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"Happy By Design" - The impact of design on mental and physical health.

While mental health awareness has grown considerably over the last five years, the impact of workplace design on individuals’ emotions is rarely regarded.

We’ve seen companies react positively to the growing concerns around mental health and well-being. Corporate benefits like gym memberships, working from home and mental health days have become more commonplace, but there’s more to the conversation. The impact that design can have on our well-being is often left by the wayside, especially in terms of our emotional responses. A greater understanding of the relationship between our physical environments and emotions, particularly as related to design, would considerably improve the spaces that we create.

On the whole, however, businesses are still lacking in workplace solutions to address well-being. Eighty-four percent of employees state that work has contributed to a poor mental health experience, and only 45 percent of people feel that their organization successfully addresses mental well-being.

Through a book, Happy by Design: A Guide to Architecture and Mental Wellbeing, I explored the latest scientific findings to identify the nexus of neuroscience, psychology, architecture, and mental well-being. Below are some key design interventions supported by research that can positively impact mental health.

The ability of nature to affect a person’s mental state is profound. Research has shown that contact with nature may reduce stress, improve memory, and increase feelings of kindness, happiness, and creativity. Other studies even suggest that subjects with greater exposure to the natural world exhibit a higher number of happiness indicators.

Interestingly, the presence of water can also have a significant impact on mental health, as people living near the oceans report better mental well-being than those who don’t. According to a study, our brains are hardwired to have a positive reaction to seeing and hearing water; it is able to calm us, increase creativity, and even mentally heal.

With more than 50 percent of the world’s population now living in cities—a number that is expected to rise who work from home—many of us are losing this vital connection with the natural world. One solution is for architects and urban planners to design offices, homes, towns, and cities that incorporate as many natural elements as possible.

Many of the ideas discussed can be integrated into buildings’ design without huge cost implications. One common design solution that developers and occupiers are pursuing is the allocation of space to promote activity and boost energy levels. For example, the designation of a single location for a coffee machine within an office encourages staff to move around and socialize with fellow employees with Differential timing, and now the same with Social Distancing it can be achieved by staying apart from each other. Such simple design solutions can have a considerable impact on staff interactions and office-wide well-being.

The incorporation of natural and tactile materials such as wood, natural fibers, etc. into space can also support workplace mental well-being. The use of tactile materials encourages employees to engage directly with their sense of touch—an often overlooked aspect of well-being. These materials subtly encourage employees to interact with their surroundings, which brings focus to the present and contributes to a practice of mindfulness.

Integrating design principles that improve mental well-being is also incredibly important for the design of affordable housing, as data, unfortunately, shows a clear connection between financial difficulties and poor mental health.

An approach to affordable housing design consciously centered on well-being could provide vital support to those who often have the fewest resources to address mental health issues, but who tend to need it most. While design alone will not ‘fix’ serious mental health issues, it is important that we understand the social and psychological value of designing buildings to support our physical and mental health.

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