Office design and culture: happier and healthier staff – or the opposite?

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Applying ergonomic principles to workstation set-ups and ensuring the physical environment supports neurodivergent people are just some of the ways of creating an office where everyone can thrive, but a supportive and positive organisational culture is vital too.

Can office design make you happier and healthier? Yes… (but read on for our ‘no’ answer too).

Working in the field of ergonomics and human factors as long as I have, I have seen the significant impact the working environment can have on an employee’s mental and physical wellbeing, not to mention a host of other outcomes ranging from productivity to creativity.

Photograph: iStock/miniseries

There are many devices in the office design toolkit which have the power to make people happier and healthier. Here is a whistlestop tour of a few…


Ergonomics, a word which comes from the Greek ‘Ergos’, for work or labour, and ‘Nomos’, meaning natural law, has human needs at its core. This is a discipline dedicated to designing and arranging the working environment to optimise the comfort and performance of the individual. It incorporates everything which contributes to the facility of an individual to be at their most attentive, productive and comfortable at work. In a nutshell, it’s about optimising wellbeing, both physical and mental.

The case for applying ergonomics in the office – and anywhere that people work – is perhaps best made by the consequences of failing to do so. In my line of work, I see the harms done when employees are given neither the tools nor the training to manage the risks of working at a screen.

Prolonged sitting and poor workstation layout can trigger musculoskeletal pain and discomfort, potentially affecting any part of the body. The causes for these injuries are not always immediately obvious but, if left untreated or unmanaged, they can progress from mild to severe, and develop into chronic physical health problems. This in turn may also trigger mental health challenges.

The latest Health and Safety Executive data¹ shows 1.8 million workers in Great Britain reported suffering from work-related ill health in 2022/23, with musculoskeletal disorders found to be among the most common causes, accounting for 6.6 million days lost due to work-related ill health that year.

Employers are legally required, under UK Health and Safety Regulations, to carry out Display Screen Equipment (DSE) workstation assessments for any member of staff using a screen for an hour or more a day. This applies both when they start working, and if their workplace or workstation changes – for example shifting to home working, as so many have.

However, ticking the boxes and even buying the ‘right’ kit is not enough – team members need to be trained to know what a good set-up should look and feel like, and be supported by their employers to achieve that.

I like to remind managers that there is no such thing as a perfect ‘ergonomic chair’; something only becomes ‘ergonomic’ when it’s appropriately adjusted for the dimensions and activities of the individual using it. Then it might actually do the job of protecting someone’s health and even making them happier!


Biophilia describes the innate connection humans have with the nature world: our tendency to be drawn towards it, to commune with nature, and to be recharged and restored by that connection.

The body of evidence to support the incorporation of plants and natural elements in workplaces is ever-expanding, and research into the benefits is compelling. Biophilic design has been associated with a 15 per cent boost in wellbeing, six per cent greater productivity, 15 per cent higher creativity, reduced negative emotions and stress, enhanced cognitive functioning, and improved employee engagement, retention and productivity. On top of all this, health benefits include a 60 per cent reduction in bacterial colonies, a 24 per cent decrease in headaches, and a reduction in eye irritation by more than half².

You needn’t buy a jungle of plants – good artificial products, or even photographs, will also have a similar effect. Biophilic design also typically makes use of wood, stone and other natural materials, as well as designs, colours, textures and patterns inspired by nature, which can contribute to the ‘natural’ feel.

Natural light in a workspace has also been shown to be beneficial. Large windows are ideal, but not always practical, so effective task lighting can help, especially if it offers a daylight effect or, better still, a range of colour temperatures. You can even invest in circadian lights which mimic how natural light changes through the course of the day, helping an individual keep in rhythm with the natural world and their own body clock, even in a space without access to natural light.

That same approach can be applied to other environmental elements – using air filters to improve air quality, sound insulation and quiet pods to cut down on noise, and even playing natural sounds and introducing natural smells such as lavender or citrus to make an environment feel more comfortable, less stress-inducing, or more energising.

It’s too easy to forget that we as human beings have only been office-bound urban workers for a little over a century, after millennia of living and working in constant connection with the land and the natural rhythm of the days and seasons. By respecting and understanding that, we can seek to lessen the impact of unnatural office settings.

