Flickering lights: small office distractions equals big impact on wellbeing and productivity

In new research, Dr Steve Lamb and Professor Kenny Kwok (University of Western Sydney) suggest not only that uncomfortable work environments reduce the cognitive resources available to an employee, but also explain how these environments negatively impact previously unexplored additional factors, and have detrimental effects on wellbeing.

We all know how frustrating it can be attempting to get work done in a less than ideal environment – when the air-conditioning feels closer to freezing than pleasantly cool, or the open-plan office gets noisy enough to cause a headache. Ergonomists point to environmental stressors – temperature, noise, and lighting – otherwise known as factors in a workspace that “redirect an individual’s resources away from work performance [and place] additional stresses on cognitive reserves, attention, and/or concentration” (Lamb and Kwok, 2016, pp. 104).

Research demonstrates, time and time again, that these stressors have detrimental effects on work productivity and employee health. The cost for businesses runs into the billions: in the United States alone, Fisk (2000) estimated a direct annual cost of lost productivity owing to poor work environments to be between $20 to $160 billion.

To combat the problem, we need a clearer picture of what is essentially a rather complex situation. Past research has focused on experimental studies – controlled, laboratory studies using simplified tests of cognitive ability. On the other hand, real-world work performance has myriad components and complexities: actual employees are more driven to deliver high performance; a full work day means exposure up to eight hours of a potential environmental stressor; and additional ‘dynamic’ factors (yet to be addressed by research) such as tiredness and distractibility will undoubtedly impact work performance.

To address these issues, Dr Lamb and Professor Kwok conducted a series of surveys with employees in more than 66 real office environments, and investigated the relationships between environmental stressors, performance, and wellbeing. They found that environmental stressors have a negative effect on both work performance and employee wellbeing.

The researchers had four key aims: (1) to account for the effects of environmental stress factors on work performance and wellbeing; (2) to determine the cumulative effects of these stress factors; (3) to investigate whether additional dynamic factors (e.g. tiredness) could explain the relationship between stress factors and work performance; and (4) to investigate how employees respond to these stress factors.

114 office-working employees were recruited from Wellington, New Zealand, most of whom reported being in a “professional” or “administration” occupation. Over a period of approximately eight months, they completed a total of 2261 surveys. Invitations to complete these surveys were emailed to employees between 2:30 and 3:00pm during weekdays; this ensured that employees had received sufficient (6-7 hours) exposure to their office environment for that day.
In the survey, employees rated their workspace environment with regard to: thermal comfort, light levels, and noise annoyance. Employees also gave a self-report of their work performance, additional dynamic factors (i.e. level of distraction, tiredness, and general motivation), as well as measures of health and wellbeing (e.g. analgesic use).

The researchers reported three key findings:

  1. Environmental stressors have a negative impact on work performance; and as the number of environmental stress factors increase, work performance decreases.
    Lamb and Kwok found noise annoyance and lighting, but not thermal comfort, reduced work performance by between 2.4 to 14.8%. When their work environment was too bright or too dark, for example, employees judged their work performance to be lower than when the lighting was ‘comfortable.’ Furthermore, the effects of each cumulative environmental stress factor was additive: for every additional stress factor, work performance decreased in a linear fashion.
  2. Environmental stressors have a detrimental impact on individual states, which leads to a decrease in work performance.
    However, more importantly, researchers were able to highlight an explanation for the relationship between environmental stress factors and work performance. Instead of the stress factors directly impacting work performance (e.g. a poorly lit work environment making it difficult to see the computer screen), they found that the presence of these environmental stressors affected additional factors by decreasing motivation, as well as increasing tiredness and distractibility, which meant employee work performance suffered as a consequence.
  3. Environmental stressors reduce employee wellbeing.
    Employees are in the most positive mood when they are comfortable in their workspace environment. Perhaps more telling, however, is the fact that an increase in environmental stressors was associated with greater incidence and severity of headaches, as well as the prevalence of analgesic use.

Using real-office employees, Dr Lamb and Professor Kwok illuminated both the how and the why regarding the detrimental effect of poor environmental design on an employee’s work performance and wellbeing as well.

It’s evident that the relationship between environmental stressors and work performance is not as simple as a straight line from A to B. In the real-world, additional factors (e.g. motivation, tiredness, and distractibility) are vital components conducive to high-functioning work performance. A workspace design that supports these factors, rather than detracts from them, is an important consideration for organisations seeking to improve their employee productivity.
It is also important to note that generally, workspaces are shared spaces. Environmental stressors are unlikely to be isolated cases that decrease the productivity of a mere one or two employees. This is contrary in fact, as the presence of an environmental stressor is very likely to impact all employees in the vicinity of the workspace – and we know now that such stressors have cumulative consequences. Fisk and Rosenfield (1997) estimated that improvements in the environmental design of a workspace lead to a 0.5 to 5% increase in productivity; for larger organisations in particular, this becomes a worthwhile investment when one considers the potential breadth for impact.
So what can employers do to combat poor office environments? Simple solutions include:

  • Make sure the workspace is clean and attractive. Even if your workspace doesn’t receive sunlight, adding a few good work lights can make all the difference.
  • Be flexible. Give workers the flexibility to work where they want in the workspace. Whether it be from the comfy chair in the shared lounge, to their office desk, or having the opportunity to choose where they work on factory or store floor – perhaps even the option of switching departments for a day.
  • Give workers the freedom to customise their work set-ups. Perhaps consider providing a budget for plants or other small items to improve their workspace.

Environmental design should also “provide a safe and healthy environment to promote occupant wellbeing” (Lamb and Kwok, 2016, pp. 110). Failing to do so may lead to negative health outcomes for employees, employee satisfaction, and staff retention – all of which carry significant associated costs for the business.

For more information, contact Abigail Budiawan (abudiawan@deloitte.com.au)

To read the full article, see Lamb, S., & Kwok, K. C. (2016). A longitudinal investigation of work environment stressors on the performance and wellbeing of office workers. Applied Ergonomics, 52, 104-111.


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