Can Design Solve Workplace Stress?

Can Design Solve Workplace Stress?

Working hard is hardly working. These designers are exploring ways to nurture creativity through rest, relaxation and recharging.

What does your dream workday look like? How about four hours of hard work in the morning balanced by an afternoon of restful activities such as naps or long walks? Or, would you be open to short yet regular restorative vacations throughout the year? And what about a sabbatical every seven years?

If these ideas sound idyllic, then perhaps bring them up with H.R. at your next appraisal. Or read about the benefits of downtime in Alex Soojung-Kim Pang’s new book Rest: Why You Get More Done When You Work Less. Pang is among a growing number of researchers who believe – as the book’s title suggests – that we can all work less while being more productive and creative, simply by resting in a deliberate and disciplined way.

A researcher for the Silicon Valley think tank Institute for the Future, Pang suggests we start by reframing the relationship between work and rest. Those two realities are not polar opposites, he writes. “Rest is work’s partner. They complement and complete each other.” In other words, we cannot work well without resting well.

But isn’t rest the time when we’re not working? Actually, no. Rest deserves its own time and should be claimed, scheduled and fiercely protected. “We shouldn’t regard rest as a mere physical necessity to be satisfied begrudgingly; we should see it as an opportunity. When we stop and rest properly, we’re not paying a tax on creativity. We’re investing in it.”

Pang’s book presents three main ideas that explain how these two realities are partners: rest is active, rest is a skill, and deliberate rest stimulates and sustains creativity. Intentional downtime is vastly different from flopping on the couch; different types of rest have different benefits.

For instance, mind wandering and long walks are ideal for stepping back from a problem you are working on, and allow your brain to resolve it in a freer way. Deep play (painting or mountain climbing, for example) is a fun, restorative break that utilizes problem-solving skills. In both cases your subconscious mind will keep reviewing problems even though your conscious mind is having a break. But to yield benefits, these windows for rest must be scheduled in daily – ideally as part of a structured routine that begins early, to make more time for rest – and regularly planned throughout the year.

According to Pang, deliberate rest helps us prioritize the things that matter and cultivates a calmer, more effective way of working. To illustrate his arguments, he examines the routines and working lives of respected figures through time. These include Charles Darwin, who worked four-hour mornings and took afternoon walks; fiction writer Haruki Murakami, who naps “a lot”; designer Stefan Sagmeister, who takes a sabbatical every seven years; and Bill Gates, who takes annual “think weeks.”

These are people who work relatively autonomously or are in senior positions. But what about ordinary people dealing with rigid offices, entrepreneur’s guilt and deadlines – how can they realistically implement these measures? Perhaps these challenges could be resolved in part by first recognizing the importance of rest, and reframing it as an essential element of work.

What if we stopped labelling mind-wandering as a distraction (the scientific term is “task-unrelated thought”) and scheduled it after creative sessions? Rather than associating naps with laziness, we could see them as a tool to boost focus (they could be renamed “strategic naps”). If the science is there, why aren’t more offices beyond Silicon Valley allowing their employees to nap? Nap rooms are often provided as a company perk in industries that fight for talent. But in industries with surpluses of talent – for instance, design and architecture – nap rooms are few and far between.

The perception that busyness equals productivity is so ingrained in our thinking that only the most progressive companies, willing to completely upend work culture, would undertake to counter it.

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It’s not beyond the realm of possibility. One initiative exploring deliberate rest as a form of stress management is the RESET pod, which launched in April in Milan, as part of Salone del Mobile. Designed by a multidisciplinary team including Amsterdam firm UNStudio and social design practice Scape, RESET (Responsive Emotional Transformation) formed part of the fairground exhibition area dedicated to workspace. The subtitle of the display was “A Joyful Sense at Work.”

The immersive, experiential installation drew attention to the urgency of tackling workplace stress and offered feedback, based on personalized data, for people to mindfully manage such stress. The two prototype pods were designed around scientifically proven methods of stress relief; there were, for example, spaces for solitary reflection as well as soundproof compartments for listening to music or ambient sounds. Although these solutions seem obvious and familiar, they still remain foreign to most work environments.

The burden of stress in the workplace is undeniable. According to the European Risk Observatory Report 2015, work-related anxiety is the second most frequently reported health problem, a finding that matches those of similar studies in North America. Scape founder Jeff Povlo, who was part of the RESET team, says stress is linked to six leading causes of death. “It has physiological, physical and fiscal impacts. If people don’t have a place to put stress, it can manifest in negative ways.”

The modern work culture plays a major role in raising stress levels. “Our workplaces are becoming more demanding, and so is our daily life, overflowing with to-do lists,” says Dr. Teresa De Sanctis, a neuroscientist who also worked on the Milan exhibit. “We’re constantly multi-tasking, and it is so engraved in our lives that we often mistake it as the norm.”

The switch to focusing on well-being is starting to take hold, says UNStudio co-founder Ben van Berkel. “We’re starting to understand the importance of well-being in relation to both productivity and innovation. Even so, the main focus has been on new ways of working, and changing the spaces we work in. It’s a spatial response, rather than a seeking out of less tangible ways architecture can create a happier, healthier workforce.”

Van Berkel sees the pods as additions to an existing work environment. They are meant to be accessible to people who need a break. Users experience the pods alone, wearing heart and brain sensors that analyze physical and mental states and track the experience. The data gathered works at two levels: it informs the pod, which in turn adapts its physical environment to the user. And, with the help of algorithms, it helps generate a “reset index” – personalized recommendations for the most appropriate ways to release anxieties.

With fluid architecture, each pod is designed to immerse the user in a different way. The Warm Embrace pod focuses on intimacy, for instance, with its plush interior that feels like a hug, generating feelings of trust and security. Users sit or lie down as they wish. Through sound and lighting the space adapts to the person’s heartbeat – as heart rate increases, the interior becomes more animated, and vice versa.

The Discover Your Sound pod offers a more interactive approach: releasing energy through sound. Here users can sing, dance and jam to their heart’s content in an enclosed, reactive music environment. Wearing wireless headphones (so no one hears the private concert), people can play the electric drum pads or trigger sounds by touching the walls. The more activity, the more animated the lighting and mood in the space become.

Whether it’s through learning how to rest better or using technology to help manage stress, we all want to be happy and healthy at work. There’s still much to be done, but we have come a long way in acknowledging that there are benefits to resting. Says Povlo: “In the past stress was considered taboo. It showed weakness in dealing with our emotions. It didn’t mean someone couldn’t do their job. Maybe it was just because they needed a break.”  

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