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  • Writer's picture Dr. Mike O'Neill

Flattening the return-to-work "stress curve"​ through workplace design.

The Spanish flu ravaged the US and the world for almost two years through 1918-1920. The pandemic was widespread and the only reason it stopped was because there was no more fuel for the fire, no other vulnerable people remained. At its conclusion, virtually every US citizen had been infected. Like today, there were strict social distancing rules in place and laws requiring masks. There was significant mistrust between people in public places. Sociologists were concerned that the extended disconnection between people was so severe that the basic social fabric of society in our country was at risk. In fact, social cohesion was profoundly impacted. The Spanish flu marked the end of the warm close (physically and emotionally) relationships between people that was a feature of Victorian society, to our more modern experience of relatively less connection between people, which has been recently accelerated by technology such as the smartphone.

The population stress curve is rising and will collide with our return to work.

Today, feeling the effects of physical isolation and social distancing in response to the covid-19 pandemic, almost half of all Americans say that stress from this situation is negatively impacting their health. The number of Americans reporting negative stress effects is rising weekly. Most public conversation is on the tension between the health and economic impacts of the virus and shelter at home policies. However, stress is the hidden dimension that must be considered.

In the next few months, an epidemic of psychological stress will result from the trauma of isolation and economic concerns that millions of workers will carry back with them to the workplace.

Thus, in the post-covid world, along with basic health protections, the workplace will also need to address the very real impacts of stress. Psychological stress degrades work performance, reduces engagement, and diminishes physical health. Some research suggests it elevates risk of coronary heart disease, which itself is one of the underlying risk factors of covid-19

An effective return to workplace strategy must address physical and psychological well-being.

Thus we must start thinking about return to workplace strategies that not only reduce immediate health risks, but can also act as a counterpoint to the longer term negative effects of workforce stress and trauma that will reverberate through the global workforce for years to come.

Ironically some of the very measures being considered to protect employee health at work, such as social distancing, reducing the number of people in the workplace, and minimizing group gatherings -- are directly contrary to fostering social cohesion that can mitigate or heal stress.

There are some workplace design features that reduce stress while protecting health.

Research shows that social cohesion/social support between employees can diminish the negative effects of work stress; thus, social spaces at work that support safe interaction and nurture group life will play a greater role in the bridge to the future. Obviously, the layout of these social spaces will need to change. Social interactions will occur at an awkward distance, personal conversations may have to be augmented with technology. And, how do we read facial expressions when everyone is wearing a mask?

Research also shows that other workplace design elements, such as features that enhance sense of user control (adjustable furnishings, and, choice of work location and type of workspace) can increase aspects of work performance and reduce stress. Having choice of work location, perhaps through unassigned spaces, can increase employee confidence that they can control exposure to potential health risks such as sick co-workers, as well.

A concept called “legible space” is also known to mitigate stress – especially in larger, more complex facilities such as hospitals, but this concept also is important to office space. Legible space uses design cues and features that “speak” an understandable language to all employees. Especially as post covid-19 workspaces are repurposed and re-imagined for health safety reasons, it will be imperative to ensure employees intuitively understand the intended use of all spaces.

Let’s plan now to protect physical and mental health in the post covid-19 office.

This paper is not intended to be a comprehensive review of every tactic to reduce stress. I intended it to surface the issue of stress and highlight the importance of the issue. Now is the time to integrate both short and long term workplace strategies that protects workforce health upon return to the office, and that “flattens the stress curve” long term to maintain the performance and engagement benefits that the workplace experience offered before the pandemic changed our world.


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