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Bad Office Lighting is Killing Our Souls

Office Lighting

Photo via Lux Review

We’ve arrived at the point in discussions about workplace health where we can compare sitting to smoking and no one bats an eye. We’re likely well versed in the various recommendations: Get a standing (or biking or treadmill) desk! Take walking meetings! Don’t stay in one place too long! All good advice. But while the conversations about physical positioning have advanced over the years, it seems that talk about lighting ergonomics has just begun to filter into the general public. If “sitting is the new smoking,” spending long hours in badly-lit environments may be the new “slowly sapping your life force”—or at least, your ability to stay awake, alert, and engaged.

“Vision has become the most neglected of all our senses in the workplace,” writes, despite widespread, chronic eyestrain, headaches, and fatigue attributable to poor lighting conditions and “computer vision syndrome,” a form of repetitive strain injury with symptoms including blurred vision, irritated eyes, and neck and back pain. Various apps—and some operating systems—have features that dim or brighten computer screens automatically depending on the time of day, and adjust color balance for a softer, more pleasing appearance.

But many office spaces still make unintelligent use of lighting. Business efficiency expert Andrew Jensen cites a study conducted by the American Society of Interior Design which found that 68 percent of employees complain about office lighting. “The two most common scenarios for poor office lighting,” he writes, “are lights that are too dim and lights that are too harsh.” Both inadequate and overly bright, especially fluorescent, lighting can lead to eye strain, headaches, and other unpleasant symptoms.

Most researchers suggest that natural light is best. It keeps our body’s circadian rhythms, fostering alertness and feelings of well-being during daylight hours.

Natural lighting renovations have been shown to result in happier workers, less absenteeism, and fewer illnesses, and, because better lighting encourages satisfaction among workers, it also results in increased productivity.

Large windows aren’t always an option, and too much sunlight can cause irritating glare if located too close to computer screens. Of course, even office spaces with large windows need additional artificial lighting. The Canadian Centre for Occupational Health and Safety offers a tutorial on lighting ergonomics, with a tour of the varieties of lighting schemes and fixtures. If in doubt, determining the best lighting scenario for a particular space might be best left to professional designers like Sabine De Schutter, an award-winning Berlin-based lighting architect, who offers some general “lighting hacks” for the non-specialist.

De Schutter’s first recommendation is to use lighting to “create atmospheres where your ideas can develop,” by using a combination of “direct and indirect lighting” and avoiding “having only downwards-directed illumination.” (Studies show that indirect lighting has the best effect on employee health and happiness.) Up to a 36 percent increase in productivity can result from lighting improvements, according to Germany’s Fraunhofer Institute for Industrial Engineering. Lighting temperature is as important as lighting direction, and different spaces within a single office can be optimized for different uses with the right lighting.


Image via UNC

UNC’s Kenan-Flagler Business School offers the recommendations above as a guide. So-called cool or cold lighting temperatures, bluish-white light over 5,000 degrees Kelvin, offer the best simulation of daylight, and thus improve alertness and lower the amount of melatonin in the system, reducing short-term sleepiness and long-term fatigue. Conference rooms may benefit from slightly warmer temperatures, which can be more welcoming while still keeping people awake. And more intimate, relaxing settings like break rooms benefit from warmer, comforting red to yellowish-white lighting up to around 3,000K.

“If you don’t have access to daylight,” the researchers note, “studies have also found that working under ‘blue-enriched’ light bulbs that are 17,000K actually increases work performance by supporting mental acuity, vitality and alertness.” In general, using the best available research to improve lighting conditions seems like a highly effective way to make an office happier, better-rested, and free from debilitating eye-strain and headaches that contribute to stress and soul-killing burnout.

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