It’s a drag being stuck in a cubicle 40 hours a week. But new research and our experts’ advice will help transform your office into a more productive and energizing place to be.

Now that warmer weather is enticing us out of the office, it ’ s tough to be chained to a desk all day.
From mind numbing meetings to interrogation-style lighting, being penned inside for the 9-to-6 grind can be downright soul sucking. No wonder only 33 percent of Americans feel engaged at work, according to Gallup’s 2017 “State of the American Workplace” report. But there’s no need to let misery have the upper hand. Some strategic tweaks can transform your workplace from prison-like to pleasant and improve your health in the process. Put these tips at the top of your to-do list.

1. BRING NATURE INDOORS

Researchers agree that gazing at a splash of green is key to feeling happier at work. “The single best thing you can do for your work space is to bring in a plant,” insists Sally Augustin, PhD, a design psychologist and principal at Design with Science in Chicago. “Research indicates that green leafy plants are great at helping us de-stress.” Indeed, people working among plants have 15 percent higher levels of concentration and productivity, a 2014 study in the Journal of Experimental Psychology: Applied showed. And when plants were brought into offices one plant per square meter employee performance on memory retention and other tests improved substantially. “It refreshes the areas of the brain that control the ability to concentrate,” explains Augustin.

If plants aren’t possible, you can still get your nature hit by looking at photographs of foliage or bucolic settings, suggests Christine Carter, PhD, author of The Sweet Spot: How to Accomplish More by Doing Less (Ballantine Books, 2017). “Looking at any type of greenery causes us to suffer less exhaustion, have better focus and enjoy greater happiness,” she says.

2. GIVE YOUR SPACE THE PERSONAL TOUCH

Distinguishing your work territory with special mementoes has a raft of wide-ranging psychological benefits. “A good work setting can set the stage for the day,” says Megan Baxter Barrow, owner of Megan Baxter Barrow Pilates in Charlestown, MA. It’s important to organize it to your own preferences. For example, if you love your dog, bring in one or two of your favorite pictures. Just don’t go overboard!

In fact, having some personal effects in the workplace was found to enhance employee well-being and ward off distractions, according to a 2013 study published in the Journal of Environmental Psychology. One of the study’s authors, Gregory A. Laurence, PhD, concluded that “placing personal items in your space helps you maintain a sense of control. And it provides a reminder of positive experiences and goals, which buffer the negative effects of a lack of privacy.”

What’s more, what you display from MBA certificates to Star Wars figurines can create conversation and serve as visual icebreakers among colleagues. “A personalized work space is great for giving people something to talk about,” notes Augustin. “It builds morale and camaraderie.”

3. LIGHT IT UP

Nothing is more debilitating than the overhead lighting that blasts down from above in most office settings especially if it’s fluorescent. “Fluorescent lighting actually flickers 50 to 60 times per second, reflecting the pulse of electricity going through the wiring,” notes Boston design consultant Linda Varone, MA, author of the Smarter Home Office: 8 Simple Steps to Increase Your Income, Inspiration and Comfort (Great Meadows Publishing, 2010).“The developers thought it didn’t matter since the blips aren’t visible, but it turns out that on a subconscious neurological level, the human eye-brain connection detects flickering up to 80 times a second.” Hello, eye strain!

To balance out the flicker factor, Varone recommends placing a table lamp with a shade not a task lamp on your desk to create a steady halo of light. “Be sure to have a translucent shade that lets some of the light glow through it, so you have a sphere of light on your work space,” she says. “The lamp with a warm incandescent or LED bulb softly diffuses some of the ill effects of fluorescent light, making it easier on the eyes and ultimately a more attractive setting.”

4. FIND YOUR COMFORT ZONE

Hunching over your computer for long hours can be fatiguing and downright dangerous. But to put your body in a natural, supported alignment and eliminate stiffness and back pain simple ergonomic tweaks can make a huge difference. “A few minutes of fine-tuning your setup will pay benefits in reduced neck, shoulder, back and wrist strain,” says Varone.

