Here is a situation that is all too common, especially in the winter: You arrive at the office in the early morning for a day full of meetings and calls. Before you know it, the day has gone by and as you leave, after staying late to finish your to do list, the sun is setting. You realize that you didn't leave the office for the entire day. “Where did the day go?” you ask.
Spending the majority of the day inside is not just mentally disorienting, it’s a drag on employee productivity and can be bad for health. The EPA reports that the average American spends at least 90% of their time inside which, studies show, has effectively scrambled our biological clocks when it comes to when we rest and when we are awake and alert. While we can’t necessarily move our desks outside to soak up natural light, understanding the importance of our internal, circadian rhythms and taking steps to restore them to a more natural state can help boost employee productivity and mood around the office, especially during the darker, shorter days of winter.
The connection between circadian rhythms and behavior
In 2017 Jeffrey C. Hall, Michael Rosbash and Michael W. Young were awarded the Nobel Prize for Physiology and Medicine for their study on circadian rhythms at the molecular level. They outline how important this research is for the world as a whole, as our inner “clock regulates critical functions such as behavior, hormone levels, sleep, body temperature and metabolism.” They go so far as to state that “(o)ur well being is affected when there is a temporary mismatch between our external environment and this internal biological clock.”
When we get out of sync with our internal clock, not only does our well being suffer, but “there are also indications that chronic misalignment between our lifestyle and the rhythm dictated by our inner timekeeper is associated with increased risk for various diseases.”
If our circadian rhythms are a natural function where each person’s body releases hormones that mirror the rotation of Earth, this means the light we surround ourselves with controls the correct release of these hormones. Spending a lot of time indoors, in artificial light, or working late-night shifts can have a negative impact on our minds and overall health, but all of this seems to be a part of modern life at work. What can we do?
The daylight cure
A recent Northwestern University study reports that all it takes to keep or circadian rhythms intact is increased exposure to natural light during daylight hours. They reported that, “(o)ffice workers with more light exposure at the office had longer sleep duration, better sleep quality, more physical activity and better quality of life compared to office workers with less light exposure.” This leads to increased productivity during the day, and, as the Nobel Prize study suggests, longer lasting health benefits.
Mohamed Boubekri, an architect who co-authored the Northwestern study, is careful to note that having windows isn’t enough. To be effective, desks and work areas need to be within 25 feet of a natural light source to reap the benefits. The study noted that having desks closer to windows also produced significant energy savings, as workers needed to use fewer lights to do their jobs.
A light bulb kind of idea
However, not all office layouts allow for a constant influx of natural light. While CNN suggests getting outside for your lunch breaks, there are ways to manage the man-made light sources in your workspace to help increase productivity and alertness. The University of North Carolina explains that light is measured by temperature in Kelvin (K.) Daylight rates as a cool, blue light that ranges from 5,000-7,000 K and increases brain activity, while a more soothing light, such as firelight, would be considered a warm, yellow light and ranges from 2,000-4,000 K. An office without strong, natural light can manage their light sources based on these principles.
For highest productivity, The New York Times suggests LED bulbs, which admit a white light that’s actually, on the K spectrum, blue. Blue screens are what sleep specialists tell you to avoid before bed as they cause “your body (to send) a signal to your brain to stop producing melatonin, a powerful hormone that helps you fall asleep.”
Outfitting the light sources in your most productive areas such as meeting rooms and desk areas with blue lights can help those working there to remain more alert. Changing the light bulbs in areas that are designed for relaxing and building workplace community, such as lounges, common areas, and break rooms, to a yellow hue can serve to help increase comfort and camaraderie.
Have a little extra money to invest? There are several types of programmable “smart bulbs” available. These bulbs mimic the quality of light outside in a gradually changing spectrum that may be even better for workers’ circadian rhythms than a constant stream of blue light. They also allow a more nuanced control of light quality—each day in the office is different, and being able to gauge and respond to the office’s needs is bound in increase quality of work, and quality of life. These bulbs include Phillips Hue Lighting and LumiFi, among others.
If you do invest in those specialty bulbs, Erick Lopez, maintenance supervisor at Managed by Q, recommends keeping several extra on hand. “When a bulb goes out you want to be able to replace it immediately and not wait for an order to come in and lose productivity due a dark workspace.” Managed by Q's vetted, maintenance service providers can install and replace specialty bulbs and light fixtures, and can help you rearrange work areas to be closer to windows.
Taking proactive steps to create a light filled environment can bring an array of possible benefits to your team, including better sleep, increased employee productivity, and improved health. When each member of your team has their circadian rhythms in sync, the office as a whole will flourish. And it’s only a light bulb order away.
Photography by Melissa Morgan Walbridge