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5 surprising ways your office is influencing your brain

From lack of natural light to coworkers’ behavior, your office can change how you think in unexpected ways.

5 surprising ways your office is influencing your brain
[Photo: Serjio74/iStock]

You probably know that your office setup plays a considerable part in your productivity. Poorly lit offices, for example, can have a negative impact on your memory. Those of you who work in open offices probably have a gripe (or two) about your coworker’s loud chewing noise or your inability to make calls in private.

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But your office influences your brain in more ways than you think. And since you probably spend plenty of your waking hours there, you might not realize all the effects that it’s having on your mind. Here are five unexpected ways that your workplace can change your behavior—and what you can do when that shift isn’t for the better.

You “catch” your colleagues’ negative moods

Behavioral “contagion” is a phenomenon we all experience. Think about your friend who has taken on the opinions of his new partner, or the way that memes spread among teenagers like wildfire. Our brains are primed to seek out a “tribe” and to fit in, often by mimicking, or adjusting our thinking to align ourselves with other people–even if many of us don’t think that we do that.

Studies show that everything from divorce to obesity could be “contagious.” This is a habit with deep, evolutionary roots. In the past, if we break away from our tribe, we might face life-threatening consequences. As a result, we developed a strong drive to prevent that outcome, and that defense mechanism has stayed with us. From a neuroscience point of view, 0ur sense of belonging is probably the single most crucial element to our being.

Of course, when your colleague’s behavior inspires you to do your best work and be a better person, mirroring their actions can be beneficial. However, when it feels like your colleagues are constantly locking you into negative conversations, it can drain your energy.

If your office is filled with chronic complainers, create a “tribe” inside and outside work who are optimistic, motivated, and engaged. Do your best to limit your interactions with those who leave you feeling worse and defeated. You can’t always avoid your office Debbie Downer, but you can minimize the amount of time that you spend with him or her.

You’ve just switched to hot-desking

Having some degree of autonomy over your work space can boost productivity and mood. Psychologists who ran randomized trials of office spaces found that those who were given the freedom to decorate their workspaces were the most productive. The least productive were volunteers who were initially allowed to customize their workspaces, then had the privilege taken away. This final group was less productive than another group who were forced to work in an impersonal office from day one.

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The act of removing the privilege would have activated volunteers’ loss-aversion gearing in the brain, which leads to a “lack” mentality. This mind-set makes us acutely aware of what we don’t have, and it can deplete our motivation and optimism. If you are used to having a permanent desk that you can make your own, only for your employer to take it away, you might see your productivity plummet.

If you’re forced to hot-desk all of a sudden and lose your personal space, keep a couple of personal items in your locker or bag that will help make your desk on any given day feel more like yours, like a framed photo or a special mug. Also, suggest decorating the office itself with posters and plants to help it feel less impersonal.

Your office has an artificial source of light

Research shows that people who work with natural light are less susceptible to stress and mid-afternoon slump, and report higher levels of well-being. And according to a 2018 study, almost half of workers in the U.S. reported feeling tired or gloomy as a result of a lack of natural daylight in their workspace.

Daylight plays an important role in regulating the body’s circadian rhythm, the internal clock that tells us when it’s daytime. Light plays an important part in this because it triggers the release of hormones and neurotransmitters that make us feel alert and energized. Cortisol wakes us up in the morning, and serotonin regulates our mood throughout the day. This in turn improves the brain’s ability to focus and think, as there is plenty of oxygenated blood flow to the brain’s higher thinking cortices, and we’re not distracted by feeling sluggish, hungry, or demotivated.

If your only source of light comes from fluorescent lamps, make it a point to walk outside whenever you can to get a longer daylight fix. You could also invest in a natural-light lamp to have on your desk. These mimic natural light, and as a result will limit the production of the sleep hormone melatonin. If you are particularly susceptible to the negative effects of a lack of sunlight, it may be worth getting your vitamin D levels checked and taking a supplement.

You’re not free to take breaks whenever you please

In offices where you’re expected to stay at your desk for long stretches of time, your brain will pay the price. Human brains can’t focus at a deep level for long periods of time. Concentration fatigue is a real phenomenon, and this occurs when the prefrontal cortex–the part of the brain responsible for logical and analytical thinking–is depleted. The brain needs downtime or a change in focus in order to recharge.

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The thing is, the ideal “break” routine varies from person to person, and this is the point. Some people need to walk around, others need to get some air or make a cup of tea. Unfortunately, in many offices this is frowned upon. Hopefully we’ll see this trend change as we see more scientific research that demonstrates how breaks improve productivity.

If break times are limited in your workplace, take micro pauses at those times when you can’t physically leave your desk. Every hour or so, stand up, stretch, or spend a minute focusing on your breath. This will help you to replenish some of your energy and focus.

Your office’s water cooler is broken, so you don’t drink enough water

I’m surprised by the number of successful people I work with who spend much of their working day unknowingly dehydrated. The brain relies on a ready supply of water to function well, and yet many people forget to drink enough, which hampers brain function significantly. Research shows 1% to 3% of dehydration affects memory and concentration, as well as causes headaches and even contributes to low mood.

To ensure that you drink sufficient fluids, take a refillable bottle of water to work with you and aim to get through 1.5 to 2 liters during an average 8-hour workday. Herbal teas are a great way to up your intake, too. Don’t wait until you’re thirsty to drink. Your brain will already be paying the price by then. After all, you wouldn’t drive your car to work without topping up the fuel and water tanks, so it’s in your best interest to take the same approach with your brain.

Correction: This story has been updated to refer to the correct study of natural light in the workplace.  


Dr. Tara Swart is a neuroscientist, leadership coach, author, and medical doctor. Follow her on Twitter at @TaraSwart. She is the author of the upcoming book, The Source: Open Your Mind, Change Your Life.

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