Employees who are lucky enough to snag an office with a view not only have a sunnier disposition, thanks to the rays of sunshine splashed across their desk. It turns out they also have better overall health than their coworkers whose desks are stuffed in drab corners lacking natural light.
A recent study published in the Journal of Clinical Sleep Medicine shows workers with office windows get 46 more minutes of sleep per night, tend to exercise more, and have lower blood pressure than those without a view.
Ivy Cheung, a doctoral candidate at Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine, and coauthor of the study, says sleep studies have shown that light is the most important synchronizing agent for the brain and the body, but the impact of light during our workday hasn’t been as well documented.
By examining office employees working a typical day shift–between the hours of 8 a.m. to 5 p.m.–some of whom were working in windowless offices, and others who had an office with a view, the researchers measured their quantity and quality of sleep.
“Exposure to light is one of the main environmental cues for circadian rhythms, or behavioral changes that respond to light and darkness,” says Cheung. Because office workers are mainly indoors during daylight hours, she explains, they’re most at risk for disturbances to circadian rhythms, which affects their sleep and wake patterns.
The bright white light from the sun signals to our bodies that we should be awake, she adds. But a lack of sunlight means the body doesn’t produce these cues, and can be tricked into thinking it’s time to shut down and get ready for bed, even if it’s only 2 p.m.
There’s plenty of evidence to show individuals who lack sleep tend to suffer from other problems that can hurt their performance, including slower decision-making, shorter attention spans, memory loss, and trouble learning.
While it’s unknown how much light exposure we need to reap the benefits of better quality sleep, the study also revealed “those who were closer to the windows had 173% more light exposure during the work hours,” says Cheung.
Even if you aren’t lucky enough to have an office with a view, Cheung says you can reap the benefits of natural light. Taking advantage of your morning commute and catching some rays before entering the office is ideal. “In the morning, we’re more sensitive to light,” says Cheung.
She also encourages office workers to get outside at any point of the day. “Take a phone meeting outside, have lunch outside, or go for a walk,” she advises.
If you’re truly in the dark–either stuck in a basement, or in a dark corner with no windows–a light box may be a good alternative. Light therapy boxes mimic outdoor light by turning on full-spectrum bulbs at high intensity for 30 to 90 minutes.
Light therapy has proven effective for those who have seasonal affective disorder, although Cheung notes nothing is as beneficial as getting outdoors, or positioning yourself near natural light.