Creating an Office Oasis

The more time you spend on the job, the more important it is to make sure your workspace is designed with your health and well-being in mind (to say nothing of your productivity and effectiveness). Here’s how to create an environment that lets you work at the top of your game.

By Marissa Candela

June 2007

Long ago, our bodies were fully utilized as we hunted and gathered to make ends meet. We were in constant motion, with legs running free and minds jumping from one survival task to the next. We fed ourselves with foods directly from the earth, our lungs breathed fresh, clean air and our senses were indulged with ever-changing sights and sounds.

Fast-forward thousands of years—to make ends meet, modern man (and woman) is now placed indoors in a hermetically sealed building with stale, allergen-ridden air. Seated in an unnatural position in a cramped office or cubicle, deprived of natural light, he works eight to ten hours at a desk, five days a week. As he shrugs off breaks to meet deadlines, work-related stress takes its toll on his well-being in body and mind. An unhealthy office environment exacerbates matters by contributing to “sick building syndrome,” where office workers suffer drowsiness, viruses and other irritations that can impair physical and mental health and reduce productivity.

But just as we take the time to enhance our home settings, we can take steps to create an appealing, healthy office environment. After all, many of us spend more time in the workplace than anywhere else! Follow these steps to create an “office oasis” and your workspace can be a warm, inviting and healthy environment for job satisfaction and peak productivity.

Step 1: Aromatherapy Makes Scents

A whiff of a pleasant scent can bring us back to a certain place and time, evoking positive emotions and wonderful sensory experiences. Aromatherapy, the practice of promoting physical and psychological well-being through the use of natural essential oils, can rejuvenate the mind, improve concentration, boost productivity and even help mellow you out during a stressful period at work. The following essential oils hold especially appealing aromatherapy benefits for getting through the workday:

*Rosemary—Improves confidence, perception and creativity; good for mental strain, exhaustion and lethargy.
*Peppermint—Counteracts mental fogginess and lack of focus; its dualistic action can stimulate the mind and calm the nerves.
*Lavender—Calms and balances strong emotions such as frustration and irritability, allowing for full creative composure and expression.
*Geranium—Instills a feeling of calm strength and security, particularly when nervous exhaustion is due to stress and overwork.

To receive these essential oils’ aromatherapy benefits, try compact electric room diffusers, room misters or simply inhaling a few drops of oil that have been placed on a hanky. Treat yourself to little olfactory escapes throughout the day, and relax and refocus with the power of aromatherapy.

Step 2: Feng Shui Your Office Space

Feng shui seeks to improve the human condition by arranging inhabited quarters to achieve the most harmonious flow of energy, or qi (pronounced “chee”). In the office, worker and space are interconnected—blocked qi is believed to deplete energy, luck, health and prosperity. (These notions resonate with anyone who’s ever become frustrated and stressed while searching through a messy desk for a critical document!) Try these tips from Office Feng Shui author Darrin Zeer (Chronicle Books) to eliminate stress, free your office qi and boost productivity:

*When placing office furniture, walls are best to back you up. They can be confronting or limiting when they’re right in front of you.

*If possible, sit facing the entrance to your office. If you sit with your back to the door you’ll block qi and feel startled each time someone enters your workspace.

*Arrange papers into alphabetized files, which should be stored in file cabinets, where they’re protected from hazards such as spilled coffee.

*Be sure to return papers to their proper place when you’re done, or you’ll be back to your disorganized mess in no time.

*Periodically sift through and discard unneeded items to avoid a paper pileup.

If the inside of your briefcase resembles a file cabinet implosion, Zeer says the same orderly principles apply. “To achieve briefcase feng shui, spend time on the details: stock pens, pencils, erasers, an extra cell battery, envelopes and stamps. Be sure to clean out old receipts and scraps of paper. Then segue briefcase organization into office organization. The stress relief you will derive from being organized is worth it.”

According to Kathleen Kendall-Tackett, author of The Well-Ordered Office (New Harbinger), disorder begets disorder so it’s important to eliminate clutter. But that doesn’t mean your office needs to look sterile. “According to the principles of feng shui, personal items are important in work space to increase productivity,” she says.

So bring photos of loved ones, meaningful knickknacks and per­sonal décor to your home away from home. Make subtle statements about who you are with these items and a nondescript office will transform into your own unique space. You may even invite conversation from co-workers who are curious about your décor; if you’re new to your job, this can be a great icebreaker.

