5 Ways Buildings Can Improve Mental Health (Greenbuild 2020)

11/12/2020 By Janelle Penny

The COVID-19 pandemic has put mental health in the spotlight, but many workplaces presented barriers to good mental health long before the novel coronavirus struck. At the virtual Greenbuild 2020 conference, a panel of leading design experts convened to explore how buildings can influence mental health—and how the WELL Building Standard certification is uniquely positioned to make that influence positive.

“It’s hard to ignore buildings as the key environment we spend most of our lives in,” explains Emily Winer Suresky, Mind Concept Lead for the International WELL Building Institute. “We spend over 90% of our lives indoors. In COVID times, it’s probably more like 99.9% of the time. The spaces we inhabit right now are mostly our homes, but buildings and spaces have a profound impact on our health, our wellbeing and our productivity.”

Improve Mental Health
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Using the WELL Framework to Improve Mental Health

The WELL Building Standard’s features offer several opportunities for buildings to improve mental health, notes Lida Lewis, associate principal and director of interiors for Page. Use the list of possible credits as ideas for what you can achieve in your own building. Some features, like Stress Support (Feature M05) may require the help of HR or other departments, but there are a few key things designers and facilities teams can do on their own to support mental health, such as:

1. Physical Activity Opportunities

(Feature V06). When you curate amenities, look at ways to encourage physical activity, from spaces that easily convert into yoga classes to simple signage about stress relief apps.

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2. Emergency Preparedness

(Feature C15). Organizational resilience is good for individual mental health because people can trust that emergencies will be handled. Strive to make emergencies “resemble snow days as much as possible,” Lewis urges. “Snow days aren’t threatening. They’re an emergency, but we know exactly what the plan is.”

3. Enhanced Occupant Surveys

(Feature C04). “You can also reach out to your employees and occupants and just ask them what are the things they most need help with so you can direct your efforts most efficiently,” Lewis says.

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4. Visual and Physical Ergonomics

(Feature V02). Support movement and comfort, including when people are working from home, Lewis says. Provide access to ergonomic furniture during the work-from-home phase as much as possible, and make sure office furnishings reduce physical strain and injury for when people return to the office. Being comfortable helps battle burnout by reducing stress, Lewis explains.

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5. Active Furnishings

(Feature V07). Like ergonomic furnishings, furniture that discourages prolonged sitting and sedentary behaviors may be possible for both work-from-home and office-based setups. Direct people to where they can find active furnishings for their homes and see that the office is equipped for when everyone comes back. The ability to move around and stretch can be an important tool in combating chronic stress.

Whichever strategies you choose, Winer Suresky cautions that mental health approaches can’t be one size fits all. What works well for one organization may not work well for yours.

“Think about what’s going on in your population, your workplace and what people are going to respond to,” Winer Suresky says. “It’s important to think about who your people are, who you’re trying to help and what issues you’re going to tackle when you’re thinking about addressing mental health in the workplace.”

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