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Workplace Design and Its Effects on the Well-Being of Workers

 Theories abound as to what is causing physical symptoms behind prolonged sitting for long periods at a desk. Researchers have theorized that the increased duration of sitting may be due to the effects of sitting on the sympathetic nervous system. Other researchers have focused on the relationship between sitting and health risks such as poor circulation, reduced lung capacity and increased blood pressure. Physical symptoms such as pain, headaches, poor concentration, and increased risk of disability are all associated with prolonged sitting. In an effort to find out what is behind the link between physical and mental health problems, researchers examined the effect of a typical physical work environment on HRV-a key indicator of psychological stress.

This study explored the influences of the physical work environment upon two physiological responses of stress: the morning rise and cortisol response. Circadian changes in daytime cortisol and HRV were measured in 60 workers working in a large government office either in individual offices and old cubicles (n=40), or in a modern (interdisciplinary) workspace. A significant main effect of the physical work environment was a significant increase in daytime cortisol (p=0.000), but there was no significant change in HRV. When comparing HRV to cortisol, there was a significant main effect of the physical work environment (p=0.000). Also, there was a significant main effect of the gender of the worker (p=0.000), with women being more stressed and/or having greater cortisol reactivity than men. No significant interactions were found between work hours, gender and cortisol reactivity or HRV.

Sleep deprivation can cause negative consequences in numerous ways, including increased risk of injury, unhealthy working habits, and negative emotions. This study examined the effect of a typical, non-working day on both the morning rise and HRV. One group of workers (n=14) went without sleep for the entire night and another group (n=15) went to sleep during the scheduled work day and slept during the rest of the day. Both groups showed a significant increase in their morning rise, but there was a trend towards reduced HRV during the non-working day (p=0.000), but this trend was not significant when compared with cortisol at the conclusion of each session (data not shown). A trend for an increased awakening tendency was noted in the sleep-deprived group (but this only occurred in the afternoon), but this was not statistically significant.

The researchers next investigated the effect of a new office space on both physical and emotional health. A total of sixty-five individuals were randomly assigned to one of four different experimental conditions: a control room, a social support group, an instructional/service group, or an environmental group. The study found that people under pressure often perform worse than those in an open environment. Also, the degree to which the participants felt they had control over their performance (in terms of the ability to influence and exert control) was significantly greater in the social support group than in the instructional/service group.

Consistent with previous studies, the present study found that high levels of cortisol were associated with increased heart rate variability and lower job satisfaction. Specifically, the researchers measured heart rate variability by having the test subjects to rate how many times their heart beat was rapid and regular during a 30-second period. High levels of cortisol are associated with an increased risk of coronary disease, which can be life-threatening. In addition, high levels of cortisol are associated with an increased risk of psychological distress (in the form of anger and anxiety) and poor job satisfaction. In other words, these results suggest that high levels of cortisol may be the cause of some of the differences in psychological health between men and women.

In the current study, the researchers also measured physical activity levels by using a biofeedback system that monitored heart rate. They found that those who were exposed to a high level of stress (as indicated by higher cortisol levels) had lower cardiac activity, as reflected by lower peak heart rate and lower percent of maximum heart rate (a measure for cardiac output). These findings suggest that workplace stress may indeed lead to negative health outcomes. However, the results of this current study suggest that improving the physical environment of the workplace may be an effective way to counter the negative impact of stress on the physical and mental wellness of employees.

According to the study, two physical characteristics of work spaces that were associated with both men and women were office space layout and window wall height. The researchers found that both these characteristics had a significant impact on emotional well-being. Specifically, higher office spaces, such as large open floor plans with low office walls, and lower window wall heights, such as low hanging windows, were found to be associated with greater levels of stress and lower levels of job satisfaction.

In addition, the current study looked at the impact that physical characteristics like window wall thickness, and office layout and design had on emotional well-being. The results showed that people in new office spaces with greater window wall thicknesses and more open floor plans reported feeling significantly better emotionally than those in old office space with more fixed office wall orientations. Similarly, those in new spaces with more flexible floor plan designs were found to have higher levels of job satisfaction than those in the old office space with fixed orientations. The study also found that the greater physical characteristics associated with the creation of workstations led to more social interactions between workers in social environments.


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