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Tuesday, 11 January 2011 20:43

Environmental Design

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In this article, the links between the physical features of the workplace and occupational health are examined. Workplace design is concerned with a variety of physical conditions within work environments that can be objectively observed or recorded and modified through architectural, interior design and site planning interventions. For the purposes of this discussion, occupational health is broadly construed to encompass multiple facets of workers’ physical, mental and social well-being (World Health Organization 1984). Thus, a broad array of health outcomes is examined, including employee satisfaction and morale, work-group cohesion, stress reduction, illness and injury prevention, as well as environmental supports for health promotion at the worksite.

Empirical evidence for the links between workplace design and occupational health is reviewed below. This review, highlighting the health effects of specific design features, must be qualified in certain respects. First, from an ecological perspective, worksites function as complex systems comprised of multiple social and physical environmental conditions, which jointly influence employee well-being (Levi 1992; Moos 1986; Stokols 1992). Thus, the health consequences of environmental conditions are often cumulative and sometimes involve complex mediated and moderated relationships among the sociophysical environment, personal resources and dispositions (Oldham and Fried 1987; Smith 1987; Stellman and Henifin 1983). Moreover, enduring qualities of people-environment transaction, such as the degree to which employees perceive their work situation to be controllable, socially supportive and compatible with their particular needs and abilities, may have a more pervasive influence on occupational health than any single facet of workplace design (Caplan 1983; Karasek and Theorell 1990; Parkes 1989; Repetti 1993; Sauter, Hurrell and Cooper 1989). The research findings reviewed should be interpreted in light of these caveats.

Research Findings

The relationships between worksite design and occupational health can be considered at several levels of analysis, including the:

  1. physical arrangement of employees’ immediate work area
  2. ambient environmental qualities of the work area
  3. physical organization of buildings that comprise a particular workplace
  4. exterior amenities and site planning of those facilities.


Previous research has focused primarily on the first and second levels, while giving less attention to the third and fourth levels of workplace design.

Physical features of the immediate work area

The immediate work area extends from the core of an employee’s desk or workstation to the physical enclosure or imaginary boundary surrounding his or her work space. Several features of the immediate work area have been found to influence employee well-being. The degree of physical enclosure surrounding one’s desk or workstation, for example, has been shown in several studies to be positively related to the employee’s perception of privacy, satisfaction with the work environment and overall job satisfaction (Brill, Margulis and Konar 1984; Hedge 1986; Marans and Yan 1989; Oldham 1988; Sundstrom 1986; Wineman 1986). Moreover, “open-plan” (low enclosure) work areas have been linked to more negative social climates in work groups (Moos 1986) and more frequent reports of headaches among employees (Hedge 1986). It is important to note, however, that the potential health effects of workstation enclosure may depend on the type of work being performed (e.g., confidential versus non-confidential, team versus individualized tasks; see Brill, Margulis and Konar 1984), job status (Sundstrom 1986), levels of social density adjacent to one’s work area (Oldham and Fried 1987), and workers’ needs for privacy and stimulation screening (Oldham 1988).

A number of studies have shown that the presence of windows in the employees’ immediate work areas (especially windows that afford views of natural or landscaped settings), exposure to indoor natural elements (e.g., potted plants, pictures of wilderness settings), and opportunities to personalize the decor of one’s office or workstation are associated with higher levels of environmental and job satisfaction and lower levels of stress (Brill, Margulis and Konar 1984; Goodrich 1986; Kaplan and Kaplan 1989; Steele 1986; Sundstrom 1986). Providing employees with localized controls over acoustic, lighting and ventilation conditions within their work areas has been linked to higher levels of environmental satisfaction and lower levels of stress in some studies (Becker 1990; Hedge 1991; Vischer 1989). Finally, several research programmes have documented the health benefits associated with employees’ use of adjustable, ergonomically sound furniture and equipment; these benefits include reduced rates of eyestrain and of repetitive motion injuries and lower back pain (Dainoff and Dainoff 1986; Grandjean 1987; Smith 1987).

Ambient environmental qualities of the work area

Ambient environmental conditions originate from outside the worker’s immediate work area. These pervasive qualities of the worksite influence the comfort and well-being of employees whose work spaces are located within a common region (e.g., a suite of offices located on one floor of a building). Examples of ambient environmental qualities include levels of noise, speech privacy, social density, illumination and air quality—conditions that are typically present within a particular portion of the worksite. Several studies have documented the adverse health impacts of chronic noise disturbance and low levels of speech privacy in the workplace, including elevated levels of physiological and psychological stress and reduced levels of job satisfaction (Brill, Margulis and Konar 1984; Canter 1983; Klitzman and Stellman 1989; Stellman and Henifin 1983; Sundstrom 1986; Sutton and Rafaeli 1987). High levels of social density in the immediate vicinity of one’s work area have also been linked with elevated stress levels and reduced job satisfaction (Oldham 1988; Oldham and Fried 1987; Oldham and Rotchford 1983).

