The Forbes article, Mental Health in the Workplace: The High Cost of Depression begins with the results of a survey conducted by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) which concludes that about 200 million working days are lost each year due to depression. With half of the workforce being untreated, or more likely unaware of the issues, it decreases productivity, efficiency, and interest. Apart from stresses in the office, there are factors due to the job market leading to mental health issues. Some of the factors include a decline in the demand for a few job roles, saturation in the workforce, a long wait for a promotion delay, or even human relations.

As office goers ourselves, we can think about design changes that could be implemented in the pre-design phase and as building occupants, conscious steps can be taken. As architects, we could potentially have a dual role to playto design and building and to be a part of it. Although the post-design strategies involve a collective contribution, the pre-design phase can surely be focused upon with a goal in mind.

An Architect's role in addressing the stigma around mental health - Sheet1
Workplace stress_ ©Unsplash

It is relatively easier to understand the impact of a design on people from an outsider’s point of view as opposed to a design of our own. This is why the pre-design phase is more important to consciously decipher. Since mental health issues are not usually ephemeral and tend to affect people adversely, they cannot be taken lightly in this fast-paced world. The pre-design phase could be divided into assessing the current mental health situation and then understanding the types of architectural elements that trigger a positive or negative reaction through surveys. 

After analyzing the present state, measures can be taken to ensure that people feel more comfortable. There’s only so much we can do as architects to solve one-half of the problem. Since mental health issues also require awareness, therapy, and support, other factors need to be combined with the design to drastically make people feel safe and stress-free. 

An Architect's role in addressing the stigma around mental health - Sheet2
A semi-open plan_ ©Unsplash

The open plan came in the 1960s as a new invention as opposed to the compressed cubicle style model to increase creativity and brainstorming. Initially thought of with a positive thought became stressful for some due to the lack of privacy and “breathing space.” Vanity Fair’s article describes the thought process of a professor at Harvard Business school. He found out through a study that the initial idea was lost. People were not interacting, and it was very quiet in the room. The only interaction was through emails and slack. 

Timothy Smith’s findings got published in the Wall Street Journal about the newly opened Hewlett-Packard office. The employees were so shocked and disturbed by the noises reflecting due to the open office that they went back to the partition style within the next decade.

This is surprising news but based on an article from the Muse, the open office style was brought into existence by architects and designers trying to promote social interaction and bonding. This open style plan was modified several times to introduce more tables and people due to which it became cramped. Until one day, when people got flustered and fed up, the cubicle made its way through.

An Architect's role in addressing the stigma around mental health - Sheet3
The completely open-style plan_ ©Unsplash

Nowadays there are many offices with open style concepts in which there is a mixed opinion with some in favor and some against. The best way to figure something out would be to understand the shortcomings of both and figure out which one impacts mental health more. In my point of view, when I interned in an open-style office, I interacted more with people but while that interaction was not there, I felt vulnerable due to the lack of privacy. Whereas in the cubicle-style office, I felt secure and spoke to people at my comfort level with shorter interaction times. 

Apart from workspaces, a design could also introduce colors and materials. Colors stimulate psychological reactions which can be used selectively depending on the type of space. They are also easier to add, in comparison to materials or layout changes. Setting up a bright color in the breakout room or calming colors in the reception could make people feel welcome and at ease. Through Architectural research and studies, we can create awareness to make people understand that it is normal to feel stressed out once in a while due to workplace dynamics. 

Architecture can be used as a tool to alleviate workplace stress, but it is also the other part of the equation that requires attention and that is, awareness and concern for your fellow employees. 

References

  1. Forbes (2021). Mental Health in the Workplace: The High Cost of Depression. [online]. (Last updated 20 January 2021). Available at: Mental Health In The Workplace: The High Cost Of Depression (forbes.com) [Accessed 13 August 2021].
  2. The Muse. This is Why so Many Companies Insist on Open Offices Now. [online]. Available at: This Is Why Open Offices Replaced Cubicles | The Muse [Accessed 14 August 2021].
  3. Vanity Fair (2020). A Pandemic Won’t Kill the Open Office, but Slack Could. [online]. (Last updated 01 May 2020). Available at: A Pandemic Won’t Kill the Open Office, but Slack Could | Vanity Fair [Accessed 14 August 2021].
Author

A believer in keeping the quirkiness alive, Harshini is an architect by profession, and a psychology fanatic by heart. With a strong interest in culture and the urban environment, she aims to bring them closer.

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