The average person spends 90,000 hours at work. That’s nearly a third of our lives.
For most of us, that time spent is unavoidable. Work can give our days a positive shape and routine, and can also generate a sense of purpose, belonging, and contribution. And if our workplace has a culture of self-care, our working hours can be nurturing too—challenging, yet rewarding at the same time.
How work affects us can be closely connected to our physical work environment. If you feel like you’re simply tolerating your workspace until it’s time to clock off, chances are that your well-being is suffering (and likely, so is your work.) But with a few tweaks and mindful changes, your workspace can be altered and shaped so it actually supports your well-being, both physically and mentally.
In this post, we’ll look at ways to create a workspace that enhances your mental health, helps you feel better during your working hours, and lets you be more productive without getting stressed.
Workspaces are somewhat of a timely subject. The pandemic has seen many of us switch over to working from home—temporarily or permanently, part-time or full-time.
In fact, hybrid working, where workers split their time between home and office, is expected to become the norm.
For many of us, working at home is something completely new. Before, work was associated with particular places and times—so it stayed “in its box.” When we were at work, we were at work—and when we were home, we were home.
Now, suddenly, work has come home with us. We’ve had to carve out a workspace from our living space, and our work is present and visible in a way it never was before.
Along with those physical changes come psychological ones, as we reflect on how best to integrate our work and home lives, or maintain the boundary between the two.
It’s a truly profound life change. So it’s no surprise that it takes some getting used to, or that it requires some thought and effort to get right.
Of course, there are upsides. Now that we’re working at home, we have total control over our space. We can set it up however we want.
However, that power brings responsibility—the responsibility to care for ourselves. While there are many ways employers can support the mental health and well-being of employees (like providing a mental wellness platform as a benefit), we can’t just leave it to our employer to provide a healthy, stress-free space, or complain to them if it isn’t happening. We can feel empowered to create healthy environments ourselves.
Let’s start with the most obvious, immediate, and visible manifestation of work: your desk.
When you’re at work, your desk functions almost like an extension of your body. But is your desk a useful tool—or is it holding you back?
In general, mess equals stress. Most people dislike disorganization and find it stressful. You might not even realize how much the clutter around you is affecting your mindset—but there’s a lot of truth in the saying that a tidy desk means a tidy mind.
On a practical level, mess is simply inefficient. If you’re constantly searching for things, you’re wasting precious time and increasing your risk of making a mistake. Wait a minute—isn’t there a bill under that pile of papers that you really should have paid by now?
Don’t let trash live rent-free on your desk—or in your head. Anything that occupies your field of vision for eight hours every day should earn its place there, either as a valuable tool or as nourishment for your mind.
Go for a few, carefully curated objects that have the proven power to sustain you: a plant (more on that later,) photos to remind you of loved ones or precious memories, children’s creations, much-loved books, or maybe a favorite work of art. Make your desk less of a factory and more of a gallery.
Let’s lift our eyes from your desk and look around your immediate environment. Is it calm and nurturing, or hectic and stressful?
If you're working at home, it’s best to aim for a minimal design style that’s free of visual “clutter.”
The mental health benefit of minimalism is that it stops you from focusing on physical objects, so you can refocus on what’s really important. In terms of workspace, one obviously vital thing is your work itself. But you also need to stay focused on the other important things in your life, like family, friends, interests, or spirit.
Now, minimalism and family life don’t always mix. It’s hard to feel Zen when you’re surrounded by piles of laundry and brightly colored plastic toys. And as many parents discovered last year, homeschooling plus home working is a recipe for serious stress.
So, if you can, work in a dedicated space, not a busy part of the home like the kitchen. Although you may like the feeling that you’re staying connected to your family, it could just lead to internal conflict and greater stress in the long run.
Physical boundaries reflect psychological ones. A clear division between workspace and home living space will help to prevent work thoughts from invading your mind at other times.
It may be that none of this is possible for you—either because of family demands or because you don’t have space in your home. If so, consider having clear ‘do not disturb’ periods of the day when your family or housemates know not to talk to you. In nice weather, you may even be able to work outside in the local park—though, again, you’ll want to choose a calm, quiet place rather than one near lots of noise and activity.
