Creating the Mentally Healthy Workplace

by Kristen Coco
Oct 11, 2017 12:15 PM ET

IWBI | Articles

For those of us working in the 21st century, we’ve experienced technologies, innovation and efficiencies in our personal lives and across the global marketplace that were unthinkable just a few decades ago.

Yet we’re also learning that the frenetic pace and increased demands faced by employees in the modern workplace are helping to drive an epidemic of inadequate or poor quality sleep, physical inactivity and reduced social cohesion within our communities – in turn contributing to critical mental health issues for society to grapple with, such as stress, anxiety and depression.

The scale of the challenge cannot be underestimated. More than 300 million people around the world suffer from depression, the leading cause of disability, and more than 260 million are living with anxiety disorders. A recent study led by the World Health Organization estimates that depression and anxiety disorders cost the global economy $1 trillion each year in lost productivity.1 Mental, neurological and substance use disorders collectively account for 14 percent of the global burden of disease.2

Reports from individual countries are just as striking. American employees who experience high levels of stress also report to be less engaged.3 And actively disengaged employees cost the U.S. $450 to $550 billion each year in lost productivity.4 In the UK, mental health is the leading cause of sickness absences with over 15 million days lost to stress, depression and anxiety in 2014. In fact, mental health costs the UK economy £70 billion per year, or 4.5 percent of GDP.5

To add to this, mental and physical health are intertwined. Mental health issues are linked to poor health outcomes such as cardiovascular disease, obesity and diabetes, and to unhealthy behaviors such as smoking, disordered sleep patterns, and physical inactivity.6

On World Mental Health Day, we’re focused on the solutions and so are many global employers. Specifically, what are the ways that organizations can support their employees’ mental health and empower them to feel their best? This means not only by building healthy indoor spaces where people work, but also by creating healthy corporate cultures that weave in opportunities for mindfulness or connections to nature alongside the chance to rest and recuperate in order to enhance people’s happiness, satisfaction and productivity.

Individuals who feel a strong sense of psychological support from their organization have greater attachment to the organization.7 It therefore makes sense that human-centered design elements and services that support cognitive and mental health in the workplace are a worthwhile investment that can result in positive returns for employees and employers alike.

Here’s a look at how we can support employees by embedding mental health into organizations.

Managing stress: Chronic stress adversely impacts the body, from the nervous to the cardiovascular system. Research-based strategies such as stress management programs, confidential counseling and spaces that encourage restoration, provide meaningful ways for employers to help their employees reduce stress and avoid substance use and addiction issues. Additionally, creating a supportive workplace that welcomes employees to reach out for support without social stigma or fear of professional repercussions can be successful in helping to mitigate debilitating mental health conditions.

Healthy sleep policies: Adequate sleep improves mental health and is necessary for maintaining our mental and physical performance throughout the day. Opportunities to demonstrate that an organization values sleep quality and understands its impact on overall mental health, worker productivity and well-being include providing employees a space and time to nap at work, allowing breaks to decrease fatigue and limiting late night work. The pace and frequency of business travel is also related to stress or insufficient sleep. Policies that set and enforce limits on the amount of travel, as well as efficiently managing travel schedules to minimize last minute or excessively long trips can help.

Biophilia: The emerging field of biophilia – the idea that humans have an affinity towards the natural world – helps us to understand why access to nature and other natural elements is linked to a range of positive outcomes, such as reduced cognitive fatigue, lowered stress and improved mood. Conversely, interior environments that are cold, sterile and devoid of life can diminish our experience, mood and happiness. Incorporating environmental elements, light, patterns and colors of nature, as well as connection to the outdoors from within our workplaces are key to supporting employees’ positive mental health.

Art: A major opportunity for companies and organizations to express their core cultural values while positively impacting employees’ mood and morale is to integrate beauty and mindful design through artwork. Whether it’s public art in common areas such as lobbies and courtyards or other aesthetically pleasing design elements such as ceiling heights that exude feelings of openness, art brings a certain joie de vivre into the workplace and helps to elicit feelings of comfort and joy.

Altruism: Research demonstrates that we feel better physically and emotionally when we engage in acts of generosity and charity. Volunteering with our work colleagues provides an opportunity to express our values, strengthen social relationships and gain valuable career-related experience. According to the Mental Health Foundation, helping others increases social support by generating a sense of belonging, while at the same time minimizing feelings of isolation and loneliness.8 Employers can encourage employees to get involved in charitable activities or partner with community organizations to provide volunteer opportunities for employees.

Engaging stakeholders: Using occupancy surveys to measure how well a building or workplace is promoting and protecting health and comfort needs can be a useful tool to engage the people who use the spaces most. In addition, the ability to offer feedback and have a recognized stake in one’s comfort and well-being can have a positive impact on mood and enhance connection to the organization.

The ultimate goal of our buildings and communities is to create a positive human experience. Given that mental health plays such a vital role in our overall health and well-being, an atmosphere that supports mental health and wellness can deliver significant benefits at work and across our lives.

To learn more about mental health and strategies to optimize cognitive and emotional health through design and policy, explore the Mind features of the WELL Building Standard, or download our Build WELL app and review the Mind WELLography. You can also read our top five takeaways from the Mind WELLography.


1. World Health Organization. World Mental Health Day 2017:

2. World Health Organization. Depression: Accessed May 25, 2016.

3. Jonathan Gardner, Steve Nyce. Workers Still Uneasy About Financial Security and Retirement: Results from Towers Watson’s 2013/2014 Global Benefit Attitudes Survey. Towers Watson; 2014.

4. Gallup. State of the American Workplace – Employee Engagement Insights for U.S. Business Leaders. 2013.

5. UK Department for Work and Pensions. Health and Well-being at Work: A Survey of Employees 2014:

6. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Mental Health Basics, 2013: Accessed May 20, 2016.

7. Canadian Centre for Occupational Health and Safety. Mental Health – Psychosocial Risk Factors in the Workplace. 2012: Accessed December 1, 2016.

8. Mental Health Foundation. Doing good does you good: