The physical work environment and work-related stress: mechanisms and consequences.

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Juliet Hassard, and Tom Cox , Birkbeck College, University of London, United Kingdom.

Introduction

The article will discuss the interface between the physical and psychosocial work environment, and the role of stress there within, in relation to worker’s wellbeing and performance. Two particular bodies of research will be examined, noise and windows in the workplace. It is important to note, that a concentrated focus is paid to research examining the impact of noise and windows on worker’s health and performance in non-industrial settings, in particular office settings. This article argues that the concept of stress may provide a useful heuristic for exploring and, moreover, understanding the respective impact of characteristics of the physical work environment on worker’s well-being and behaviour. Conclusive comments and practical considerations are provided.

The physical work environment, stress, and workplace health

Stress at work is associated with significant economic and human costs to individuals, businesses, communities and, arguably, society at large: including, increased absenteeism, increased worker turnover, decreased job satisfaction and associated decreases in worker’s health [1]. Stress is commonly defined as a perceived imbalance between the demands made on people and their resources or ability to cope with those demands [2]. There is a substantial amount of research on work-related stress. However, the vast majority of studies examining work-related stress have tended to focus, almost exclusively, on psychosocial aspects of work organisation and the social context of the work environment [3][4]; with, in comparison, limited attention examining the association between characteristics of the physical work environment and work-related stress [5].

More specifically, the vast majority of studies that have examined the hazard-stress-harm relationship have focused on, almost exclusively, psychosocial hazards [3] [4]; and have tended to omit reference to and examination of physical work hazards [5] [6]. There is, however, growing interest and, in turn, research examining the interaction between characteristics of the physical work environment and work-related stress, and its association to worker’s well-being, satisfaction with work and performance [7] [8]. Figure 1 presents the office environment model that clearly demonstrates the importance of considering the social and organisational context in relation to the physical work environment, and the contributory role of personal resources and psychological processes there within.

Figure 1. The office environment model (Source: Bluyssen, Aries and van Dommelen [9] adapted from Jaakola [10])

A study by Bluyssen and colleagues [9] investigated the relationship between building, social and personal factors on levels of perceived comfort by workers. Self-administered questionnaires from 5732 respondents in 59 office buildings and building-specific data from the European Health Optimisation Protocol for Energy-efficient buildings (HOPE) study were used. The results of the current study found perceived comfort and health to be influence by much more than ambient working condition exclusively (e.g., perceived indoor air quality, noise, lighting, and thermal comfort responses); rather social and personal factors were observed to be strongly related to perceived comfort and health. The results of this study highlight the importance of considering both the social context and the role of psychological processes in the relation to understanding the potential impact of the physical work environment.

It is important to acknowledge that the environment is central to stress theory [11]. According to stress theory all biological systems must self-regulate and adapt in the context of changing environmental conditions [12], and stress derives from the particular appraisals of and reaction to those conditions and/or changing conditions [11] [12]. Many of the current theoretical models of stress aid our understanding of the observed association between the physical work environment and worker’s health, job satisfaction and performance. Central to stress theory is the importance placed on cognitive appraisal and emotional reactions to the notion of the ‘fit’ between the individual and their (physical and psychosocial) environment. In short, the concept of stress may provide a useful conceptual approach for exploring and, moreover, understanding the respective impact of the physical work environment in relation to worker’s well-being and behaviour. More specifically, stress theory provides a useful theoretical approach to: understanding and accounting for the appraisal process, accommodating and integrating physical and psychosocial elements within a single explanatory framework; and acknowledges the role of individual differences and other moderating factors within this process (including, coping resources[11]).

The physical work environment and workers well-being and performance: examining mechanisms

The current section aims to describe and explore the evidence for the association between the physical work environment and well-being, and the observed direct and indirect mechanisms underpinning this relationship. It would be beyond the scope of this article to examine and review the relationship between stress and all characteristics of the physical work environment. Consequently, two common features of the physical work environment will be examined: noise and windows. In reviewing these two bodies of evidence the authors aims to demonstrate that characteristics of the physical work environment do indeed have a marked and measurable impact upon worker’s well-being and behaviour. It is important to note that research exploring other characteristics of the physical work environment, such as indoor air quality [13] and lighting [14], have found conceptually similar findings linking the physical work environment to employee health and behaviour.

