A more pleasant workplace to improve mental health

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Photo: Bart van Overbeeke
Photo: Bart van Overbeeke
Anna Bergefurt defended her PhD thesis cum laude at the Department of Built Environment on December 18th.

How do plants, noise, and the view outside affect your stress level, concentration or mood? PhD researcher Lisanne Bergefurt examined how different aspects of the physical workplace can influence employees’ mental health.

When Bergefurt began her doctoral research in January 2020, her goal was to investigate the relationship between the office workplace and employees’ mental health.

She was planning to start her research with physical experiments in office settings, but then the Covid-19 pandemic struck, and almost everyone started working from home. "Initially, I thought: ’what a shame, now I have to revise my entire research plan,’" she says.

At first, the experiments were just put on hold, but the pandemic dragged on and she started thinking: maybe working from home is here to stay and it would be interesting to investigate how people experience their home working environment. "In the end, I think the pandemic only increased my motivation to do this research," she says.

Salutogenic approach

In order to provide more insight into the relationships between the experience of the physical workplace and mental health, she first introduced a holistic approach to mental health in her dissertation.

"The focus is often on productivity, burnout or stress. I wanted to bring the different variables together to paint a more comprehensive picture of mental health." She did so on the basis of ten indicators that include not only the aforementioned productivity, burnout and stress, but also, for example, sleep quality, concentration or mood. This way, the indicators represent the entire spectrum of positive and negative shortand long-term effects.

In addition, she defined seven characteristics of the physical workplace, distinguishing between so-called Indoor Environmental Quality (IEQ) aspects, such as air quality or temperature, and softer aspects, such as colors and plants. "Every office should have the IEQ aspects in order. For example, the air quality must always be at a certain level. If it is not, this could have an immediate negative impact on the building’s occupants," she explains. "The softer aspects form an additional layer on top of that, such as biophilia (natural environment such as plants, ed.), use of color or ambient lighting."

Most research exclusively focuses on the IEQ factors, which are very concrete and easy to measure. There is much less attention to the softer aspects because the perception is subjective and because their absence has no direct consequences for mental health, she argues.

In order to fill this research gap, Bergefurt wanted to focus her research primarily on how these softer aspects can positively affect the experience of the physical workplace, and perhaps mental health too.

This is in line with the salutogenic approach, which focuses on how different factors can improve a person’s mental well-being rather than how they can lead to symptoms or illness. "For example, sounds can have a negative effect, but you can also look at how to use them in a positive way to increase well-being," the PhD candidate explains. "A lot of research is mostly concerned with the negative effects, such as stress or burnout, and how to prevent them. I also wanted to take a look at, for example, how people can get into a more positive mood because their workplace is more attuned to their needs."


One of the ways she studied the influence of different aspects of the physical workplace was to conduct a virtual reality experiment.

For this purpose, she built offices in virtual reality and equipped them with different attributes and features, such as walls in different colors and plants. Participants had to indicate for different scenarios which office they would prefer to work in and where they would feel the least stressed or most productive, for example. The results show that especially the presence of plants could have a positive effect on productivity, concentration and mood.

In another sub-study, she examined the effects of soundmasking, an application used to mask sounds in a room, making them less audible and causing less disturbance.

"To test this, we equipped some floors in an open-plan office with soundmasking," she explains. The remaining floors without soundmasking served as control rooms. To map the influence of soundmasking, users of both the soundmasking and control floors filled out surveys on their experience of noise and mental health both before and after the experiment. The study shows that people felt less stressed and tense after working on a floor with soundmasking.

Separate workspace

The second part of her research focuses on the experience of the home working environment and its relationship to the person’s well-being. Up until that point, little research had been done on the relationship between factors like biophilia and mental health of people working from home.

The respondents were asked about the set-up of their home office and their mental well-being was assessed based on the holistic definition. "We found that in home office settings, the softer aspects such as daylight, the view outside and greenery had much more influence on people’s well-being than in the office. But factors like privacy and a separate workspace were also found to be very important", Bergefurt summarizes.

Small adjustments, large impact

Although the study’s findings suggest that more plants in the workplace or the use of certain colors can have a beneficial effect on certain mental aspects, Bergefurt is cautious when it comes to giving concrete recommendations.

"Above all, I want to show that different physical features can affect the well-being of users. Relatively small adjustments can already have a positive impact, such as improving concentration or mood."

According to her, employers would do well to think of ways to support people in this regard. To that end, she believes they should not rely on ready-made solutions, but rather look at what best suits the users. "What you’re looking for is the ideal match between the organization, the individual and the work environment. If you have that under control, you could promote employee mental health."