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The Benefits Of Natural Light In The Workplace

Whether you’re planning a home office extension or a three-story office building, it’s becoming more important to consider the benefits of natural light in the workplace, and its impact on wellbeing.

Date

30 May 2022

By

Simon McAuliffe

Cantifix has always been interested in the benefits of natural light, and in this blog we’re looking in more detail at light in the workplace, and what spending 40+ hours a week in the office is doing to our health. While natural or artificial light are used to create an environment that is safe and comfortable to work in, what are the long-term effects of our choice of light source?

Natural light vs artificial light: a history

For thousands of years, humans have based the design of their buildings on getting the most out of the light available to them. From mirrors used to reflect light beams to lightwells built above highly glossed tiles, every clever trick and reflective material has been used to maximise light. That is until about 150 years ago, when we invented electric lights, and decided we no longer needed to shape our days, or our buildings, around the natural cycle of the sun.

Thus began a period of darker, windowless offices, and whole floors that let in more mildew than sunlight. Thankfully though, those days are over, and the benefits of natural light are back on the agenda for new developments – with wellbeing a priority for many construction professionals and architects.

Health benefits of natural light in the workplace

Workers without access to natural daylight have been shown to take 6.5% more time off sick. Why is this, and what can we do about it?

One of the benefits of natural light in the workplace is that it helps to regulate your circadian rhythms. When you consider that this controls your hormone production and immune system, as well as regulating your sleep cycles and metabolism, it’s something you want to work with, not against.

 

Circadian rhythms

Have you fallen victim to the dreaded jet lag after a long-haul flight? Then you know how it feels when your circadian rhythms are out of sync. Time for a quick science lesson to understand how light affects this:

  • At night, the pineal gland secretes melatonin, which carries the information around the body as to what part of the circadian cycle we are at. 
  • During the day, light that falls on the retina (part of the eye) is transmitted back to the hypothalamus (part of the brain).
  • As soon as light activates the pineal gland it suppresses the release of melatonin. 
  • The amount of melatonin determines how awake we feel: high melatonin = feeling drowsy. Low melatonin = feeling alert.
  • If we do not get enough of the right kind of light during the day, our melatonin is not suppressed, and we feel drowsy all of the time. Extended periods of high melatonin can also lead to depression, Seasonal Affective Disorder, and other mental health issues.

 

Overhead lighting is not as powerful as sunlight, which – at 25,000 lux (a measurement of brightness) – can be upwards of 100 times more powerful than any form of artificial light found in the office.

Add this to the fact that most households have relatively low lighting at home – most peak at around 300 lux – and you can quickly see how easy it is to not get enough light during the day.

We can’t just turn up the brightness of our office lights either. Supermarkets do just that, and many people find them glaring and uncomfortable, so imagine working under them for hours at a time.

There are also some concerns about the detrimental side effects of artificial light, with one study exploring the connection between harsh overhead lighting in the workplace and instances of breast cancer. While the results were inconclusive, it is a stark reminder that the environment that we work in can have as much effect on us as what we do, and it is something that needs to be taken seriously by those who create our places of work. 

 

Vitamin D

Another benefit of natural light in the workplace is the production of Vitamin D, something that the body simply cannot create by itself.  Vitamin D is needed to keep our bones, muscles, and teeth healthy by regulating the calcium and phosphates in the body, as well as preventing bone deformities such as rickets and osteomalacia (soft bone disease), both of which are on the rise in the UK.

A lack of sunlight can also directly affect sleep patterns. One study found that workers in windowless rooms get 46 minutes less sleep at night than those working in offices with windows, as well as reporting lower quality of sleep overall.

As expert for the Seasonal Affective Disorder Association Sue Pavlovich advises: 

“To ensure your body is getting enough light during the day, it’s important to spend an hour or more outdoors.” 