Noise

Much of the research in the field of occupational health and safety in relation to health impact of noise has linked to discussions of exposure limits to noise. However, it is important to note that noise can act as both a physical and psychological stimulus [15]. Therefore, it is important to distinguish between the concepts of ‘sound’ and ‘noise’. More specifically, ‘sound’ is an objective fact, whereas ‘noise’ is typically defined as an unwanted sound and, therefore, is considered a psychological phenomenon. Therefore, when considering the health impact of noise it is, therefore, important to consider psychological reactions, as well as objective exposure levels [16] Much of the research into health impact of sounds/noise has been examined in industrial context (where high levels of sound/noise) are common. However, considering less research has examined the health impact of noise in non-industrial occupational settings, such as: office settings. Despite exposure to noise has been observed to be one of the most commonly identified stressors in the office environment [17]. A survey of 54 worksites found 54% of surveyed workers reported being bothered by common office noise, especially by people talking and phones ringing [17]. A more recent study of 88 employees from two worksites found that 99% indicated that their concentration was impaired by common office noises [18]. A growing body of research is increasingly demonstrating that exposure to occupational noise is linked with a wide range of health issues over and above the, perhaps, more obvious associations with hearing problems; but through its negative impact on a range of physical, psycho-physiological and psychological indicators. Indeed, in the general public exposures to excessive levels of noise have been associated with a range of negative outcomes, including: impaired physical health [19], poorer psychological health [19], impaired quality of life [20] [21], and impaired language development, cognition and learning in children [22] [23]

Early research examining the effects of noise on worker’s behaviour can be traced back to the work of German experimental psychologist Whilhelm Wundt in 1874 [24], who investigated the influence of noise on reaction times in his Leipzig laboratory. Although, it is generally expected that noise is both a source of annoyance and environmental stress there has traditionally, however, existed some debate on what makes noise stressful. The traditional view has focused, arguably almost exclusively, on the purely physical properties of noise, especially its loudness and how it is related to psychological arousal or stress. A general theme that can be observed to cut across this historical literature is the observation of the variability of people’s response to noise, suggesting that differences among individuals are typically quite wide and varied. Indeed, research studying the psychological impact of noise is often complicated by two issues: (1) noise can by annoying not only because of its physical qualities, but also because of its meaning to the listener; and (2) people differ widely in what they define and in the way they respond to it. Consequently, contemporary views suggest that noise may create stress through it meaning, as a signal of a potentially threatening event or through the perception that noise itself is threatening [25].

From a stress perspective, and in line with contemporary theoretical models of stress, this highlights the central role of cognitive appraisal within the relationship between noise exposure and worker’s well-being and performance. Bearing this in mind, it is therefore not so much the objective characteristics of the physical environment per se (in this case, sound or noise) that influence worker’s behaviour, but rather their perception of those characteristics and the extent to which they appraise them as being congruent or incongruent with the individual’s current needs and goals [11]. Therefore, in order to fully understand the negative impact of noise upon well-being, a reflective account must be taken of the social context in which a sound event occurs, as well as of the characteristics of the noise itself (including intensity, duration, predictability and source). It is important to note and highlight that such explanations emphasise the importance of considering the way in which aspects of the physical work environment interact with psychosocial factors in their effect upon health and behaviour.

The relationship between noise and performance is one of the most common and intensively studied issues for the field of psychology of the physical work environment. However, the vast majority of these studies come from laboratory settings, rather than field studies conducted in occupational settings. The influence of noise exposure on occupational performance has been found to be contingent on a number of factors: including, the nature of the noise and the type of task involved [26]. Indeed, research suggests that unpredictable noises are more severe than those of predictable noise, and, in general, the impact of noise on performance increases with task complexity [27]. The following section will review the research for predictable and unpredictable noise separately.

Predictable noise includes continuous sounds (e.g, such as those made a ventilation systems and motors) and repetitive or regular sounds (e.g., stamping machines, presses or other types of equipment). A review of early laboratory studies [28] found that continuous or regular noise led to decreases in the accuracy of performance typically under four conditions: (1) during clerical tasks, when the noise changes; (2) during some highly demanding motor tasks; (3) during highly demanding vigilance task when the noise was very loud (100 decibels); and (4) when dual tasks when noise was very loud (100 decibels). In contrast, some studies have observed that continuous and or regular noise occasionally led to improved speed or accuracy under four specific conditions: (1) during simple clerical tasks when the noise was key to the task; (2) during a simple mental task in a brief work-session; (3) during a simple, repetitive motor task; and (4) during a motor task when the noise was of very low frequency. The author suggested that the effects of predictable noise on an impairment of performance could be explained by increased arousal or by the masking of useful auditory cues by noise.

A number of both experimental and field studies have demonstrated an association between exposure to uncontrollable noise and motivation deficiencies [27]. An early study by Glass and Singer in 1972 [29] observed that when individuals were exposed to an uncontrollable noise this was found to have a demonstrable negative impact on task persistence: namely, the participants were less likely to persist on challenging puzzles following noise exposure. Numerous laboratory and field experiments have replicated these early findings by Glass and Singer: for example, Cohen [25], and Evans [30].

