How Your Workspace Affects How You Feel



Before I worked from home and was able to control my workspace, I had a long history of “redecorating” every single office space I ever worked in.

Regardless of the size or circumstances, office environment was so important to me that I simply could not work comfortably without personalizing my space.  Even in the most cramped and undesirable spaces, I’d do what I could do to tidy and clean the space, adjust the lighting and air where possible, and most important – adding an aesthetically pleasing touch that reflected ME.  Organizing work space goes way back to the industrial revolution when managers were trying to find out how to make their workers more productive. Initially, the goal was to reduce injuries, but since then we’ve learned that organized and healthy work spaces can improve productivity by enhancing overall well-being.  

We now have abundant research that tells us that a workplace can make us physically and mentally sick and drain our productivity.   At a time when people are working longer hours than ever – and resiliency and creativity are critical – shaping a workspace to meet our physical and psychological needs really matters.  Stress costs businesses hundreds of billions of dollars every year. And that does not factor in the financial, physical and emotional toll on employees and their families. While there are many factors that increase stress, environmental factors can play a major role in triggering or exacerbating those situations.  According to a study at Rockefeller University, stress can even shrink your brain cells and prematurely age your immune system. A person’s response to stress causes neurons in the hippocampus—the part of the brain with a central role in memory processes—to shrink, resulting in memory loss. The same phenomenon can occur in the prefrontal cortex, the region of the brain used for decision-making and maintaining attention or focus.

Reducing stress is not a luxury – and maintaining control over your workspace is one important way of minimizing it.

The Psychology of Workspace

Not everyone reacts to their workspace the way I do.  Some people can plop down in any area, regardless of the surroundings, and work.  But most people want to bring some semblance of their own organizational and personal style to their workspace.    Office design, environmental factors and clutter all can play an insidious role in increasing our “allostatic load.”  So it’s wise to become aware of what works and what doesn’t when we look around our workspace to explore possible remedies to enhance our work life.  One of the best things you can do to decrease your stress load and inspire your creative juices is to put together a workspace you feel good about.  And even though you may have limited control over structural factors that affect your space, every step you take towards improvement will benefit your work.

Let There Be Light 

Much of the brilliant new workplace designs being done today focus on light.  Natural light, of course, is preferable but often difficult to control in many office buildings.  One of the first things I used to do in my workspace overhauls was to get maintenance to cut the fluorescent and overhead lights.  When those lights went out, I felt instantly better.  I’d bring in table lighting which created a calmer, more natural feel to the space. White fluorescent lighting has been shown to impact hormone levels, increase eye strain, migraines and depression.  If you can’t control it, try to take breaks from it by going out into natural light as often as possible.

Getting outdoors, even for short intervals, also gets you some fresh air. Many office buildings, especially older ones, don’t provide adequate ventilation. A study done at Lawrence Berkeley National Labs shows that cutting ventilation rates even a little increases the incidence of “sick building syndrome” among workers by 23%.  All of this is complicated by the huge increase of EMF’s (electromagnetic fields) in the workplace.  Electromagnetic pollution is everywhere, anything electrical emits EMFs. Even copiers, printers and scanners emit ozone which can irritate the lining of the lungs.  Minimize your use, where possible, and do some research on ways you can limit your exposure. 

Feng Shui = Common Sense

Have you ever moved a chair to the other side of a room and felt better? Ever clean out a desk or closet and felt a sense of relief or accomplishment?  These simple things are part of the essence of the 5,000 year old art of feng shui which governs building design, the calendar and numbers and the placement of objects.  For as long, East Asian structures have been located and designed using principles of various schools of feng shui.

Now even real estate sales in the USA, are being influenced by  feng shui requirements. According to John Lim, a Citibank VP of business, who has seen a significant increase in the purchase of office condominiums by Asian buyers, “ In Chinese, Japanese and Korean, the word for number four sounds like death – which is why so many buildings in Asia do not have a fourth floor, the reason why American buildings often skip the 13th. And in Chinese, the number 8 is a homophone for the word for getting rich. The eighth floor and building numbers with eights in them often sell at a premium.”

You don’t have to prescribe to any particular philosophy of feng shui to reap its many benefits. Clearing clutter (disorder being a big feng shui no-no) is part of its basic premise.  While getting a water fountain (a tiny table-top one will do) is associated with the positive flow of energy (and cash) to adherents of feng shui, adding one to your workspace may simply bring you some serenity.  Intention is a fundamental principle in feng shui, which believes that a space should facilitate its intended purpose.  While your intention may be to be productive and creative, yet piles of papers, unwashed coffee mugs and unopened mail cover your work surfaces – you are sending yourself (and others) the opposite message.
Clearing clutter (everywhere) is essential to harmonizing your mind and your workspace.  This should not be reserved for annual spring cleanings, but a regular work in progress.

You’re Never Too Old to Learn to Clean Your Room

Another important part of improving your workspace is cleaning it.  Besides adding to office clutter, electronic equipment is a magnet for dirt. Research by microbiologist, Dr Charles Gerba, found that keyboards have 3295 microbes per square inch compared with 49 per square foot for the average toilet seat!  Clean your screens and keyboard and don’t forget the chords and wires that lead to your equipment. Dirty keys and screens aren’t inspiring and a basic principle of feng shui asserts that every time you notice something that isn’t clean or in working order, you deplete your energy thinking about it.

Add Beauty

Yes, beauty is in the eye of the beholder. While you may not want to add fresh flowers to your workspace (I do) everyone’s spirits can be lifted by touches of color.  While too much color can be distracting for some, many workspaces are too industrial and drab to elevate our aesthetic sense.  Plants can add to a workspace aesthetic and clean the air at the same time.  Office walls, carpets and furnishings contain synthetic chemicals that pollute the air. Research performed by NASA has proven that plants can remove pollutants such as benzene and formaldehyde that contribute to “Sick Building Syndrome.” Chinese evergreens, English Ivy, Peace Lilies, Philodendron, Snake Plants and many plants in the Dracaena family are known air purifiers.


Your basketball trophies may not meet my criteria for decoration but if they are meaningful to you – that’s what counts.  Everything in your workspace (and what’s missing) tells the story of you to others.  The little touches that you add should be the things that remind you of what’s good in your life. They should inspire and uplift you.  Your workspace is a wonderful opportunity to reflect your creativity. 

Green Your Space

Regardless of where you work – you are part of a global workplace. That pile of paper on your desk came from trees in another part of the world and if you toss it in the trash it could wind up in a landfill thousands of miles away. And where’s that plastic water bottle headed?  If your office doesn’t recycle, recommend they do. Or take your recyclables with you and dispose of them at home.  Think about how you use the equipment in your office. Do you leave the computer on 24/7? No need to. Studies show that putting equipment on the sleep mode or powering down entirely saves energy.  How about those chargers?  When you leave them plugged in when you are not charging you waste energy.  There are lots of wonderful office supplies made of reused and recycled materials available.  Explore those resources and ask your company or local office suppliers to stock more green stuff.

Your workspace, however small, is an important statement to yourself about the meaning of your work.  While it may seem frivolous in light of so many serious issues we all face these days – feeling good, inspired and refreshed is essential to doing good work. So take a look around your workspace – How do you feel about it? What changes, even tiny ones, could make a difference to you?
You’ll feel better if you do.

Thanks for reading!
Louise Altman,  Intentional Communication Consultants
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