Poor workplace lighting frequently crops up as one of the most common office complaints, but we’re rapidly realising just how powerful an influence it has on our wellbeing. It’s often likened to a drug, with a growing body of evidence suggesting the right light, at the right time, may improve our resilience, help us feel more alert by day, and then sleep better by night. Conversely, inadequate workplace lighting is believed to have links to low mood and productivity, with potentially negative health implications.
The case for light
As humans, we are biologically programmed to be active during the day and sleep at night. Just as natural morning light rouses our circadian system, telling our bodies to wake up in the morning, low (or preferably no) light stimulates the release of melatonin, the sleep-inducing hormone.
But the invention of the commercial light bulbs and subsequent creation of the National Grid in the 1930s gave us 24/7 access to artificial lighting. Along with electric light, television and digital screens now conspire to keep us awake when we might previously have gone to bed.
Instead of ushering our bodies towards sleep with dimly lit evening conversation and songs, we stimulate them into wakefulness with bright rooms, ipads and mobile phones. Then by day, we all too often sit in a dingy office, without access to natural light.
The result? We’re turning nature on its head and eroding our quality and quantity of our sleep in the process.
A tailored approach
So, it seems a shift in our thinking is needed. When it comes to the workplace, we need to invest in lighting that works in harmony with our circadian system, instead of competing against it.
WELL designers must support circadian health by setting a minimum threshold for daytime light intensity.
The WELL Building Standard recognised the need for such a shift, when it included circadian lighting as one of the criteria for healthy lighting design. According to WELL, designers must “support circadian health by setting a minimum threshold for daytime light intensity.”
And thankfully, it seems recent advances in LED technology may make this a real possibility. While more research is needed, human-centric lighting is certainly a big step in the right direction.
Instead of bulbs limited to one colour and intensity, human-centric LED lighting systems are flexible and task-suited. As the working day evolves so does the light, adapting to our needs. When we find our energy levels going down, often mid afternoon, workplace lighting can be adjusted so the intensity is brighter and the colour cooler. When relaxation is in order, a warmer colour temperature and lower intensity comes into play.
The feel good factor
Light is what gives joy to buildings.
As American architect and urban designer Jaquelin Taylor Robertson says, “Light is what gives joy to buildings”. There’s certainly little doubt that investing in a workplace with high levels of natural light and access to individually controlled luminaires will pay dividends. Employees will feel better and work better.
Granted, there may be some way to go before we fully understand the complexities of the interplay between light and human biology. But it’s surely not such a great leap to think that the more stimulated, productive and content we are during our working day, the more soundly we’ll sleep at night.
Sophie Barton is our Features Editor. She a journalist and editor with 20 years’ experience in the national media, specialising in wellbeing and lifestyle.