A review of the early laboratory studies [28] of unpredictable noise, or intermittent or irregular sound, found it to be associated with decreases in performance under five circumstance: (1) during clerical task after onset or offset of noise; (2) during mental tasks involving mental calculation or short-term recall; (3) during highly or moderately demanding motor tasks; and (5) during dual tasks. Sundstrom postulates that the observed adverse effects of unpredictable noise could be explained by temporary distraction of attention, as in some studies the effects were observed during the few seconds immediately after burst of noise.

Indeed, problems associated with low levels of intermittent or irregular noise have increasingly become a common source of stress in occupational settings (e.g., telephone ringing, people talking, etc.), with the increasing use open-plan offices and systems furniture [28]. Indeed, low-intensity noise (a common feature in many office settings) may be capable of producing performance deficits as well, particularly when information-processing demands are high. A study by Leather and colleagues [31] investigated the impact of low intensity noise on British office workers by distributing a questionnaire amongst 143 workers. This study did not find a main effect for high noise levels (i.e., air-conditioning, telephones, offices machines, people talking, and street noise) with stress. However, a moderator effect between noise exposure and occupational stress was observed, with higher noise exacerbating negative effects of job strain, organisational commitment and well-being. This study highlights that although the physical characteristics of an environment might not be stressful in themselves, they may nevertheless influence the negative impact of some simultaneously occurring psychosocial stress.

Noise-related stress is often associated with psychosocial conditions in the workplace. For example, a study by Lercher, Hortnagl and Korfer [32] found annoyance with noise had a positive relationship with diastolic blood pressure: namely, as annoyance with noise increased, so did the measured diastolic blood pressure. This observed correlational relationship was found to be amplified among workers who reported high job dissatisfaction and low levels of social support on the job. In a simulated open-office experiment conducted by Evans and Johnson [30] in a laboratory setting, they observed that a typically low intensity office noise has no adverse effect on simple tasks, but stress hormones were found to be elevated and task motivation was reduced following a 3-hour exposure period. Although, there was observed to be physiological, motivation and observation evidence of elevated stress for low-intensity noise exposure, worker’s self-reports and a simple index of productivity were unaffected by low intensity noise.

Conclusion: Noise, stress, health and performance

Noise is a common feature of the ambient work environment, and, in turn, is a common environmental stressor in the workplace. There is evidence to indicate that noise in the workplace not only impacts negatively upon worker’s well-being and satisfaction with work, but also upon their performance and motivation. The reviewed evidence suggests that the potential effects of noise on worker’s health, well-being, satisfaction at work, and productivity are contingent upon the nature and characteristics of the task at hand. Bearing this in mind, managing noise and sound in the workplace cannot, therefore, be considered in isolation from their full social and organisational context: namely, considering the nature of the tasks to be accomplished, the organizational structures and process that the physical work environment is designed to support, and the role of individual differences there within [26].

Windows in the workplace

Windows in the workplace have been found to be a prominent and significant physical feature of the workplace, not only as a matter of preference but also for health and well-being [5] [11]. A growing number of studies have observed that the importance and benefits of window access is more than simply a function of personal preference. This is evidenced by the fact that views of natural elements have consistently been found to be advantageous to health across a range of settings, including: hospitals [33], prisons [34] [35], and workplaces [36][37][38] [39].Much of the literature examining windows in the workplace has been examined in non-industrial settings, and in particular in relation to office settings.

Within the occupational literature, numerous studies have observed that windowless or underground workplaces tend to attract a number of negative reactions, including: diminished satisfaction and increased health complaints [40][41][42]. In contrast, workplaces with windows (particularly windows with views to nature) have been found to demonstrate beneficial and restorative effects for workers. More specifically, a study by Vischer [43] found building occupants with greater access to windows gave, on average, better comfort ratings. Employee surveys have highlighted a number of reasons why employees may have a preference for windows in the workplace, including: weather information, illumination, sunlight, better mood effects, aesthetics and appearance, ventilation, temperature control and information about the outside world [28] [40] [42].

Kaplan and colleagues [44] conducted survey of three groups of office workers aimed to investigate the association between the nature and content of views from windows in the workplace and worker’s self-reported level of stress and job satisfaction. Employees whose outdoor views included only built components (such as, roads and buildings) experience higher levels of job stress than others. In contrast, employee’s with a view of some natural elements reported higher levels of job satisfaction, than those with a view of built elements or with no outdoor view at all from their desks.