Strip-lit, sterile, neutral, ugly office spaces surrounded by concrete are never going to bring out our best, and at worst can impact negatively on our wellbeing. It is high time they were confined to the past.


In recent years, our understanding and acceptance of the natural variations in human thinking and behaviours has grown. As we come to recognise the different ways those with conditions such as autism spectrum condition (ASC), attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) and dyslexia perceive, experience and relate to their environment and other people, we are also coming to understand the need to design spaces which accommodate the diverse needs of all individuals, not least in our offices and working environments.

Photograph: iStock/FatCamera

Harsh lighting and constant noise, as seen in many open-plan offices, can be stressful under any circumstances, but often especially so for neurodivergent individuals due to heightened sensorial perceptions. They might also face discomfort with standardised ways of learning and socialising, and difficulties regulating their moods.

The demand of dealing with this kind of environment and the increased cognitive load can take a real toll, leading to more anxiety, fatigue and, in some cases, potential behavioural changes and poor mental health. The British Council for Offices (BCO)’s 2022 research report: Designing for Neurodiversity³, linked poor office design with increased occurrences of burnout among neurodivergent individuals, who appear more susceptible as they often mask or suppress symptoms to fit in.

As the report sets out, certain spaces can be disabling due to their poor design and lack of consideration for the diverse needs of users. It highlights the fact that neurodivergent individuals – while each of their experiences is unique – are often negatively impacted by light and noise pollution as well as other sensory sensitivities.

Their guiding principles for designing with neurodiversity in mind include ensuring that office spaces provide their occupiers with a sense of psychological safety, are intuitive and both diverse and agile in their arrangements, taking account of thermal, auditory, visual and olfactory needs. For example, private sound-insulated pods or rooms could be offered and lighting should be adjustable.

With more inclusive design, people do not have to adapt to fit the demands of their environment. Instead, it is the environment, with its flexible spaces and biophilic elements, that flexes to accommodate their various sensorial preferences, and their shifting needs for privacy, interaction, stimulation and calm.

Spaces like this are better for everyone – neurotypical and neurodivergent alike. Good design for neuroinclusion is essentially just good design for human beings!

And no… when the office culture fails to make you happy and healthier

While design choices can make a material difference to employee health and wellbeing – as set out above – the physical environment alone can only do so much. To truly cultivate wellbeing, organisations must consider the broader aspects of employee experience. To make the counterargument, it is really all about culture.

Guy Osmond, Osmond Ergonomics: "You can spend as much as you like on plants and fancy chairs, but if you have tyrannical managers, unrelentingly punishing workloads and a toxic atmosphere, employees will suffer."

Or, to put it another way, you can spend as much as you like on plants and fancy chairs, but if you have tyrannical managers, unrelentingly punishing workloads and a toxic atmosphere, employees will suffer.

Here, again in whistlestop fashion, are some of the factors at play.

Organisational culture

Workplace culture refers to the shared values, beliefs, attitudes and behaviours that characterise an organisation. It encompasses the overall environment and atmosphere, including how employees interact with one another, and the attitudes, values and norms that steer behaviours and decision-making.

It is reflected and embodied in a host of ways – language and communication, leadership styles, employee engagement and motivation, attitudes to diversity and inclusion, and approaches to recognition and rewards, to name a few.

Research is clear that organisational culture has a major impact on the mental health and wellbeing of employees. Supportive leadership, social support, suitable job expectations, work-life balance, effective regulations, and healthy workplace cultures can support employee mental health and wellbeing. Accordingly, the converse, lack, or absence of these things has the opposite effect⁴.

So, what makes for a good culture? A 2011 study (Cameron et al.⁵) found that a positive work culture contains six elements:

  • Treating colleagues as friends, caring for them, and being interested in their wellbeing.
  • Supporting colleagues and offering compassion and kindness in times of need.
  • Forgiving mistakes and not assigning blame.
  • Working to inspire each other.
  • Finding and emphasising meaningful aspects of the work.
  • Prioritising trust, respect, gratitude and integrity.

