Can architects solve employee burnout?

Experts explore how to harness the power of design in alleviating burnout.

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A staggering 77 percent of U.S. professionals have experienced burnout at their current job.1 At a recent industry roundtable held at Delos’ headquarters in New York City, real estate, design and workplace strategy experts discussed how awareness of this issue is growing – and how they’re seeing it impact businesses’ success.

The term “burnout” might sound ambiguous, but it’s by no means a fluffy, vague term. In academic literature, it is defined as chronic workplace stress characterized by exhaustion, cynicism and lack of professional efficacy.2 Recently, the World Health Organization recognized burnout as a “syndrome” and added it to their International Classification of Diseases chart.3 By doing so, burnout has been elevated to a higher status for health departments, researchers and government agencies to track, monitor and address the issue globally.

As a result, companies are even more eager for tools to address it.

At the same time, nearly 70 percent of professionals feel their employers are not doing enough to prevent or alleviate burnout within their organization.1 “What people don’t realize is that workplace design can make a difference,” said Senior Vice President of Delos Dr. Whitney Austin Gray, presenter and host of the roundtable.

Employee stress and disengagement…it’s real and we see it across industries

At the roundtable, participants commented broadly on prevalent work cultures and issues they’ve witnessed throughout their time in the workforce.

Several people observed that mental health claims seem to be escalating – both for employees and their dependents. They mentioned that this can affect everything from employee engagement to retention to absenteeism – and ultimately a company’s bottom line.

The research supports this sentiment.1

It’s estimated that burnout costs $125-190 billion per year in healthcare spending alone2 – a number roughly equivalent to New Zealand’s 2017 GDP.4 Traditionally, large companies have addressed this issue with loading on more behavior-based ‘wellness programs’ (e.g., smoking cessation programs) to their benefits offering. But, as Bill Browning, Founding Partner at Terrapin Bright Green, noted “only about 20 percent of a given workforce actually participates in these offerings, depending on the program and workplace.”

What companies aren’t thinking about enough – the physical environment

Feelings of burnout can be caused by multiple workplace factors including things like alignment between employee and organizational values, community, rewards, fairness, control and workload.

In particular, “high work demands are often more tolerable when employees feel they have control over their work and work environment. Many factors may impact feelings of control over the physical work environment – ranging from lighting to privacy to psychoacoustics,” explained Gray. “The ability for employees to choose where they work and how, as well as their ability to adjust factors in the physical environment to meet their needs, is central to a sense of control within the work environment. And having a sense of control can help prevent burnout.”

Gray mentioned that one way an employee can feel a lack of control is through workplace interruptions – citing that the typical office employee spends 11 minutes on a given project before being interrupted, and it takes them about 25 additional minutes to refocus.5

Is it possible to design the problem out?

To address these types of problems, Gray noted that companies often try to implement changes that rely on employee willpower.

Get noise cancelling headphones. Tell your co-workers to be quiet. Put up a sign that says you’re busy…

However, companies are finding that many employees will just sit through and ‘cope’ with the problem – and the negative consequences. Proactive employers have, therefore, become more interested in passive workplace design solutions that benefit everyone in the office, without requiring individuals to make specific behavioral changes.

What exactly are these design solutions though?

Gray noted that employers are having success with providing a spectrum of work/recovery areas (e.g., the typical cubicle and conference rooms and game lounges, phone booths, wellness rooms and nap pods). Giving their staff the freedom to choose between these areas gives employees a greater sense of control and satisfaction.6

Furniture, building materials and equipment are all also being chosen to absorb, block or cover distracting noise. For example, many companies are now using white noise machines to cover
disruptive talking in the workplace.7 Browning noted that some are taking this a step further and using natural sounds – such as the sound of a babbling brook coupled with a real or simulated water feature.

He explained that this is particularly innovative given that every sound ‘gets to the brain,’ and it actually chooses what to focus on. Because of humans’ evolutionary history with nature sounds such as moving water, people may positively associate those sounds with tranquility and safety – thereby reducing stress further.8,9

Next steps for companies

The roundtable participants agreed that a key hurdle to implementing design changes will be addressing organizational barriers.

“Workplace design, operation and activation drive employee health and wellness, and require collaboration from numerous stakeholders with alignment of strategic priorities and financial budgets. A key collaboration can be between facilities and human resources teams,” said Toby Dodd, Executive Managing Director at Cushman & Wakefield. He further noted that “many organizations we partner with focus on internal alignment with the corporate strategy to develop Key Performance Indicators (KPIs) that focus on user experience and capital management.”

Thankfully there are new information sources, tools and experts that can help navigate these difficulties. Process reports like Sustainability Roundtable’s Playbook for Sustainably Healthy Workplaces help outline ways past typical organizational hurdles, while certifications that promote health and well-being in buildings, like the WELL Building Standard™, can offer a flexible framework to healthy building design, including design solutions for acoustics, privacy and stimuli management.

Burnout is an issue that many people struggle with, and while there is never going to be one ‘silver bullet’ that addresses the problem, we’re convinced that environmental change is a good place to start.

  1. Deloitte US. Workplace Burnout Survey: Burnout without Borders. Published 2018. Accessed July 3, 2019.
  2. Leiter M, Maslach C. Areas of Worklife Survey. Mindgarden. Published 2019. Accessed January 30, 2019.
  3. World Health Organization. QD85 Burn-out. ICD-11 – Mortality and Morbidity Statistics. Published 2019. Accessed May 30, 2019.
  4. Goh J, Pfeffer J, Zenios SA. The Relationship Between Workplace Stressors and Mortality and Health Costs in the United States. Manage Sci. 2016;62(2):608-628. doi:10.1287/mnsc.2014.2115
  5. Mark G. The Cost of Interrupted Work: More Speed and Stress. Chi. 2008:107-110. doi:10.1145/1357054.1357072
  6. Malkoski K. An Introduction To A Growing Trend: Activity Based Working – Office Snapshots. Office Snapshots. Published 2012. Accessed November 9, 2018.
  7. International WELL Building Institute. Sound. In: WELL Building Standard V2. ; 2019.
  8. Oseland N. The impact of psychological needs on office design. J Corp Real Estate. 2009;11(4):244-254. doi:10.1108/14630010911006738
  9. Pheasant RJ, Fisher MN, Watts GR, Whitaker DJ, Horoshenkov K V. The importance of auditory-visual interaction in the construction of ‘tranquil space.’ J Environ Psychol. 2010;30(4):501-509. doi:10.1016/J.JENVP.2010.03.006
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