We’re in the middle of the National Work Life Week which presents employers and employees with a fantastic opportunity to focus on well-being at work and work life balance. It is particularly important in today’s world, as it is reported that “the line between people’s work and domestic responsibilities is increasingly blurred: many find it impossible to leave their personal issues at the office or factory door, and vice versa”. But in order to build a powerful framework to promote good mental health, organisations and individuals need to understand the repercussions of poor mental health and the importance of improving current schemes.
POOR MENTAL HEALTH: THE FACTS
One in four people in the UK will have a mental health problem at some point, the most common being anxiety and depression. While all aspects of poor mental health hugely affect the suffering individuals and people close to them, it also can have a rather negative impact on organisations. The 2016 CIPD survey which focused on mental health in the workplace found, among others, that of the respondents who described their mental health as poor, over 80% found it difficult to concentrate, and over 60% took longer to complete tasks.
Poor (and unmanaged) mental health can lead to fatigue, ‘absenteeism’ (people regularly staying away from work without good reason), ‘presentism’ (people working when unwell) or ‘leaveism’ (people using allocated time off to work), losing interest in a job, or - at times living in general. While this symptoms' list isn’t exhaustive, these behaviours are perhaps the most important to pick up on at work before it’s too late. Poor mental health and stress are some of the most common causes of long-term absence! The good news is, employers’ recognition of mental health as a workplace issue has clearly increased in recent years. The more recent CIPD survey has shown that the proportion of raising awareness of mental health across the workforce has increased from 31% in 51% in 2018.
WHAT NEEDS TO BE DONE?
Good well-being of employees at a workplace begins with a good working environment, one that strives to have not just no negative impact on one’s health, but in fact promotes wellness. Leah Stringer, workplace strategy expert and author of 'The Healthy Workplace' aptly states that ”human health should be the foundation of workplace design and of business because companies thrive on the innovation and abilities of their people, and if employees are sick, overweight, stressed, sleep-deprived or disengaged, they prevent the company they work for from thriving and maintaining a competitive advantage in the marketplace.” Furthermore, according to the well-known Stevenson / Farmer review of mental well-being at work, the top recommendations for organisations include tips such as developing mental health awareness among employees, encouraging open conversations and making support available to those struggling, providing employees with good working conditions, promoting effective people management, and routinely monitoring employee mental health and well-being.
LET THERE BE LIGHT
Light plays a big role in our daily lives and introducing light therapy into workplaces taps into several of the Stevenson/Farmer review’s recommendations. How so? Well, humans truly do depend on light; it is a natural stimulant that helps us feel positive, upbeat and full of life. It's also an important factor for our overall physical well-being as it keeps our circadian rhythm on track so that our daily rhythms (i.e. when we eat and sleep) and mood are aligned. Sounds pretty intuitive, right? Yet a large percentage of our lives we are deprived of sufficient exposure to bright light, which can lead to some serious mental health complications. In fact, a 2018 Lancet Psychiatry study of 91,000 people found that a disrupted body clock was linked with higher rates of major depression, bipolar disorder, more loneliness, lower happiness, worse reaction times and more mood instability.
Assuming an average of just under 40 working hours per week, we spend around 92 000 hours in our lifetime at work, and another 9 600 hours commuting. Most of those hours typically fall between 8 am and 6 pm, which means that - particularly in the northern hemisphere in autumn and winter - unless we work in a bright office or take the time to go outside at midday, we will virtually see no daylight whatsoever. As a matter of fact, in the Mind Well-being Index carried out in the UK, over three quarters of organisations (22 organisations) reported that staff have exposure to natural daylight which is conducive to supporting employee well-being. However, almost a quarter (6 organizations) do not have access to a garden, park or outside green space.
For optimum mood and energy, we all need light to our eyes as bright as a spring morning on a clear day for around 30 minutes a day and the light must be at least 2,000 lux (the technical measure of brightness). That's roughly four times brighter than a well-lit office! And while we all would prefer to have a corner office, or work in a beautiful, bright, open space, the reality is that many offices not only have little to no access to daylight but are also very poorly lit.
Researchers from the University of Illinois, Chicago and the Institute of Technology in Taiwan, teamed up to investigate the role of workplace windows in aiding sleep and therefore regulating our body clocks.
They recruited 49 office employees, just over half of whom spent the day in mostly windowless environments, while the rest enjoyed frequent exposure to daylight through windows.
The study found that "workers in offices with windows not only had significantly more light exposure during work hours but also slept an average of 46 minutes more per night during the week than those without access to windows. Office workers with more light exposure at the workplace also tended to have better sleep quality, more physical activity and a better quality of life".
HOW TO IMPROVE?
So: what can you do? Completely redesigning or even moving offices to bright open spaces (or better yet - to LA!) would be a great improvement, but also probably an unlikely one. Instead, introducing SAD light boxes into your office space will allow employees to top up on bright light, to help regulate circadian rhythms and therefore promote better sleep as well as offer a boost to their productivity, energy levels, mood, alertness and concentration.
Having carried out several light therapy pop-ups at co-working spaces and universities, we regularly receive great feedback. In January 2019 we installed Lumie Vitamin L in windowless phone booths at WeWork in Devonshire Square in London during their Well-being Week. Most respondents to our short survey noticed improvement to their ability to think clearly, and had seen a boost to their mood, energy levels, performance and enthusiasm within one 30-minute session. One of the notes we received said “These should be in every booth during the winter”.
LIGHT THERAPY IN THE WORKPLACE
Lumie lights could become a permanent fixture in canteens, common areas or wellness rooms, encouraging employees to eat lunch or take time to recharge with a mid-morning cup of tea in the glow of an energy light, such as Lumie Brazil for instance. Alternatively, smaller, more portable lights (think Lumie Vitamin L) could be made available to employees to use at their desks, giving the individuals the freedom to experiment with timing and duration of their sessions to see what works best for them.
We know that introducing light boxes into working spaces helps prevent and manage winter blues and seasonal affective disorder, which means less absenteeism and presentism, more productivity and better well-being. This in turn taps into the recommendations of the Stevenson / Farmer review in several ways. Making lights available and reinforcing the narrative of the positive effect light has on individuals helps lift the stigma surrounding seasonal depression and therefore provides support to those suffering. It allows the employers to improve the working conditions particularly in spaces that are deprived of access to daylight, and, with the help of surveys or feedback forms, it allows the organisations to monitor what influence introducing bright light therapy has had on their employees.
Interested in trialing light therapy at your workplace? Email us today!