Sector - Health & Safety

Mental Health in the Workplace

Dicky Lewis is director at White Red Architects, in this feature, he writes about how the COVID-19 lockdown has had an impact on the mental health of many workers within the industry.

The last few months have created numerous new pressures within society and have required the total re-evaluation of how we live and work. With many people being forced to work from home, on furlough or even losing their jobs, it has undoubtedly been a stressful period for many. In more recent times, consideration towards mental health within the workplace had become an issue that was emerging as important, but Coronavirus has accelerated it to the forefront. With the sudden and drastic changes to people’s lives, not to mention the uncertainty, mental health is an issue which many employers are being forced to address and respond to. As designers, our next challenge is how to create places that respond sensitively to the issues of mental health as the lockdown eases, as we return to the ‘new normal’ and acknowledge that things will never really be the same again.

Many of the projects my firm is working on have required us to present designs which will have a positive impact on the occupants of the building; on how they use the spaces, interact with each other and of course providing opportunities for respite during the working day.

We recently completed a fit-out for a large technology company.  The client wanted to continue the flexible working practices that lockdown had required them to adopt recently.   Their concern was that the current traditional open-plan office space could potentially inhibit staff collaboration and interaction. Through the use of collaboration spaces, delineated zones for teams and even an ambient sound strategy, we assisted in designing a space for teams to engage and employees to utilise the office in order to suit their personal working practices.

Multi-use / collaborative spaces encourage colleagues and team members to come together, discuss problems or communicate solutions. Creating spaces for open conversation can assist in minimising the build-up of stress or anxiety. Open-plan offices are commonplace, but a lot of people find this format distracting or find difficulties focussing. Collaborative space should be able to accommodate what open plan does not. As businesses re-evaluate their spatial requirements post-lockdown, implementing more collaborative spaces could be a good way of using any unused space.

Making design changes can assist in nurturing improvements such as creating healthy habits, increasing productivity by positive mood reinforcement and facilitating the reduction of stress. One of the biggest anticipated changes is how office space will be used as companies adopt flexible working strategies.

A large part of improving mental health in the workplace is engaging employees and incorporating them within the team, which is the antithesis of what remote working offers.  Therefore, the office space must be designed to allow for an improvement in collaboration and team building, especially in the more limited time frame which is likely to be spent within the office moving forward.

Consideration toward mental health and wellness in student accommodation is of utmost importance as the younger generations return to studying post-lockdown. Provision for students must extend beyond sanitisation and must address the difficulties presented by social distancing in an environment where it is imperative for students to socialise.

We recently designed a proposal for the refurbishment of a pair of 1990s student housing blocks (327 rooms, 6,300m² of accommodation) in Southampton, linked to a new pop-up pavilion space built inside a listed goods shed adjacent to the site. The buildings now need investment to optimise the offer to the student market and we were asked to explore options to create a great place for students to live and socialise in the post-lockdown period.

An opportunity for the creation of a space for socialising lay in the Grade II-listed Victorian goods shed currently used as a car park and which would provide a dedicated student pavilion including a courtyard with a piano and a projector, coworking and meeting spaces, games area, and a basketball/five-a-side pitch.

The proposals will be hugely beneficial in that they re-use an existing, historic building and one which provides permeable inside/outside space that can be adapted, moved around, and opened up, creating a variety of social spaces that are not confined to small, indoor rooms.

I am optimistic about the possibilities that design and construction can provide, positively contributing towards the creation of space that assists in reducing stresses on mental health.  There have been many lessons learnt from recent months and it is important for us build on these to promote the design of better workplaces and dwellings for the long-term welfare of the people who use them.

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