Step 3: Cleanse Your Office Air

Stagnant, recycled office air can impede productivity and instill misery, leading to lethargy, allergies, mental fog, headaches, congestion and irritation of the eyes, nose and throat. Even scarier are the contaminants that can circulate through an office’s ductwork, such as bacteria, viruses, molds, fungi, carbon monoxide, ozone and various toxic chemicals—potentially leading to a whole host of other productivity-sapping health issues.

Houseplants may be your most valuable allies in neutralizing these contaminants and keeping office air clean, moist and pure. In addition to being aesthetically pleasing and great listeners, houseplants assist in the elimination of pollutants and toxins more effectively than most people realize. Research conducted by NASA has revealed that plants can remove several toxic chemicals from the air in building interiors; in fact, plants are so effective at mopping up airborne contaminants that NASA plans to include them as part of biological life support systems aboard future orbiting space stations.

Another option for cleaning indoor air is an electric purifying unit. Depending on your needs, air purifiers come in various shapes and sizes, and perform different functions. There are air purifiers geared toward ridding spaces of allergens, smoke and chemical impurities; sterilizing airborne bacteria; and neutralizing ozone, a highly irritating gas. Others purifiers target the VOCs (volatile organic compounds) emitted by some office equipment; even at low levels, these toxic chemicals can cause headaches, dizziness and sore throats. Purifiers can make a noticeable difference in the smell and overall energy of indoor air—turning mind-numbing stuffiness into productivity-boosting freshness.

Step 4: Be Ergonomically Correct

Ergonomics is how we as humans interact with machines—proper ergonomics are essential to a healthy workplace. Think about how your body relates to the mechanics in your office; are you suffering any physical consequences?

Take the time to examine your surroundings, especially the hub of your office—your computer. Your keyboard must be the right height for your body to avoid strain and may be corrected with adjustments in your chair, desk or keyboard tray. If your wrist is bending uncomfortably to accommodate your computer mouse, look into wrist or palm rests to maintain a straight, neutral wrist posture. Even better, if your wrists start to ache, invest in voice recognition software to take a break from typing without losing productivity.

Your work area should not be too brightly lit, as this can create glare and eye problems from straining to see your computer screen. Monitor glare filters can remedy this problem; EMF screens are also available to protect office workers from the potential hazards of monitors’ electromagnetic radiation discharge.

Do you feel chained to your desk because you’re always on the phone? Lightweight wireless headsets for phones can be quite useful and some even come with built-in controls. Headsets give users the freedom to move around and can simplify multi-tasking; they also decrease the head and neck strain, and repetitive wrist movements, from the use of traditional receivers.

Make sure your chair provides proper support and reduces the inclination toward awkward postures. Your chair should have backrest adjustment options for various sitting positions, height and armrest adjustability and no less than four legs to avoid tipping. Chairs that encourage poor posture place undue stress and strain on the muscles and skeletal system and may even restrict oxygen from properly circulating to your brain and extremities, causing fatigue and fogginess.

Ergonomics impact productivity, so if you are lacking in one or more of these areas, request the proper adjustments or equipment. After all, if you’re miserable, sick and tired at work, the all-important bottom line will suffer—no reasonable employer wants that.

For people who spend the majority of their time indoors, balanced lighting is vital for a healthy work atmosphere. Full-spectrum lighting is the next best thing to natural sunlight, but fluorescent lighting is still the norm in most workplaces—where it contributes to numerous office health concerns.

Step 5: Brighten Your Workday

Flickering from fluorescent light bulbs and computer screens can trigger migraine headaches and eye fatigue; fluorescent lighting can also leak radiation, causing drowsiness and irritability.
Full-spectrum lighting is more balanced, helping to reduce eyestrain, counteract drowsiness and lessen production of the stress hormone cortisol. Full-spectrum lighting even stimulates the formation of vitamin D within the skin and is used to treat seasonal affective disorder (SAD), boosting immunity during cold months.

Finally—Office Ahhhhh…

Lush green plants, personal décor, full-spectrum lighting, soothing scents, comfy ergonomics and other office upgrades can all contribute to a happier, healthier workplace—but equally important are the intangible upgrades, such as filling your office with positive energy, a can-do attitude and a good sense of humor.

In the end, creating a physical and mental office oasis will take time, effort and some expense—but think of how much more healthy and productive you’ll be if you follow even some of these ideas! When your 9-to-5 office existence is organized and happy, you’ll easily leave it all behind when you’re not at work—and instead devote your time and energy to family, friends, hobbies and cultivating the things you love. Aren’t these the things you’re working for in the first place?

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