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Natural Lighting in the Office Boosts Employee Health. Here’s How.

May 31, 2018 | by
Reviewed by real estate expert Jonathan Wasserstrum

“Natural” is a buzzword in many current wellness trends, both in and outside of the office, so you might be surprised to learn that in 1965 it was actually widely believed that having natural light in the office was entirely unnecessary for employee health. This belief contributed to a wave of windowless construction, erecting buildings that had minimal or no natural light. Windows were thought to create more distractions for employees, negatively impact the energy bill, and even let in bright light that caused eye strain and headaches, and so fluorescent lighting began its decades-long reign.

However, recent studies consistently show that the opposite is true and that maximizing the natural light in an office space can dramatically and positively affect employee productivity, energy, and overall well-being. While windows were once reserved for those at the top of the office hierarchy, a hallmark of the private corner office with the excellent view, companies are starting to realize the importance of making sure the entire team gets exposure to natural light throughout the day. And since the average employee spends approximately 90% of their day indoors, it’s no wonder that getting a glimpse of the outside world every now and again can do your energy some good.

In this article, we’ll discuss some of the significant health, productivity, and financial benefits that come from letting natural light into the office as well as suggestions for how to design your office space to utilize natural light to the fullest.

Shining the Light on Health Benefits

Multiple studies have been conducted to show that a healthy relationship exists between natural light and the health of employees, from improved sleep to simply feeling happier in the workplace. Here are some of the most commonly observed benefits your team will experience with more exposure to daylight in the office:

  1. Sunlight is responsible for regulating the body’s circadian rhythm. Circadian rhythm then determines essential functions such as sleep cycles, hormone release, and body temperature.  A 2014 study completed by the Interdepartmental Neuroscience program at Northwestern University in Chicago in collaboration with the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign showed that employees with windows in the workplace slept an average of 46 minutes more per night than those without.
  2. “Go outside and get some vitamin D!” We all know that the sun is the greatest source of the powerful hormone known as vitamin D. Exposure to more natural light enhances your body’s vitamin D repository, allowing you to regulate the absorption of calcium and phosphorus better, promote growth and development of bones and teeth, and fortify your immune system. Vitamin D has even been studied in the prevention of certain diseases, from cancer to heart disease.
  3. Natural light is also highly beneficial in promoting healthy vision and preventing straining of the eyes. Most members of your team are likely surrounded by screens all day: working on a computer, scrolling through their smartphone, and turning on the TV in the evenings to unwind. While some blue light is beneficial, these screens emit an amount of blue light significant enough to disrupt sleep patterns and increase the risk of severe damage to the eyes, such as by macular degeneration. When you add fluorescent light into the mix, the eyes become overwhelmed and strained. A study conducted at the end of 2017 by Professor Alan Hedge of the Department of Design and Environmental Analysis at Cornell showed that employees seated within 10 feet of a window reported an 84% decrease in eyestrain, headaches, and blurred vision symptoms.

Photographer: Eric Laignel

Health and Productivity Go Hand-in-Hand

Because employees who work in offices with natural light experience improved sleep, an increase of vitamin D, and less weariness in vision throughout the day, it makes sense that they also have more energy. Higher energy levels contribute directly to positive attitudes at work, a willingness to collaborate, and increased productivity. There may even be a connection between lack of natural light and the employees who tend to seek out any opportunity to chat with a coworker — social interaction has actually been shown to replace the natural suppression of melatonin by sunlight.

Overall, exposure to sunlight improves the health and happiness of employees. Team members show up more energized to get work done, and are less likely to take sick days. Even the smallest increase in productivity can have a substantial impact on the company’s bottom line. Hedge’s study estimates that a 2% increase in productivity is equivalent to as much as $1,000 per year of value for every employee. So if your company has 100 employees, that’s as much as $100,000 of added value in one year.

Stay cool

While the health benefits of natural light in the office space are nearly irrefutable, it’s important to keep in mind that, as with most things related to health, moderation is key and overexposure to natural light can have negative consequences. Too much direct sunlight can cause glares on screens or other reflective surfaces, nullifying any benefits to vision. And during the summer months, it’s important to stay vigilant with air circulation in the office or those sitting close to windows might find their desk space uncomfortably warm.

9 Tips to Utilize Natural Light During the Workday

Whether you’re looking for ways to make the most of natural light in your current office space or searching for a brand new, light-filled space, there’s a lot you can do to optimize natural light in the workplace.

  1. Seek flex office space with one or more skylights. Most overhead lighting tends to be artificial, so interspersing natural light will make a huge difference. If your current office space doesn’t have a skylight, talk with your landlord about the possibility of installing one.
  2. Consider an open office plan or at the very least, swap out solid cubicles that block light for glass partitions.
  3. If not every employee can have a desk close to a window, implement a biannual or annual desk rotation. Changing up the physical workspace can also boost employee performance.
  4. Place all workstations within 20 to 25 feet of a window, if possible.
  5. Prioritize daily tasks that require the most brainpower to put next to a window, especially if you have limited natural light. Do you have regular team brainstorms that need some pep? Move that meeting space close to a window. Is your coffee station or communal printer overlooking a fine view? Move those to a more central location that doesn’t receive as much light.
  6. On nice days, have your one-on-one or small meetings outside.
  7. Work with an architect or office interior designer to optimize your office space layout and improve the distribution of daylight.
  8. Use color to help brighten up a space.
  9. Ask your team members for their input! It’s likely that if you’re feeling the need for more sunlight, your coworkers are, too, and they might have valuable insight on the areas that need more natural light.

What Kind of Lighting to Use in the Office

An essential aspect of making the most of natural light in the office space is rethinking the artificial lighting that is already in place. The first step is to think beyond downwards-directed light and focus instead on multi-directional lighting. A combination of desk lamps, floor lamps, and wall lamps in addition to general overhead illumination will go a long way in improving the lighting atmosphere of the office.

It’s also beneficial to have a variety of color temperatures present, such as a soft and warm light source on your desk to complement a cooler overhead light. Ambient and corrective lighting are two other forms of lighting to use in the office. Both are designed with lower intensity and can really help with vision fatigue.

You can also check out these suggestions for specific lighting fixtures to incorporate into your office.

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