collaborative spaces. Sure, we all dream of a quiet, private office with a door so there will be fewer interruptions and we can get something done for a change. But! Private offices result in less movement (less active means less healthy and less present) and more importantly, less collaboration.

Open, collaborative offices might be a pain in the neck sometimes, but they’re far better for teams who need to communicate frequently, and they prevent more formal and time-consuming means of communication (we all have enough e-mail in our inboxes as it is). Consider breakout spaces, large office benches and plush chairs to encourage team gatherings.

Lastly, consider including Feng Shui concepts into your officeFeng Shui (or Wind and Water) is the 3000-year-old art of balancing energies in any given space. Chi (pronounced chee) is the "breath of life," a nourishing positive energy. Feng shui seeks to harness environmental chi to support and nourish your personal energy. Chi is equated with luck, opportunity and money. Who wouldn’t want that kind of energy in their office?

Bring nature into your working life

We spend most of our waking hours at work — and work itself is stressful enough without adding in a dreadful work setting. Employees will be less stressed with a few simple improvements, and the improvements in their output will make your efforts more than worthwhile.

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