Her checklist:

  • Choose a comfortable chair with lumbar support that allows your feet to rest flat on the floor, and is adjusted so that your ankles, knees and hips are at approximately right angles.
  • Position your keyboard so your shoulders are relaxed, your elbows are at a 90 degree angle and your forearms are parallel to the floor.
  • Align your computer screen with your keyboard in front of you. “Twisting to see your monitor is a setup for back problems,” Varone cautions. Ergonomic engineers also recommend adjusting your computer monitor so the top of the computer screen is level with your eyes. It’s less fatiguing and can minimize dry eye.

To further enhance alignment and posture, Nashville Pilates instructor Ashley Benson swears by PhysicalMind Institute’s SmartSeat, a cushion-type product that makes it comfortable to sit without crossing your legs.

5. GET MOVING

We’ve all heard that “sitting is the new smoking,” an aphorism based on research that shows that sitting at a desk for too long can lead to health problems, including heart disease, diabetes, depression and cancer. But new research suggests standing may not be the panacea we hoped for.

A study published earlier this year in the journal Ergonomics suggests that standing at a desk for a prolonged period of time can lead to significant discomfort and slower mental reactiveness.

The best approach? Get up and get moving and frequently! A 2015 study published in the Clinical Journal of the American Society of Nephrology found that sedentary employees who replaced as little as two minutes of sitting each hour with walking lowered their risk of premature death by about 33 percent, compared with people who sat almost nonstop.

Walking also triggers chemical changes in the body that increase brainpower. In fact, a 2014 Stanford University study found that people who walked had 60 percent more creative ideas. “It helps blood circulation, which increases focus,” explains Carter.

6. REFRESH. RESET. REPEAT

To get more done, consider working less. An oft-cited experiment by the timetracking app Desk Time found that the most productive people worked intensely for 52 minutes, then took a 17-minute break. “We know that brain activity cycles every 90 minutes,” says Carter. “Similarly to NREM and REM sleep cycles, the brain has different types of waking consciousness.” Getting in sync with those cycles is one of the key reasons to take work breaks at regular intervals away from a screen of any kind. “Most people do well working for between 45 to 75 minutes, and then taking a break of at least 10 minutes,” says Carter. To ensure you remember to recharge, computer programs like Move or Big Stretch Reminder will prompt you to refill your water bottle or go chat with a colleague at the far end of the building at regular intervals. “You’re giving your brain a chance to rest and sometimes a thought will come to you that you wouldn’t get while sitting at your desk,” notes Varone.

7. FO CUS ON ONE THING AT A TIME .

“From studies we know that people can accomplish a full-range project with more ease by focusing on one task rather than multi-tasking and they feel less exhausted,” says Carter. “The more interruptions, the less creatively we think.”

She suggests designating a block of time during which you build a fortress against interruptions, including email and phone. “Research shows that just the presence of a phone inhibits you cognitively even if it is turned off,” says Carter, who suggests removing the phone or putting it on the Do Not Disturb mode. (As the mother of four teenagers, she has drilled her kids to call twice if they have an emergency and need to break through the Do Not Disturb.)

Email is another never-ending cause of distraction. The average person checks their email about 15 times per day, but a 2015 study from researchers at the University of British Columbia found that when people were limited to checking their email just three times per day, their stress levels decreased significantly.

Carter suggests deciding ahead of time when you’ll check email. “Try for three times a day,” she advises.

8. FEED YOUR HEAD

A 2014 study in the British Journal of Health Psychology found that people reported greater feelings of happiness, curiosity and more creativity on days when they ate at least five servings of fruits and vegetables. Getting enough water is also a boon. Even mild dehydration has been found to reduce energy, dull concentration and cause mood to plummet, according to a 2011 study in the Journal of Nutrition.

9. MAKE A SOUND FOUNDATION

“People generally perform best in a quiet space, but not one that is totally silent,” says Augustin. “That freaks us out!” If you can, consider listening to white noise or gentle nature sounds (no jungle screeches!) through headphones, she suggests. Other workers, like Benson, turn to music for inspiration. “Listening to calming and creative playlists helps me stay focused, relaxed and enjoy my work,” she says. “If you don’t have a custom playlist built, try pre-made ones like Spotify’s ‘Relax & Unwind,’ ‘Your Favorite Coffeehouse’ or ‘Classical Music for Reading and Studying.’”

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