The third Monday of January marks ‘the most depressing day of the year’: Blue Monday. The original coining of this term was actually a PR stunt by an airline to promote travel in the winter during a time when most of us in the Northern Hemisphere are cold, tired, and ready for some better weather. Beyond being a smart marketing stunt, could Blue Monday be a much-needed call to focus on wellbeing in the built environment?
Research shows that 1 in 20 people in the UK have been diagnosed with Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD), and that men are twice as likely to be diagnosed than women. In the US, 10-20% of adults experience mild seasonal depression. In daily life, mental health often overlaps with work. Almost 60% of the world population is in work, and 15% of working-age adults were estimated to have a mental disorder in 2019, according to the World Health Organization.
There is a clear need to address how the built environment affects mental health during these gloomy months. Ironically, the answer to these ‘winter blues’ might be blue itself: water. In the last decade, more bodies of research have surfaced surrounding the physical and mental benefits of being on, in, or around blue spaces.
What is blue space?
Blue spaces are environments that prominently feature water and are accessible to people. These include oceans, rivers, ponds, streams, and manmade structures such as fountains. Increasing numbers of scientific studies have revealed massive benefits associated with these blue spaces, including lowering levels of stress, anxiety, and cardiovascular disease.
In 2014, scientist and activist Dr Wallace J. Nichols published a ground-breaking book, Blue Mind: How Water Makes You More Connected and Better at What You Do, that explores our ancient and inseparable connection to water – and the science to back it. In a state defined as Blue Mind, we experience a mildly meditative state characterised by calm, peacefulness, unity, and a sense of general happiness and satisfaction with life in the moment. This can be achieved just by looking at, listening to, or being in water.
In 2019, The Wave released the Blue Health Report to shed light on the impact of surfing and water on our wellbeing. Located in Bristol, founder Nick Hounsfield pioneered The Wave, an inland wave pool, to help increase access to blue spaces and its associated benefits.
“While most of us started this kind of work because of an instinctive belief, there is now a global movement of thinkers, scientists and planners dedicated to exploring what has become known as ‘blue health’,” Mr Hounsfield said. “Thanks to them, the body of hard, scientific evidence for the beneficial effects of blue spaces is rapidly increasing.”
Not all blue space projects need to be as ambitious as building a wave pool, but it certainly insinuates that there is untapped potential in the built environment. Experiencing Blue Mind in the office can help create a healthy workspace, with benefits that of which include “calmness, clarity, creativity, compassion, cooperation, contentment, and even courage.”
Avoid Blue Monday with these practical office applications
While it may be physically impossible for the entire population to have access to big bodies of water like the ocean, there are many alternative ways to integrate blue spaces and Blue Mind into the working environment.
Dr Wallace provided Work in Mind with insight on how to bring this concept into the built environment and workspace:
- Integrate access to wild water – including views, trails, windows, and encouragement of employees to participate in aquatic activities.
- Design of indoor water features such as fountains and water walls throughout the facility but especially in common areas.
- Use virtual water including audio recordings, paintings, photography, digital imagery, water quotes, and sculptures.
- Include The Blue Mind Method in employee wellness programs.
- Facilitate a Blue Mind retreat, workshop, keynote, or book club.
Even simple design aspects such as hanging an image or painting of water can have massive positive impacts on wellbeing. A study by CBRE found that people exposed to nature murals perceived their work performance to be 10% better, while 76% felt more energized, 78% felt happier and 65% felt healthier.
“Cues at work would provide reminders throughout the day,” says Dr Nichols. “We have seen that this results in employees adopting “Blue Mind” language. ‘I’m feeling a little bit too much red mind (stress), I’m going to get my Blue Mind on by the fountain, so I don’t slip into gray mind (burn out).’”
Designing buildings with biophilic aspects in mind provides value to both employees and employers, cultivating a healthy workspace for all. The benefits are clear. Now what’s left is bringing the outdoors, in.
“The path to improvement began with apex leaders and early adopters. The integration of Blue Mind is happening slowly and steadily across many sectors and industries. Over time it will become the norm in design and wellbeing circles. The barriers to applying Blue Mind science and practice in the workplace are easily surmountable.”
Sophie Crossley is our Content Editor. She has 5+ years of experience in comms with a focus on wellbeing, the built environment, and lifestyle.