Practically, that might look like:

  • Training managers to lead: We know employees who feel engaged and supported by their managers are more likely to report higher levels of wellbeing and job satisfaction. Effective communication, empathy and recognition throughout the organisation can significantly impact employees’ morale and motivation.
  • Cultivating enthusiasm: Getting employees engaged and enthusiastic, for example with recognition and reward programmes. They needn’t be monetary: public praise and kudos are powerful too.
  • Making purpose manifest: People who have a sense of how and why their work is meaningful within the context of the company and beyond it, tend to stay engaged and motivated.
  • Empowering and validating: Ask for feedback and provide channels to raise concerns or suggest improvements - employees who feel heard feel valued.
  • Getting off on the right foot: Make sure new people are fully aware of company culture, values and mission, as well as the underpinning mechanics of their roles. By helping them understand which attitudes and behaviours are valued in a workplace, they can hit the ground running.
  • Creating career pathways: Employees who perceive ample opportunities for advancement and skill development are more likely to experience greater job satisfaction and overall wellbeing.

Cultivate a culture of health

Ergonomic workstations can only go so far – a workplace culture of health extends to the influence of the characteristics of the physical and social environment on behaviours and attitudes related to health and wellbeing in the workplace. (Marenus et al, 2022).

For an example of where the physical environment and workplace culture need to converge, you might consider the effective use of sit-stand desks. These are designed to encourage staff to move and shift posture through the course of their working day – but in many cases they are underused, or even inappropriately used, with the potential to create problems (Hall et al, 2019⁶).

Installing the desks and training people in how to use them isn’t all that’s required – you also need to empower staff to use them, and that necessitates a culture shift, because if everyone continues to sit, no one will feel confident to move their desk up and stand. You need to cultivate a culture where people take breaks, and movement is accepted and encouraged.

You can encourage people to stand for certain tasks and activities – sorting paperwork for example, or whenever a colleague comes over for a quick conversation or invite them to set reminders to shift position. Some workplaces go further and schedule walking meetings. Behavioural ‘nudges’ like designing lobbies where the lift is hidden and the stars are prominent, or even little things like moving a printer to the far end of the room can make a difference.

Even with the optimal set-up, sitting in one posture for too long isn’t healthy. Getting people moving is down to workplace culture as much as workplace design.

When you consider the working environment holistically, it’s clear there are multiple factors shaping the employee experience - workload management, career progression, leadership, recognition and rewards, to name just few.

So ultimately, while office design can certainly influence employee wellbeing, its impact is limited without a broader focus on creating positive workplace cultures and practices. Prioritising the physical, mental and emotional health of the workforce requires a truly systemic approach.

Further information:

BSI (British Standards Institution) (2022) PAS 6463:2022 Design for the mind – Neurodiversity and the built environment – Guide, tinyurl.com/3j8rd2t7

Guy Osmond is founder and managing director of Osmond Ergonomics, a workplace ergonomics consultancy.

Contact him at:


[email protected]



  1. HSE (2023) Overview: Key figures for Great Britain (2022/23), hse.gov.uk/statistics/overview.htm
  2. Hutson J & Hutson P (2023). Neuroinclusive workplaces and biophilic design: Strategies for promoting occupational health and sustainability in smart cities. Global Health Economics & Sustainability, tinyurl.com/mvcvu5d9 
  3. BCO (British Council for Offices) (2022) Designing for Neurodiversity. BCO London, UK, tinyurl.com/ysfrdwrs
  4. Monteiro E & Joseph J (2023). A Review on the Impact of Workplace Culture on Employee Mental Health and Well-Being. International Journal of Case Studies in Business, IT, and Education (IJCSBE), 7(2),291-317, tinyurl.com/36pvt45z
  5. Cameron, K, Mora, C, Leutscher, T, and Calarco, M. (2011). Effects of Positive Practices on Organizational Effectiveness. The Journal of Applied Behavioral Science. 47. 266-308, tinyurl.com/y5a4atkz
  6. Hall J, Kay T, McConnell A, Mansfield, L. (2019). Implementation of sit-stand desks as a workplace health initiative: stakeholder views. International Journal of Workplace Health Management, tinyurl.com/3s3vzxhn



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