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Where you sit or stand at work can boost your productivity

That corner office is choice real estate for more than one reason.
Image: Woman at computer having glass of water
A study found that employers should place more emphasis on exposure to daylight to promote office workers' health and wellbeing.Getty Images

In my days working in an office, I was always most content when I worked by a window. It wasn’t the view I loved (usually all I could see was the building across the street or a garbage-cluttered alley); it was the natural light. I recall in the colder months in New York, when I was experiencing minor flare-ups of Seasonal Affective Disorder (unaware I even had it), I practically worshipped my little corner of a window. When, one day my boss decided to move everyone around, I lost that little piece of glass that had come to mean so much to me. It always seemed obvious as to why I was bummed; after all, who doesn’t like a window? But new research highlights the science behind the benefits: natural light can actually boost our wellbeing and our productivity.

The Daylight and Workplace Study conducted by Cornell University’s Dr. Alan Hedge, a professor in the department of design and environmental analysis, and commissioned by View Dynamic Glass, found that workers seated by a window that optimized natural light reported an 84 percent drop in symptoms of eyestrain, headaches and blurred vision — all symptoms associated with computer vision syndrome (aka, digital eye strain) caused by prolonged screen use. The study also found that these workers noted a two percent boost in productivity, and a 10 percent decrease in drowsiness. The research focused on workers who are in buildings that use Views’ auto-tinted “smart” windows, making the case that what your window is made of is a distinguishing factor, but the essential point stands: we thrive in natural light, a difficult fact when you consider that the average American spends 90 percent of their time indoors.

This Research May Be New, But Science Has Long Understood The Value Of Natural Light On Worker’s Health

Dr. Ashwini Nadkarni, an associate psychiatrist and an instructor at Harvard Medical School, says that the effects of light on work productivity were first noted in an experiment conducted in the mid-20th century, called the Hawthorne Effect.

“In this experiment, two groups of workers in factory were studied to determine whether light affected productivity,” says Dr. Nadkarni. “The group that had greater illumination was found to be more productive in terms of work effort and task completion.”

More light has been shed on the issue in recent years, including a 2014 study published in the Journal of Clinical Sleep Medicine which concluded that “architectural design of office environments should place more emphasis on sufficient daylight exposure of the workers in order to promote office workers' health and wellbeing.”

It makes perfect sense on a neuropsychiatric level, Nadkarni reasons, because of the role the sun plays in our circadian rhythms and our sleep cycles. Natural light “helps to regulate our sleep-wake cycles, improves amount and quality of sleep — which in turn ensures that circulating levels of stress hormone are down, our glucose metabolism is normal and our fatigue levels are controlled. So performance and concentration improves.”

The Average Office Building Wasn’t Built With Light In Mind, But We’re Learning

And yet, most office buildings weren’t built with the consideration of natural light; in fact, many were designed to block it. “When I started researching office lighting over 30 years ago, we were only concerned visibility, not the importance of daylight, which was seen as being uncontrollable because of heat and glare. So buildings were being built without considering daylight exposure, [focusing instead on] artificial light because it was easier to control,” Dr. Hedge says.

Some employers are starting to pay attention. Ocean State Job Lot, a chain of discount stores, recently added skylights to its distribution lot in North Kingstown, Rhode Island, and is seeing the benefits.

“As we expanded our distribution center to 1.2 million square feet, we made a conscious decision to include multiple skylights, which provide natural light to many areas throughout the building,” says Sanna Jawo, director of distribution for Ocean State Job Lot. “Our associates work in three shifts and many aren’t exposed to natural light throughout the course of the day. The expansion allowed us the flexibility to build-in this natural light source which has made an impact on our associates’ sense of wellbeing. Since the skylights were installed, we’ve noticed more energy, an uplift in mood and an overall sense of increased happiness while at work.”

Nothing Beats Natural Light, But A Light Box and Eye Exercises Can Help

Not everyone has the benefit of working in a place that implements natural light, and while it’s true that nothing beats the real thing, there are ways to get a luminous pick-me-up while on the clock.

Dr. Nadkarni recommends investing in a light therapy box (often used to treat SAD), which you can use before and/or after work.

“A light therapy box provides bright light that simulates natural light from the outdoors,” says Nakdkarni. “These light boxes usually provide about 10000 lux light intensity and are meant to be used in a daily session of about 20 to 30 minutes per day.”

You should also consider implementing daily eye exercises into your routine to help combat digital eye strain. The Vision Council recommends the 20-20-20 rule: Every 20 minutes you look away from your screen for 20 seconds and focus on something 20 feet away. You should also talk with your optometrist as they may be able to recommend more depending on your situation.

The Vision Council recommends the 20-20-20 rule: Every 20 minutes you look away from your screen for 20 seconds and focus on something 20 feet away.

As for getting more sunshine in your workday, well, you may have a say in that, too, simply by making an effort to be outside more — even if that means getting off the train a stop early, or parking a bit out of the way. Better yet, use your body’s need for light as an excuse to have some midday time to yourself, however brief, as according to Dr. Nadkarni, the ideal thing to do is simply “take a break during work and take a walk outside.”

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