Health consequences of office lighting and ventilation systems have been observed as well. In one study, lensed indirect fluorescent uplighting was associated with higher levels of employee satisfaction and reduced eyestrain, in comparison with traditional fluorescent downlighting (Hedge 1991). Positive effects of natural lighting on employees’ satisfaction with the workplace also have been reported (Brill, Margulis and Konar 1984; Goodrich 1986; Vischer and Mees 1991). In another study, office workers exposed to chilled-air ventilation systems evidenced higher rates of upper-respiratory problems and physical symptoms of “sick building syndrome” than those whose buildings were equipped with natural or mechanical (non-chilled, non-humidified) ventilation systems (Burge et al. 1987; Hedge 1991).

Features of the ambient environment that have been found to enhance the social climate and cohesiveness of work groups include the provision of team-oriented spaces adjacent to individualized offices and workstations (Becker 1990; Brill, Margulis and Konar 1984; Steele 1986; Stone and Luchetti 1985) and visible symbols of corporate and team identity displayed within lobbies, corridors, conference rooms, lounges and other collectively used areas of the worksite (Becker 1990; Danko, Eshelman and Hedge 1990; Ornstein 1990; Steele 1986).

Overall organization of buildings and facilities

This level of design encompasses the interior physical features of work facilities that extend throughout an entire building, many of which are not immediately experienced within an employee’s own work space or within those adjacent to it. For example, enhancing the structural integrity and fire-resistance of buildings, and designing stairwells, corridors and factories to prevent injuries, are essential strategies for promoting worksite safety and health (Archea and Connell 1986; Danko, Eshelman and Hedge 1990). Building layouts that are consistent with the adjacency needs of closely interacting units within an organization can improve coordination and cohesion among work groups (Becker 1990; Brill, Margulis and Konar 1984; Sundstrom and Altman 1989). The provision of physical fitness facilities at the worksite has been found to be an effective strategy for enhancing employees’ health practices and stress management (O’Donnell and Harris 1994). Finally, the presence of legible signs and wayfinding aids, attractive lounge and dining areas, and child-care facilities at the worksite have been identified as design strategies that enhance employees’ job satisfaction and stress management (Becker 1990; Brill, Margulis and Konar 1984; Danko, Eshelman and Hedge 1990; Steele 1986; Stellman and Henifin 1983; Vischer 1989).

Exterior amenities and site planning

Exterior environmental conditions adjacent to the worksite may also carry health consequences. One study reported an association between employees’ access to landscaped, outdoor recreational areas and reduced levels of job stress (Kaplan and Kaplan 1989). Other researchers have suggested that the geographic location and site planning of the worksite can influence the mental and physical well-being of workers to the extent that they afford greater access to parking and public transit, restaurants and retail services, good regional air quality and the avoidance of violent or otherwise unsafe areas in the surrounding neighbourhood (Danko, Eshelman and Hedge 1990; Michelson 1985; Vischer and Mees 1991). However, the health benefits of these design strategies have not yet been evaluated in empirical studies.

Directions for Future Research

Prior studies of environmental design and occupational health reflect certain limitations and suggest several issues for future investigation. First, earlier research has emphasized the health effects of specific design features (e.g., workstation enclosure, furnishings, lighting systems), while neglecting the joint influence of physical, interpersonal and organizational factors on well-being. Yet the health benefits of improved environmental design may be moderated by the social climate and organizational qualities (as moderated, for example, by a participative versus non-participative structure) of the workplace (Becker 1990; Parkes 1989; Klitzman and Stellman 1989; Sommer 1983; Steele 1986). The interactive links between physical design features, employee characteristics, social conditions at work and occupational health, therefore, warrant greater attention in subsequent studies (Levi 1992; Moos 1986; Stokols 1992). At the same time, an important challenge for future research is to clarify the operational definitions of particular design features (e.g., the “open plan” office), which have varied widely in earlier studies (Brill, Margulis and Konar 1984; Marans and Yan 1989; Wineman 1986).

Secondly, employee characteristics such as job status, gender and dispositional styles have been found to mediate the health consequences of worksite design (Burge et al. 1987; Oldham 1988; Hedge 1986; Sundstrom 1986). Yet, it is often difficult to disentangle the separate effects of environmental features and individual differences (these differences may have to do with, for example, workstation enclosures, comfortable furnishings, and job status) because of ecological correlations among these variables (Klitzman and Stellman 1989). Future studies should incorporate experimental techniques and sampling strategies that permit an assessment of the main and interactive effects of personal and environmental factors on occupational health. Moreover, specialized design and ergonomic criteria to enhance the health of diverse and vulnerable employee groups (e.g., disabled, elderly and single-parent female workers) remain to be developed in future research (Michelson 1985; Ornstein 1990; Steinfeld 1986).

