Most of us have to spend the majority of our days in the office and those offices often have little to no natural light. The modern workspace is often designed around achieving flow and maximising inter-worker synergies rather than letting you see the outside world. In many designs the outside world is specifically blocked out as it is seen as ‘distracting’.
This is all well and good for the company, they design the office to maximise output, not to give you a nice view. But what if in the long run this type of office design was actually so bad for your health and wellbeing that it becomes counterproductive? What if the fact that you were missing out on natural light during the day had a huge impact on your sleep? Well hold onto your hats because it does.
Sleep’s central role in health and wellbeing
However, before we get onto that, we need to explain the increasingly central role that sleep is seen to play in our overall health and wellbeing. A few decades ago sleep was viewed in a mechanistic fashion, it was seen as a way of ‘charging the batteries’ and little else. People basically believed that sleep was a way of regaining the energy you had used up during the day. Now we have found out that sleep is so much more than that. A huge body of research has found that sleep plays a role in almost every physiological and psychological function. Here is a summary of some of the more incredible and far reaching ways in which sleep helps you: sleep plays a central role in memory processing and recall, it is essential for mood and emotion regulation, it controls the appetite, it is fundamental in the body’s repair and restoration (from a cut to cancer, from the flu to a broken bone), it is essential for the cleansing of your brain tissue, it regulates the blood sugar levels and it helps with brain development and repair. In short, sleep has moved from being a simple recharge to being seen as one of the most critical aspects of overall health and wellbeing.
The body clock
Right, so we have established how important sleep is. Now we need to explore just why working in an office with no natural light can be so bad for sleep. Let’s look at the background science first. Your sleep-wake cycle is regulated by your body clock, this internal function uses a range of different hormones to trigger different responses in your body. The key hormone in regard to the sleep-wake cycle is melatonin. To ensure that you are in sync with the outside world, the body clock produces melatonin when the body is in darkness and inhibits production in the light (or to be more specific sunlight, it needs to be intense and it must be the same electromagnetic frequency as sunlight).
If you spend your days in an office with no natural sunlight then you will have melatonin being produced during the day. This makes you drowsy, but it also has a worse impact, it will make it harder for you to sleep at night because your system is all confused and the levels of the sleep generating hormone are not where they should be.
Research into the impacts
A recent study decided to look into this exact phenomenon. The interdisciplinary team of architects and medical researchers recently conducted what would be considered a small case study. They compared people who were exposed to lots of natural light during their working day with people who worked in the windowless office.
Unsurprisingly the people who got lots of natural light each day scored far higher on the all the self-report health and sleep surveys they took. The natural light workers also slept for an extra 46 minutes more a night, on average, than those poor folk stuck in the office.
Mohamed Boubekri, study leader and architectural scholar at the University of Illinois, explains that "We really wanted to look at some health issues related to lack of natural light in people's lives in general... The reason why we selected office buildings is because … that's where most of us spend a good chunk of our lives."
In total the study had 27 people who worked in offices that had no natural light (or who were so far from any window that they never got any natural light) and 22 people who spent most or all their day outside drinking in that natural light. The 27 scored worse in every single measure on the eight dimensions of the Short Form 36 health survey. The people with no natural light in their workspace scored poorly on two of these eight in particular, including that of ‘vitality’. They also scored far worse on the self report sleep index, which is widely respected and well used around the world in this types of studies.
However, the researchers wanted to go deeper, so they decided that 21 of the people in the study should wear a watch that could keep track of how much light they were exposed to as well as their activity patterns. These watches confirmed that they people without windows received far less daylight, did not do as much physical movement and slept less than the outdoors group. They also found that they had more broken sleep than the natural light people.
In summary, the findings suggest that if office designers really want to create a space that is conducive to productivity then one thing that they must place at the heart of their design is natural light. While it may be far down on the list right now, if more people understood the importance of sleep to our overall health and wellbeing and realised that depriving people of the natural light during the day could have such a negative impact on their worker’s lives then maybe they would start to create the right office spaces.
Until then, if you are one of those people who work in a windowless office, you can get light bulbs that mimic the sun’s light and will help you to ensure your sleep-wake cycle is in sync.
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