Reducing Episodic Stress through Design: Promoting a Path to Wellbeing

Before his second shift starts, a stressed hospital nurse is trying to find a place to mentally prepare for the tasks ahead of him. The only space he can find is a cramped, crowded, poorly-lit breakroom or storage closet. The environment is not conducive to help him catch his breath, relax, think, and recharge. His job, his patients, and his own health and wellbeing are dependent on how he performs his duties, yet he often plunges into work without feeling focused and prepared.

It’s a scene that is all too common in health care facilities today, and one that is not limited to such facilities. As people talk more about how to make buildings healthy, what many people are not talking about is the type of space that supports a person’s wellbeing – the emotional, spiritual, and physical.

The discussion goes far beyond the health care work environment – to our office environments, education facilities, places of worship, and even institutional facilities. Humans spend on average between 80 to 90 percent of our time indoors. Research is showing us that a focus on wellbeing goes far beyond making employees feel good; it directly affects our productivity, job satisfaction, and health.

Our buildings should, and can, do more to support and promote better wellbeing for all occupants.

What does it mean to design for wellbeing?

The heart of this philosophy is about creating environments that are optimized for the wellbeing of the people who use them every day. It means considering everything from the quality of the air, sound, light, and water to incorporating features which promote stress management, physical fitness, and mental and emotional wellbeing. Strategies are focused on designing for biophilia, stress reduction, and beauty into spaces as these have been shown to support health and wellbeing.

Research on wellbeing design

How do we know what makes a difference? With so many variables in the built environment, studying a workspace can be very challenging. Health care leaders like Mayo Clinic, Cleveland Clinic, and Kaiser Permanente have taken a lead and are starting to invest major research on it.

One of the biggest initiatives currently under way is at Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minn., in partnership with Delos. The WELL Living Lab is custom designed to facilitate research on the impact of indoor environments on human health and wellbeing. The “lab” environment can be configured as a range of space typologies – from office workspaces to apartment style living. The environmental features of the WELL Living Lab can be manipulated and transformed to study individual variables on the study participants (who are actual Mayo Clinic employees for the first study on office environments).  For example, WELL Living Lab can adjust the amount, color, rendering quality, and person’s access to lighting. They can also fine tune the air temperature, pressure, and filtration levels and a person’s ability to control temperature.

The findings from this research lab and other research efforts are informing design guidelines such as the WELL Building Standards.

Setting new standards

The introduction of the WELL Building Standards moves us closer to establishing best practices for designing for wellbeing. While the established LEED guidelines and rating system takes on construction and operational sustainability strategies and certification, WELL changes the focus and puts the occupants’ health and wellbeing at the heart of design decisions.

This discussion about design for wellbeing is only getting started. Just as a focus on patient wellbeing has dramatically improved the health care environment for patients, putting a spotlight on employee health, such as reducing stress for nurses, will only improve all work environments – for employee and employer.

Enlightening Our Minds for Mental Health Patients

Walking through the neighborhood the other afternoon, there was a feeling in the air…the crisp temperature, the changing color of the leaves, the rustle of the trees. And the light! Moving from warm orange to shades of tangerine and coral to fuscia and then a light pink, the light created this all-encompassing experience in which it felt good to be alive.

If only we could bottle up that outdoor feeling and bring it inside.

Or, can we?

While designers have always strived to create feeling in a space through color, furnishings, art, and, yes, lighting, what our eyes have seen in creating experience has been what is illuminated. What many times we have overlooked is what is illuminating. Light, it appears, is still a frontier we have not fully explored.

It seems an odd statement to write given the discussions about daylighting strategies and circadian rhythms that are hot topics. However, a recent retreat on a fall day in northern Wisconsin opened our eyes to possibilities that we had not seen in the past.

Hosted by Visa Lighting out of Milwaukee, the unique retreat pulled together a dynamic mix of lighting designers, architects, interior designers, and electrical engineers with the company’s own engineers and designers to discuss lighting in behavioral health. Long interested in how we leverage design to improve treatment and outcomes for patients in mental health facilities, we went in with eyes wide open to learn what people were doing.

To say the least, we came away understanding there is so much more we can do, and it begins by asking “What if?” with others who can make possible a reality. What if we saw lighting in institutions as more than institutional? What if we see comfort in the realm of control? What if safe lighting had design aesthetics? What if a wall became light that changed? What if lighting could encourage a patient’s self-expression?

What if we see lighting beyond shades of white?

What was most refreshing about the discussion was the lack of preconceptions in asking the questions. There were no parameters. There was no judgement. There were no obstacles. For the questions we might have had in the electrical function about a light, an engineer could provide an answer. If someone was curious about how patients react to certain elements, a medical planner was there to respond. If we wondered how a design could be manufactured…you get the picture.

And maybe that is what we found most energizing. Obviously, the motivations for Visa Lighting to pull together this group was different than the motivation for a clinician to participate, or a designer, or an engineer. Those differences aside, though, our interests were completely aligned – to help patients experiencing a mental illness find better environments in which to receive care. Reaching out to the community in a trusting manner, Visa Lighting created an intensely powerful, thoughtful and creative conversation that will yield a significantly different patient experience in the future.

Walking down the street that autumn day, the light was more than a background element shaping the experience. It was integral influencing our mood and health. There are no reasons lighting should be less integral when we walk indoors. For the patients who suffer from mental illness, they need us – designers, providers, engineers, manufacturers – to see light as more than the opposite of dark.