Thirdly, prior research on the health outcomes of worksite design has relied heavily on survey methods to assess employees’ perceptions of both their work environments and health status, placing certain constraints (for example, “common method variance”) on the interpretation of data (Klitzman and Stellman 1989; Oldham and Rotchford 1983). Furthermore, the majority of these studies have used cross-sectional rather than longitudinal research designs, the latter incorporating comparative assessments of intervention and control groups. Future studies should emphasize both field-experimental research designs and multi-method strategies that combine survey techniques with more objective observations and recordings of environmental conditions, medical exams and physiological measures.

Finally, the health consequences of building organization, exterior amenities and site-planning decisions have received considerably less attention in prior studies than those associated with the more immediate, ambient qualities of employees’ work areas. The health relevance of both proximal and remote aspects of workplace design should be examined more closely in future research.

Role of Workplace Design in Illness Prevention and Health Promotion

Several environmental design resources and their potential health benefits are summarized in table 1, based on the preceding review of research findings. These resources are grouped according to the four levels of design noted above and emphasize physical features of work settings that have been empirically linked to improved mental, physical and social health outcomes (especially those found at levels 1 and 2), or have been identified as theoretically plausible leverage points for enhancing employee well-being (e.g., several of the features subsumed under levels 3 and 4).

Table 1. Workplace design resources and potential health benefits

Levels of environmental design Environmental design features of the workplace Emotional, social and physical health outcomes
Immediate work area Physical enclosure of the work area
Adjustable furniture and equipment
Localized controls of acoustics, lighting and ventilation
Natural elements and personalized decor
Presence of windows in work area
Enhanced privacy and job satisfaction
Reduced eyestrain and repetitive-strain and lower-back injuries
Enhanced comfort and stress reduction
Enhanced sense of identity and involvement at the workplace
Job satisfaction and stress reduction
Ambient qualities
of the work area
Speech privacy and noise control
Comfortable levels of social density
Good mix of private and team spaces
Symbols of corporate and team identity
Natural, task, and lensed indirect lighting
Natural ventilation vs. chilled-air systems
Lower physiological, emotional stress
Lower physiological, emotional stress
Improved social climate, cohesion
Improved social climate, cohesion
Reduced eyestrain, enhanced satisfaction
Lower rates of respiratory problems
Building organization Adjacencies among interacting units
Legible signage and wayfinding aids
Injury-resistant architecture
Attractive lounge and food areas onsite
Availability of worksite child care
Physical fitness facilities onsite
Enhanced coordination and cohesion
Reduced confusion and distress
Lower rates of unintentional injuries
Enhanced satisfaction with job, worksite
Employee convenience, stress reduction
Improved health practices, lower stress
Exterior amenities
and site planning
Availability of outside recreation areas
Access to parking and public transit
Proximity to restaurants and stores
Good air quality in surrounding area
Low levels of neighbourhood violence
Enhanced cohesion, stress reduction
Employee convenience, stress reduction
Employee convenience, stress reduction
Improved respiratory health
Reduced rates of intentional injuries


The incorporation of these resources into the design of work environments should, ideally, be combined with organizational and facilities management policies that maximize the health- promoting qualities of the workplace. These corporate policies include:

  1. the designation of worksites as “smoke-free” (Fielding and Phenow 1988)
  2. the specification and use of non-toxic, ergonomically sound furnishings and equipment (Danko, Eshelman and Hedge 1990)
  3. managerial support for employees’ personalization of their workspace (Becker 1990; Brill, Margulis and Konar 1984; Sommer 1983; Steele 1986)
  4. job designs that prevent health problems linked with computer-based work and repetitive tasks (Hackman and Oldham 1980; Sauter, Hurrell and Cooper 1989; Smith and Sainfort 1989)
  5. the provision of employee training programmes in the areas of ergonomics and occupational safety and health (Levy and Wegman 1988)
  6. incentive programmes to encourage employees’ use of physical fitness facilities and compliance with injury prevention protocols (O’Donnell and Harris 1994)
  7. flexitime, telecommuting, job-sharing and ride-sharing programmes to enhance workers’ effectiveness in residential and corporate settings (Michelson 1985; Ornstein 1990; Parkes 1989; Stokols and Novaco 1981)
  8. the involvement of employees in the planning of worksite relocations, renovations and related organizational developments (Becker 1990; Brill, Margulis and Konar 1984; Danko, Eshelman and Hedge 1990; Miller and Monge 1986; Sommer 1983; Steele 1986; Stokols et al. 1990).


Organizational efforts to enhance employee well-being are likely to be more effective to the extent that they combine complementary strategies of environmental design and facilities management, rather than relying exclusively on either one of these approaches.


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