These examples also highlight the importance of temporal boundaries: choosing certain times when you’ll do particular tasks. Arrange your day so you can tackle your most demanding jobs at a time when your energy is high and distractions are low.
Work usually takes place indoors—but humans are built to be outside, and just being in nature reduces anger, fear, and stress. So it’s no surprise that the links between our workplace and the natural world have a direct impact on stress and mental well-being.
One answer to this is biophilic design, which aims to bring nature into the built and indoor environment—either directly, by incorporating natural materials, or indirectly, through the use of natural imagery, colors, and even sounds.
That might sound complex, but it doesn’t have to be. In fact, it can be as simple as placing a plant on your desk, or near to it, so that you can see it while you work.
This one small change can make a huge difference. Researchers have discovered that having plants in the office makes people up to 15% happier and more productive, while another study found that just looking at a small plant for a few minutes lowers your heart rate and reduces stress.
If that isn’t possible, maybe you can just stare out the window for a while, or take a walk through the park on your lunch break. Anything that gets you gazing at the greenery will help.
Just as we were built to live outside, so we were made to live in the light.
Exposure to sunlight is thought to boost levels of a hormone called serotonin, which helps to stabilize your mood and brings you a feeling of calm and focus. Sunlight also offers several other health benefits, including better sleep, improved immunity, lower blood pressure, and even weight loss. It’s easy to see how all of those support your mental health too.
Conversely, a lack of serotonin can lead to low mood or depression. That’s why you’re more likely to feel down during the darker months of the year—the appropriately named Seasonal Affective Disorder, or SAD for short.
To realize the benefits of sunlight, let as much light into your workspace as you can. If you find that you need to draw the shades so you can see your screen, make time to get outside two or three times a day. There’s nothing wrong with going outside purely to enjoy the sunshine—whenever the sun appears in your yard, it’s a great time for you to join it.
Artificial light affects us too. For example, blue light can make us feel more alert, but can also inhibit restful sleep—itself an antidote to stress. Phones and monitors give off blue light, which is why it’s so important not to “burn the midnight oil” by working into the evening, but instead transition to a softer, darker lighting setup so your brain produces melatonin, which helps restful sleep.
If your switch to home working looks like it’s becoming permanent, you might want to consider redecorating your workspace. Choosing the right color scheme can have a profound impact on your day-to-day mood.
For example, blue is thought to promote wellness, green is restful, pink can reduce anxiety, and brownish earth tones give a sense of comfort and rootedness. Gray can help you unwind—but it can also be draining.
White is a classic choice and gives a feeling of light, space, and neutrality. Black and dark gray may work as accents, but will probably be too heavy for an overall color.
Hot colors like red, orange, and yellow can raise energy and excitement but may be too stimulating for an environment where you need to sit still and concentrate.
Doing office work usually means sitting at a desk for most, if not all of the day. But sitting down for long periods is bad for your body and your mind. It raises the risk of muscle problems, heart disease, diabetes, and other serious health concerns.
Sitting also goes hand in hand with the risk of anxiety and depression. We don’t yet fully understand the reasons why, but it’s probably related to missing out on the benefits of exercise.
With such serious long-term effects, it’s no wonder some people claim that “sitting is the new smoking.”
The good news is that pretty much any form of exercise can reduce stress. You don’t have to join a gym, pump iron, or run five miles—just build some vigorous movement into your day, in a way that works for you.
Try this: once an hour during the working day, take a break to physically move around—even if it’s just to take a few steps and loosen up. Moving for just two minutes an hour reduces your risk of dying by 33%—a pretty good return for investing just one-thirtieth of your day!
To get you started, Calm Body has a great range of sessions for morning stretches, mindful warm-up, afternoon reset, and evening wind-down.
These micro-bursts of movement may seem trivial—like they won’t make much difference. But here’s the thing: they add up. Small lifestyle changes are more manageable, which means they’re more sustainable. Before you know it, they’re just “what you do”—but you’re still getting the benefit, day after day.
We hope we’ve shown that your workspace doesn’t have to be something you just put up with. It’s a vital part of your life, with the potential to support your well-being and mental health every day.
There’s a lot to think about—but even small changes can make a big difference. And you don’t have to change everything at once. So start today, and you should soon see the changes to your space reflected in positive changes in your mind.
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