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For years, tenants and landlords have failed to recognise that the physical workplace environment can have a major impact on the mental health of those who occupy them. While an employer is often focussed on the bottom line and profitability, employees form the heart of any business and office design and fit-out needs to be undertaken with their welfare in mind.

Some of the effects that a workplace can have on its employees are well documented: poor acoustics are linked to high stress levels, as is overcrowding. Poor air quality can lead to respiratory issues, and a lack of natural lighting can lead to tiredness and make people miserable. What isn’t always considered though are the more touchy-feely elements of office design and the positive role it can play in improving morale and protecting employees mental health.

Heads Together – a mental health charity which we have been involved with – places a huge emphasis on removing the stigma of talking about mental health. Its ‘Mental Health at Work’ initiative focuses on empowering managers to notice signs amongst their staff and encourage open conversation amongst colleagues. Aside from the stigma, one of the biggest blockers to conversation in the workplace is that offices are often not designed to encourage social interaction.

To create a workspace that caters to the wellbeing of employees requires some degree of research with the employees themselves. Ahead of our Manchester office move earlier this year – one of our largest offices outside of London –  we took the time to survey our team, asking them what they really wanted from their workspace, and found that 70% of them felt that their workplace could have a high impact on mental health.

After establishing that mental health and office design did affect one another, the survey dug deeper, asking the team about issues that could be solved. The survey found that comfort and lighting were deemed as the most important aspects, whilst most didn’t have a preference between hot-desking or having their own set space. It was actually the space away from the main work desks that were seen as a priority for improvement, with a desire for more breakout areas, both for social interaction and private space.

What does this mean for mental health? Employers looking at such a survey need to read between the lines. While the majority of employees reported that they were quite happy with available space to hold team meetings, only 20% of respondents were extremely satisfied with the available places to work privately. In an era where the open plan office is lauded as the gold standard in office design, this proved a shock. However, private workspaces, in addition to allowing employees to work without distractions, offer a place for workers to share their struggles in private conversations, but also go to sort out any personal non-work issues without feeling they need to leave the office.

Socialising throughout the day is often seen as detrimental to a productive workforce, but it can also be imperative to having a happy, motivated team. From a mental health perspective, social spaces provide a setting in which colleagues can feel more comfortable talking about struggles either at work or in their home life. One thing we discovered from speaking to our team was that although we had a table football table in our old office space, its positioning in the office meant that people felt uncomfortable making best use of it. As a result, we have created a separate games room that sits off of the kitchen and breakout area, away from the main work space.

Making the workplace an experience, rather than an inevitability, underpins all of the new office designs that we’ve seen over the past few years. In most cases, this change has been positive, and we firmly believe that employers should keep the entire experience in mind when designing a workplace. However, design alone is not a substitute for a robust mental health programme, rather, a system that underpins a holistic approach that values the employee at every turn. Employers should give employees an avenue to discuss mental health issues, whether through small group meetings, or providing access to mental health professionals. Engaging with employees is beneficial, as happy employees are more productive, and more likely to stay long-term.

Ignoring the health and wellness of employees is no longer an option. Tenants and landlords should be prioritising this by designing workspaces which support the initiatives that employers are adopting to get people talking about mental health.

As featured in CoStar on Monday 13 May 2019.