Leather and colleagues [37] investigated the potential influencing mechanisms of windows in the workplace in relation to three outcome measures: worker’s well-being, job satisfaction, and intention to quit the organization. This study postulated that access to windows in the workplace would impact employees wellbeing through three potential mechanisms: general level of illumination; illumination quality (sunlight penetration); and the view (the percentage of rural elements in accessible view). The study was particularly interested to examine whether the impact of windows was direct (i.e., independent of level of job strain) or indirect (i.e., resulted from its interaction with levels of job strain) in nature. The results of the study found the level of illumination (measured using a light meter) was not found to correlate with any of the outcome measures. Sunlight penetration was found to have a positive direct effect on job satisfaction, and self-reported well-being, and a negative direct effect on intention to quit. View, in contrast, was observed to have no direct effects on the specified outcome measures, but was, however, found to have an interactive (moderated) effects with job strain to influence both intention to quit and aspects of wellbeing. More specifically, this study observed that having views of rural elements through a window helped suppress the negative impact of job strain upon both intention to quit and well-being amongst surveyed workers. The implications of this finding suggests that elements of the physical environment might contribute to worker’s coping resources, and it appears that having access to a view of nature can help in coping job strain and may yield other restorative benefits for workers.

In a similar vein, Yildrim, Akalin-Baskaya and Celebi [38] further explored this notion by investigating the possibility that access to a window might help workers cope with overstimulation and lack of privacy, which is often inherent in open-plan offices. The results of their study found that employees that worked in closer proximity to a window had a more positive perception of their worksite, than those whose workplace was further away from a window. In addition, those workers that worked further away from a window were found to complain more of being disturbed by colleagues, whilst those working with ready access to a window or benefited from high partitions (providing reasonable level privacy) were observed to report higher satisfaction with their worksite. This study provides further evidence to demonstrate that the characteristics of the physical work environment, like having access to a window, appear to compensate for some of the negative effects of many work environments, particularly open-plan offices. Kaplan [44] argues that a view (particularly of natural settings/ elements) from a window may serve as a restorative function for employees, in that it may provide the individual with a brief respite to one’s directed attention and, in so doing, help to mitigate/ cope with mental exhaustion and other workplace stressors.

Conclusion: Windows in the workplace

In sum, the available research demonstrates that windows can have both direct and indirect effects on worker’s health and well-being. There is accumulating evidence that the characteristics of the physical work environment can function as a coping resource and provide numerous opportunities for restoration.

Concluding remarks and practical considerations

In consideration, of the presented and reviewed evidence, it is clear that characteristics of the physical environment of workplace do have a marked and measurable impact upon worker’s well-being and behaviour. The current article has argued that the concept of stress may provide a useful heuristic for exploring and, moreover, understanding the respective impact of the physical work environment and worker’s well-being and behaviour. In additional, the concept of stress provides a useful means of understanding how the physical work environment can be designed to support individual and organizational health [11]. As McCoy states: “The physical work environment should not exacerbate… problems. Indeed, it should provide methods of coping and managing this stress. The physical workspace… can support the people who work there by acknowledging psychological and physiological needs specific to the individual, their tasks, and the social and cultural context of their work” [[45], p 457].

Ulrich [33] and Evans and McCoy [46] have both argued that many physical workspaces are typically designed for functional effectiveness, and do not typically take into account the needs and goals of those who will use and interact with this workspace. These authors propose that in order to promote wellness through physical surroundings it is imperative to consider the needs, goals, and motives of the end user, as a central and guiding component to the design of the physical work environment. By considering the needs, goals and motives of the end user, workspace design can, as argued by Ulrich and Evans and McCoy, aim fulfil this supportive role. Moreover, the physical work environment could be used to help cultivate and support a “psychologically supportive environment”. Ulrich [33] and Evans and McCoy [46] suggest that the physical work environment can aid in this supportive role through: assisting in coping with the task at hand; by not raising obstacles to coping with the task at hand; by not creating added stress in themselves; and by utilising stress reducing elements (e.g., facilitating access to social support, positive distraction, and giving people a sense of control over their physical-social surrounding). Indeed, a study by Lee and Brand [47] provides preliminary support for this notion. Their study found the more personal control over the physical workspace (e.g., adjustment) and easy access to meeting places led to higher perceived group cohesiveness and job satisfaction.

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Links for further reading

Cox, T., Griffiths, A. J., & Rial-Gonzalez, E. Research on Work-related Stress, European Agency for Safety and Health at Work, Office for Official Publications of the European Communities, Luxembourg. Available at [2]

E-guide to managing stress and psychosocial risks. EU-OSHA: Bilbao. Available at:[1]