How Office Lighting Affects Employee Productivity

office-office-hell-work-demotivational-poster-1212608068Everyone knows about . The aptly-initialized SAD affects people in the winter, when there are fewer hours of sunlight, and creates those “winter blues” we all love to complain about. But if lack of sunlight can dampen our mood on a seasonal basis, what about the lighting situation in our cubicles? Is it possible to lose productivity, because it’s winter in your office all the time?

Office lighting is famously depressing. For most of us, it consists of yellow, flickering fluorescents. They make a soul-sucking zzzzing sound, bathe us in sickly light, and generally make us feel like vitamins are being sucked out of our bodies while we work.

Are fluorescent lights bad for you? In a word: yes. And while it’s reassuring to know that our discomfort under those blinking bars isn’t all in our head, it’s a bummer to realize that the lights many of us are stuck with aren’t great for your health and happiness.

Fluorescents are linked to a long line of health complaints, including eye strain, stress, allergic skin reactions, and hyperactivity. Fortunately there’s no proof that it causes some of the scarier diseases discussed on the interwebs (cancer, extreme vitamin deficiency, etc.) For example, the toxic levels of mercury in fluorescent lights probably aren’t going to hurt you, unless your coworkers like to blow off steam by breaking light tubes and inhaling the particles.

The major effects of artificial lighting are pretty much what you always thought they were: malaise, eye strain, and depression. None of which are exactly conducive to cranking out those TPS reports in a timely fashion.

The angle of lighting is another factor. A study at Cornell University compared parabolic downlighting (a.k.a. the usual, downward-directed lights) with lensed, indirect lighting. The study participants were unanimous in preferring indirect light, and reported fewer problems with eye strain, tired eyes, and focus problems.

Ideally, all offices would be designed to offer workers at least some exposure to natural light. And it doesn’t take much, by the way: depending on where you live and what time of year it is, you can get enough Vitamin D from a few minutes of sun exposure a few times a week.

The intangible benefits of being able to see something besides the blank wall next to your desk are less easy to measure, but just as important to workers. For companies designing new spaces, the general rule should probably be: minimize use of overhead artificial lighting, and maximize natural light. Can’t let people bask in the real sun? Offer indirect lighting to give their eyes — and psyches — a break.