Signs your office is hurting your productivity and mental well-being

What’s going on in there?
What’s going on in there?
Image: Reuters/Stefano Rellandini
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Sometimes the work day drags, even in a job you love. Figuring out why can be a vexing problem. Did you take the wrong turn with that grad school decision? Maybe you have unrealistic expectations about the minute-to-minute excitement level of a job? Or maybe it’s literally something in the air, like too much carbon dioxide.

The personal insights you alone can probe, but we can help you think through that last possibility, and several other environmental culprits that may be to blame when you’re feeling “meh” and distracted at the office. Maybe the problem is…

The building you work in is wobbling or swaying, even if you don’t notice it  

Let’s begin with the very infrastructure of your office, the shell that is your company’s home.

Working near the top of a high building means that you are, in a sense, moving all day. Towers typically sway a couple of inches on breezy days, and up to two or three feet in high winds. Antony Darby, a professor of engineering at the UK’s University of Bath, has told Quartz that people who toil on the high floors of a skyscraper “have reported problems with nausea, headaches, or even anxiety and fear.”

Working in a low-rise building may not be much better. They too wobble in strong winds or because of nearby traffic, and their low-frequency vibrations (below 1 Hz; or one cycle per second) can bring on  Sopite syndrome,  something akin to motion sickness, marked by dizziness, feelings of depression, decreased motivation, and fatigue.

In short, your office building may be either keeping you mildly alarmed or rocking you to sleep. So why not open a window? Oh, right: you probably can’t, because office windows often aren’t made to be opened. That means your issue might be…

The air quality in your office is substandard

Ventilation is hardly a sexy office feature, but it ought to be, according to Joseph Allen, director of the Healthy Buildings program at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health.

In a recent double-blind study, Allen examined the effect of air quality on cognitive performance, testing traits like strategy and crisis response skills, and the ability to focus, at a lab where researchers were secretly able to manipulate the air while subjects went about their normal work routines. He found that employees scored 61% higher in cognitive function tasks at the end of the day in air as clean as “green certified” buildings, compared to conventional air (i.e. air matching that of a typical office building). “In conditions of green buildings with enhanced ventilation—which have twice the ventilation rate of conventional buildings—cognitive scores spiked 101%,” Allen noted in the Harvard Business Review.”

Using statistical modelling, his researchers estimated a productivity benefit of $6,500 per employee from the improved air, which would be lower in carbon dioxide and volatile organic compounds.

The most forward-looking companies in the US, Europe, and Asia are already installing ventilations systems that borrow from NASA technology to monitor and adjust office air, according to the Wall Street Journal (paywall.) One UK building-monitoring expert who spoke to the paper said clean air is becoming a competitive selling feature for high-end office space, and noted that his own office air was in need of rescuing: by mid-afternoon, it reaches CO2 levels of 1,000 parts per million, more than two times normal atmospheric levels.

Still, if the air being pumped around your office is clean, but not sufficiently cool, it’s possible that you’re feeling mentally sluggish because…

The ambient temperature in the office is too warm

If you want to be a kind person, willing to collaborate with your colleagues or clients, and ready to demonstrate “pro-social” behavior (social science speak for being helpful and friendly), avoid workplaces where the air is even a few degrees too warm.

A three-part study from Lehigh University, which included a field study from a chain of Russian retail outlets, found that employees tend to conserve their energy when the heat is taxing, and that means holding back on any above-and-beyond efforts at work.

Even air that is just slightly higher than room temperature also seems to help odors waft farther afield and linger longer. So have you considered whether you’re feeling off your A-game in the office because….

You’re picking up a scent attached to a bitter, long ago memory

It would be nice if banning certain products—like heavy perfume, microwaved fish, or fermented beans—could eliminate the possibility that a scent distracts your mind and kills productivity at work, but rooting out the malodorous culprits is not that easy. Although some people can legitimately claim to be bothered by perfume and cologne, which can trigger mild headaches, migraines, and sinus pain, our associations with particular scents are otherwise idiosyncratic, as Proust famously taught us.

They’re also powerful. “The olfactory bulbs are part of the limbic system and directly connect with limbic structures that process emotion (the amygdala) and associative learning (the hippocampus),” Rachel Herz, a professor of psychology at Brown University, wrote in Scientific American, noting that “no other sensory system has this type of intimate link with the neural areas of emotion and associative learning.”

Her research shows that being in a good or bad mood and smelling something with which you associate pleasant or unpleasant days has a similar effect on creativity: when you’re in a good mood or exposed to a “positive” scent, you’re better able to solve problems creatively—less so when you’re in a crappy headspace or exposed to something that (at least to you) stinks.  

If we can’t agree on what scents to avoid, at least we seem able to find some aromas that are universally appreciated. During the cupcake bubble of 2010, American offices routinely smelled like icing and cake, happily reminding many an office worker of the sweetness and simplicity of supermarket sheet cakes and childhood birthdays. Office cake now appears to be an epidemic on the other side of the Atlantic, too.

A word of caution about that cake, however…

Office cake might be eating away at your brain power

As if sugar cravings weren’t bad enough, at the office they dovetail with our desire to be liked. What that means is shared sugary foods can quickly become a social crutch at the office—our brain wiring makes it nearly impossible to resist a colleague’s homemade cookies or birthday cake.

Studies have found that we tend to eat higher- or lower-calorie foods (pdf)—and calibrate the quantity of food we’re consuming—depending on what we know about how much other people are eating. When we’re eating together, the drive to model the behavior of others in the group is so forceful that that we tend to synchronize our bites. In both cases, people are unaware of how much they’re matching or mirroring the folks around them.

