How The Design Criteria Of The WELL Building Standard Promotes An Environment To Support Mental Health During A Global Pandemic

By: Kristin Check

As we are coming off of a lengthy stay of working from home in close quarters with our loved ones and pets, I wanted to write this post to discuss some connections that I’ve made between the WELL Building Standard and how we can equip our workspaces better to support employee mental health during this difficult time. I have been implementing and continuing to study the WELL program since 2017 and became a WELL Accredited professional to have the tools to use their strategies in our interior projects. If you aren’t familiar with the WELL Building Standard, it is a building rating system that focuses on the health and wellbeing of the building occupants, and design teams/owners can earn points through implementing a variety of design strategies.

I’m sure many of you felt the way I did the last few months, like the walls of our suburban Oklahoma City home were closing in on us during the Spring/Summer stay-at-home orders. Experiencing a lot of the same routine, in the same space, on many zoom calls, becoming mentally exhausted from the stress and anxiety that comes with a global pandemic, but thankful to be safe at home. When those restrictions were lifted, I remember it feeling so great to be able to go work at my desk, in our corporate office 15 minutes away. This had me thinking about how we can create interior space that restores and recharge employees and provide a little bit of respite for them to escape to while the challenges of virtual learning, continued work from home protocols, and travel restrictions get them down. Below I will detail a few design strategies that we can incorporate into existing and new workspaces to provide these areas for employees.

The first design strategy we can implement is designing restorative spaces. When designing these quiet retreat spaces, we want to keep in mind acoustic control. Maintaining a high level of acoustics and sound isolation helps to keep the areas we are meant to rest and recharge quiet and distraction-free. We can achieve this through ceiling and wall treatments, additional insulation in the partitions, and white noise machines if needed. Another critical design decision we will want to keep in mind is furniture. Providing a variety of styles of seating options and lounge pieces will provide the users with the right options for them to relax how they prefer. Selecting durable and cleanable materials will be vital in maintaining a sanitized environment between users. Also, incorporating biophilic elements or elements that help to remind our minds of nature help to relax and recharge our minds. According to design strategy feature M06 in the WELL Building Standard, incorporating these natural elements through artwork, views of the exterior, and green space, providing furnishings with a variety of textures and soothing colors helps to reduce stress and create a restorative environment.

Another way we can provide restorative environments in the workplace is through access to the outdoors and providing access to nature. As we discussed previously, providing areas where employees can experience natural elements and green space helps to relax and reduce stress. We can achieve this by providing easy access to outdoor workspace from breakrooms or atrium spaces, and providing the technology necessary to make the outdoors a productive work environment. I think that individuals working from home noticed that the desire to be outdoors increased for them during the stay at home orders, and more people are enjoying dining outdoors and doing outdoor activities as the country continues to open. Providing proper air circulation, shade features, and a variety of work seating styles for small group meetings or individual work make the outdoor area function while supporting social distancing efforts. These spaces can also double as activity spaces for yoga or group fitness classes, further providing employees with ways to reduce stress and anxiety.

Lastly, a large element of the WELL Building Standard is helping companies to incorporate wellness policies and protocols into their company culture through several design strategy features. Often, Interior Designers are part of the discussions with human resources and company leadership when designing a new workspace and company culture. We help to work through how the office will function, and WELL suggests several policy type strategies that I think are going to be increasingly vital as we continue to adapt and recover from this pandemic. A few examples are having an emergency preparedness plan and making sure it is distributed and available to all employees. This plan is described in design strategy feature C15, but providing employees with a work from home plan and a plan detailing a variety of scenarios helps to reduce anxiety and stress when an event does happen. Another strategy is providing mental health support and services through human resources policies and procedures. These are detailed in C05, M03, and C06 of the WELL Building Standard and describe having the resources to support a healthy mental state at home and at work. Examples of policies and procedures include providing mental health support classes and resources, business travel protocols and recommendations, and maintaining healthy work hours and sleep hygiene. All of these resources can provide the employee with the information they need to assist them through difficult times like we are currently experiencing and hopefully increase workplace satisfaction and connection.

Interior Designers play a significant role on the project team when it comes to designing a work environment that supports the health and wellbeing of the building occupants. Designing for areas that help to make life easier and make employees feel more supported during challenging times like these is a big component of the design decisions. I hope we can all find a little retreat and relaxation in parts of life in the next few months!