There’s a scene in the little-known ’90s movie Joe vs the Volcano, where office worker Joe (Tom Hanks) is sitting in a dreary basement office: anaemic fluorescent light illuminates ashen concrete walls, nondescript office furniture and pallid blinds. There’s a grey filing cabinet, grey coat stand, and the employees have grey complexions. One imagines the air is stale and thick with the odour of abandoned dreams.
The entire scene is one of gloom and dejection. Without spoiling the plot, it’s unsurprising that the lead character – who happens to have worked in this environment, unhappily, for years – receives a diagnosis of a fatal disease.
In films, bare, grey, synthetically lit and utilitarian environments are often used to represent a sense of alienation and disconnection. Why? Well, quite simply, the absence of anything natural, nature itself, is alienating and disconnecting. Not only that, it has a whole host of negative effects on our physical health. And while a fair amount of airtime in the media is given to extolling the benefits of plants in offices, natural light gets less attention – which is a huge oversight, because natural light is far more important for our well-being than the immediate presence of plants. The fact that plants cannot grow without exposure to natural light is a good clue that it isn’t exactly ideal for humans either.
‘The problem is that workplaces have become draining, dull and disconnected over time as they’re optimised for efficiency and scale,’ notes a report by research-based office furniture manufacturer Steelcase. ‘The average antiseptic, grey office can literally signal to the deepest part of the brain that it’s a barren place that won’t sustain life, which is why people generally can’t wait to get away from them.’
According to the Human Spaces Global Report, 42% of office workers have no access to natural light, 55% have no greenery and 7% lack a window within their environment – which is unfathomable, considering how much solid research has found links not only to increased employee health and well-being (which translates to less absenteeism), but also – unsurprisingly – significantly increased productivity.
A 2013 study by Northwestern University in Chicago found that the detrimental impact of working in a windowless environment is universal. Psychology Today reports that ‘compared to workers in offices without windows, those with windows in the workplace received 173% more white light exposure during work hours and slept an average of 46 minutes more per night. Workers without windows reported lower scores than their counterparts on quality of life measures related to physical problems and vitality. They also had poorer outcomes in measures of overall sleep quality, sleep efficiency, sleep disturbances and daytime dysfunction’.
Earlier this year, workplace design expert and professor in the department of design and environmental analysis at Cornell University Alan Hedge revealed results of a study that found a 51% drop in the incidence of eye strain; a 63% drop in the incidence of headaches; and a 56% reduction in drowsiness – all from the presence of natural light in the office.
‘Among many elements in indoor environment, light seems to have the most impact on the human body,’ states a 2016 research paper from the University of Illinois. ‘Various studies have investigated the impacts of light on people from different points of view for over a century. These studies demonstrated that light has visual and non-visual influences on people. Among different sources of lighting, it seems that sunlight is the most effective, as it comprises adequate quantity and a broad spectrum of light. In addition to its role as an agent for vitamin D production in human blood, natural light can improve subjective mood, attention, cognitive performance, physical activity, sleep quality and alertness in humans.’
A direct correlation between exposure to natural light and less sick leave was found by the University of Oregon. There was a statistically significant 6.5% decrease in leave taken by workers who were exposed to daylight.
‘Natural light is as important to a worker’s well-being as an ergonomic chair is to their posture and health,’ says Isla Galloway-Gaul, group MD of workspace solutions company Inspiration Office.
‘Natural light allows the natural adjustment of one’s eyes, which puts far less strain on them, versus the many office environments that are fitted with fluorescent lighting, which often bounces off monitor screens and, again, strains the eyes. As human beings we are created to be at our best in the most natural environment, be it light or fresh air, and our bodies function more efficiently.’
So just how does natural light affect our bodies? It all has to do with our circadian rhythms, which refers to a cycle of changes that occur in the body over a 24-hour period. These rhythms dictate when we grow tired and go to sleep, when we wake up, when we get hungry, our metabolism, when we feel energy peaks and slumps, body temperature, blood pressure; and it regulates hormones and chemicals in the body. These changes are strongly influenced by our environment – particularly our exposure, or not, to natural daylight.
Disruption of our circadian rhythms usually leads to sleep disorders – and a long-term sleep deficit is linked to a huge range of maladies and diseases, including type 2 diabetes, cardiovascular disease, stroke and a lowered immune system, which obviously makes one more susceptible to infections of all kinds. According to Harvard Health, a landmark study of human sleep deprivation by the University of Chicago found that lack of sleep leads to higher blood pressure and elevated levels of the stress hormone cortisol, and they produced only half the usual number of antibodies to a flu vaccine. Participants also showed signs of insulin resistance.
While there is no disputing that natural light is as important to our health as food and shelter, it’s a tricky equation because too much natural light can almost be as bad as too little. Windows that allow light to flood in can overheat a building, leading to increased air conditioner use – which is bad for the employer’s energy bill and carbon footprint. Unwanted glare prompts workers to close blinds or shades to manage the problem, which essentially brings them back to square one: not enough light, and no view of the outside world.
Judicious ‘daylighting’ – in other words, the controlled admission of natural light in to a building – can help reduce as much as one third of total building energy costs, according to US-based Whole Building Design Guide, a programme of the National Institute of Building Science.
‘The science of daylighting design is not just how to provide enough daylight to an occupied space, but how to do so without any undesirable side effects,’ states the guide. ‘Beyond adding windows or skylights to a space, it involves carefully balancing heat gain and loss, glare control, and variations in daylight availability.
‘For example, successful daylighting designs will carefully consider the use of shading devices to reduce glare and excess contrast in the workspace. Additionally, window size and spacing, glass selection, the reflectance of interior finishes, and the location of any interior partitions must all be evaluated.’
So, are SA employers taking heed of this important information? ‘I believe South African employers are well aware of the benefits of natural light for employees,’ according to Galloway-Gaul. ‘You need only look around at many of the new buildings where you see the lifestyle that employers give their staff. There are breakaway areas, rejuvenation areas where employees can relax, have private meetings and so on.
‘This is all part of a global move to create a home away from home in the office,’ she adds. ‘[It’s] a meaningful way to gain and retain valuable staff, a company’s finest commodity.
‘Often fresh air is difficult in massive builds, due to full glass exteriors, but staff are encouraged to step away from their desks, use courtyards, etc, to have natural sunlight.
‘As human beings in the 21st century, we are all so aware of the need and will to be healthy, and natural light and sunshine are just a few of nature’s contributions towards that.’