Having been made aware that what you consume changes your energy levels and cognitive abilities—and having learned, thanks to one famous Cornell University food lab study, that employees eat nearly twice as many candies when the candy jar is on their desk rather than two meters away—some forward-thinking companies have learned to hide the junk food behind cupboard doors and put fruit and veggies within easy reach.

If you work at a less enlightened firm, however, the sugary foods are visible in the common spaces all day long. In that case, it may be tempting to stay put at your station. Except the problem with that is…

Sitting for long periods probably reduces blood flow to the brain

Our chair-centric lifestyle is known to be a health hazard, putting people at risk of diabetes, heart disease, and premature death. According to physiology  researchers writing in The Conversation, it is still uncertain whether being sedentary is detrimental to your memory or other cognitive functions.

But light walking has been shown to increase pressure waves through blood vessels, which increases brain blood flow.

So, yes, treadmill desks or standing desks might get the synapses firing, as they say, but beyond the risk of “sudden onset cankles,” there is also a cognitive catch…

You can see too many faces from your standing desk, and your brain wants to connect with all of them

It turns out our drive to be social gets in the way of our ability to block out other people’s presence. We need to know what’s going on with the folks around us. So, as Quartz At Work’s Leah Fessler has noted, “if you can’t concentrate while working at a standing desk, it’s probably because your primal brain is subconsciously making eye-friends with all your coworkers.”

This doesn’t mean we should bring back cubicle walls, though, because a shortage of interpersonal unconscious messaging leaves the brain feeling bored and unchallenged. In fact, your trouble with concentration or creative thinking might have something to do with the fact that …

Optimal noise levels are hard to calibrate

According to the New York Times, the open-office plan is finally losing its sheen with large tech companies, including Microsoft and IBM, which have studied its effects on individuals and teams. Now the trend is toward providing a diversity of seating options, featuring isolation rooms as well as smaller, open spaces for teams of eight to 12. Companies and architects are experimenting with multiple sensors to help them plan out office geography that encourages both interaction and personal productivity. Most of us are still waiting for the nascent backlash to have any effect on our offices, however.

Sitting in big holding pens, whether they’re airy or not, can be challenging since the brain is extremely fussy when it comes to background noise. According to Eve Edelstein, a “psychoacoustics” or psychology of sound expert at the US architecture firm Perkins + Will, employees do report a greater ability to think creatively with a certain hum of white noise in the background—even if it includes people chatting. But good luck finding that level without investing in gear, including the right apps or high-end headphones. More commonly, you’ll be forced to deal with loud talkers or sudden bursts of noise interrupting your train of thought.

Edelstein, writing in Quartz, points to one study showing 99% of employees found their concentration was impaired by office noise, particularly ringing phones and conversations. (The conversations are even more distracting when they’re not related to a project you’re working on.)  “Researchers also found no evidence that people become used to these sounds over time,” Edelstein writes.

You probably can’t ask the talkers who sit near you to find other seats, but you could opt to join your company’s hot-desking or hoteling plan, if there is one. That would mean that every day you come into the office, you’d have to find a new work station. It’s a good way to avoid certain noises, perhaps, but if you think being an office vagabond will help you work better, think again. It turns out…

Hot-desking is stressful, isolating, and leaves you with no physical place to “park” memories and associations

What’s so stressful about hot-desking? For starters, there’s the worry as to whether you’ll find a decent desk, and then there’s the scramble to actually get one. The need to adjust to a new surrounding every day is also a stressor. Hot desking can also cut into your confidence and sense of status as you are reduced to a non-“owner” of office space, carrying your work life around in a backpack.

Finally, hot-desking can be bad for your memory. Sally Augustin, an environmental and design psychologist in La Grange Park, Illinois, told the BBC that memory retention is easier when we stay put, because we tend to unconsciously attach memories and associations onto the things around us. As the BBC explained, sometimes “these details—which could be anything from a quick idea we wanted to share to a colour change on a brochure we’re working on—can only be recalled in that setting.”

It’s also possible that your hot-desk touring may open your eyes to other office-environment deficits, like a dull color scheme devoid of the saturated blues and reds that are thought to enhance productivity, or stark decor devoid of … anything. In fact, this might be your problem at work, because…

Stark, bare offices are perfect for Instagram but dehumanizing in practice

The move to decluttered design has its benefits, but some offices take it too far, eschewing plants, wall art, or anything worth paying attention to.  

Fortunately, psychologists in the UK have found that just a few tweaks can turn a dead office space into one that’s more stimulating for employees. Marlon Nieuwenhuis, from Cardiff University’s School of Psychology, led a 2014 field experiment that found adding houseplants to an office (at the rate of one plant per 11 square feet, or one square meter) made employees 15% more productive. Memory performance and general well-being also improved, which jibes with research that has found plants can reduce symptoms of physiological stress in humans.

It’s not just greenery that seems to do the trick. Chris Knight, a psychologist from Exeter University who co-authored the plant study, told The Guardian that changes in light or even smell could also help make office denizens more psychologically engaged.

Nieuwenhuis noted in a news release about the plant study that its conclusion is “at odds with the present economic and political zeitgeist . . . yet it nevertheless identifies a pathway to a more enjoyable, more comfortable and a more profitable form of office-based working.”

Of all the possible problems in an office, this must be the easiest to fix.