These gloomy winter days are often the first to get blamed when your mental health is starting to dip. And while that totally makes sense, there’s also a chance your workplace lighting is affecting your mental health, too, according to Forbes. A recent survey by Staples (which, it should be noted, sells office lighting) of 7,000 office workers in 10 European countries found that many office workers said they experienced seasonal affective disorder (SAD) because they had limited access to natural light in their offices, Forbes reported. But can the lighting in your office really affect your mental health?
European office workers aren’t the only ones to express dissatisfaction with their office lighting. A September 2018 poll of 1,614 North American employees found that access to natural light and a view of the outdoors was their number-one sought-after perk, according to Harvard Business Review. The survey also found that 47 percent of workers felt tired and 43 percent felt gloomy because they weren’t getting enough natural light at the office.
And that 2 p.m. dull feeling seems to be backed by research. A recent study out of Michigan State University found that spending too much time in a dimly lit office may actually change your brain’s structure, making it harder for you to learn and remember things. The researchers studied the brains of Nile grass rats by exposing them to dim and bright lights for four weeks.
"When we exposed the rats to dim light, mimicking the cloudy days of Midwestern winters or typical indoor lighting, the animals showed impairments in spatial learning," said Antonio Nunez, psychology professor and co-investigator on the study. "This is similar to when people can't find their way back to their cars in a busy parking lot after spending a few hours in a shopping mall or movie theater."
It turns out this could be caused by a few different factors that go into the way a lot of today’s workplaces are designed. Most offices buildings use fluorescent lights because they’re less expensive than incandescent bulbs and last longer, according to ThoughtCo. But earlier versions of fluorescent lights emitted blue-green light similar to the computers and smartphones you use at work all day, says LiveStrong. But even though today’s fluorescent lights emit less blue-green light, says LiveStrong, they can still cause headaches and eye strain in some people. When you combine the use of fluorescent lighting with sitting in front of a computer all day, and then take away windows, and you’ve got a recipe for feeling like a dull and gloomy Gus.
It’s no surprise then that researchers out of Cornell University found that adding natural light to an office setting improved employees’ overall wellbeing. According to the study, after optimizing natural light in a workplace, 51 percent of workers reported a decrease in eye strain, 63 percent reported a decrease in headaches, and 56 percent reported a decrease in drowsiness. And the researchers said it’s not just the added sunlight that helped; views of natural scenes like trees and vegetation instead of cityscapes are important factors to help lower stress and anxiety.
If you’re struggling with your mood right now, it might not just be the time of year. Take a look at your indoor environment to see if you’re working in a place that might be impacting your mental health. It could be as simple as making sure you get outside during your lunch break or adding a light therapy box to your desk to add some more natural light to your day.