We know that for whatever reason, many workers simply cannot or will not do this. With the oft-quoted statistic that we spend up to 90% of our time indoors, it’s up to the designers and owners of offices to make the spaces we work in as conducive to daylight exposure as possible.

Economic and ecological benefits of natural light in the workplace

With building regulations focusing ever more on the ecological impact of running a building over its lifetime, it makes sense to consider this for new workspace builds or renovations, rather than have to make changes further down the line. It’s a lot harder to change windows and glass in buildings or extensions than it is to install them in the first place, and the added cost can quickly be made up with the savings they incur in the long term. 

The economic benefits of natural light in the workplace can be summed up thusly: allowing large amounts of natural light into your workspace will save you money by reducing the need for electric lighting, and by saving money on sick days for staff members. Your staff will also feel more productive, alert, focussed, and positive when at work. 

You can take this even further. With considered planning, and by working with specialists like Cantifix, architects and office designers can use the latest glazing to maximise the amount of sunlight in a space. It’s also possible to control negative effects such as glare or the need for privacy with innovations such as Switchable Glass, which can switch between opaque and clear as needed.

Then there is the fascinating use of Active Daylighting, which harnesses the power of the sun to negate the need for electric lighting at all. A massive 20% of the world’s electricity is used purely on lighting, so developments in this technology (along with clever use of glass and reflective surfaces) can only be a good thing, both economically and environmentally.

As well as using less electricity from lighting, the installation of well-designed glazing can help cut down on heating costs. This is due both to preventing heat loss by replacing older windows, but also to something called solar gain, which is the passive way that the sun heats a room as it lights it. Some glass has been specifically designed to harness solar gain, whilst also filtering the negative aspects of sunlight at the same time.

Performance benefits of natural light in the workplace

There are also the harder-to-quantify benefits of natural light in the workspace, such as productivity and creativity. This works twofold: the active way that the environment affects people’s work, and the overall happiness of employees.

Recent events have made people more selective about where they choose to work, and under what conditions. As a result, prospective employees are now actively seeking out workspaces that include views of the outside world.

Making the office a comfortable place to do optimum work could be the solution for employers who are keen to encourage teams to return to the office post pandemic. Plus, there’s the previously unquantifiable fact that happier people work harder, with Warwick University finding that happy people are 12% more productive.

 

With regards specifically to natural light, think about how a walk on a sunny day makes you feel, and you can begin to understand its impact on human behaviour. 

There are also more tangible benefits. A study by the Department of Design and Environmental Analysis at Cornell University found that there was an 84% drop in sight-related headaches and eye strain when workers were exposed to natural light in the workplace, while studies have also shown that workers were 15% more creative under similar conditions.

Heightened productivity naturally leads to better performance and sales. A 3-40% rise in productivity and sales was recorded in recent research by the World Green Building Council, Human Spaces and the International Well Building Institute.

It helps to consider what type of work is taking place in the room, as certain jobs will require different types of light. Bright lights may be necessary for safety in areas such as warehouses, while dimmer lights may be more appropriate for office environments.

As the human eye does not respond linearly to light, it’s not necessary  to shine a light on every object to make sure it is lit up. With daylight being so much brighter than most artificial lights, it can do this so much more effectively, as well as making it easier to get accurate colour differentiation – something to consider for work involving graphics. 

Natural Light: the future for workspaces

There is currently no legal requirement to provide natural light in the workplace, merely the vague direction that “Every workplace has suitable & sufficient lighting. This should be natural light, so far as is reasonably practicable”

Despite this, businesses who fail to provide ample daylight will fail to reap the benefits of natural light in the workplace – not just in terms of health and efficiency, but also in their adherence to any potential wellbeing-centred future building and work regulations.

The welfare of workers may change thanks to the growing research into how natural light impacts our health, and environmental rules are sure to become more stringent as time goes on. By acting now to brighten your workplace with as much sunlight as possible, you can begin reaping the many benefits of natural light in the workplace.