‘The art of reducing workplace stress – and Increasing brain power’ Georgina talks to The Building Centre

Do you feel under pressure to keep up with the demands of everyday life and maintain a decent work/life balance? If so, you’re by no means not alone. In 2015/16, work stress accounted for 45% of all work days lost due to ill health and helped increase absenteeism from work by 25% on the previous year, signifying a loss of at least £2.4 billion to the economy. The National Trade Union Centre revealed meanwhile that someone in Britain is made ill by stress at work every two minutes, leading to government calls for organisations to do more to combat mental health issues at work.

We are all aware of the stress technology is putting onto employees in many sectors right now. We are constantly connected and, whether we want to or not, the pressure is there for all of us to keep in touch, on a global scale and round-the-clock timeline. The result is an increased blurring of work/personal time and space and higher levels of stress. The effects of this are being directly reflected now by growing employer awareness of the importance of workplace wellbeing; now a key focus for 60% of larger corporations, who are busy developing extensive wellness programmes in addition to existing health benefits.

But are employers doing enough yet to offer varied and effective solutions for well-being? Anxiety UK explains that a good employer ‘values, supports and invests in its staff, not simply because of the impact sickness absence has on the business and brand’ but because ‘creating a mentally healthy workplace improves productivity and profits….and reduces significant costs relating to staff turnover, under-performance and untapped potential.’

Anxiety UK concludes by saying that one of the key ways to combat anxiety is through distraction. We believe that art is one of the best ways for employers to achieve this distraction, with artworks not only able to create positive, cognitive distraction, but also to reduce stress and increase brain activity, thereby impacting on productivity and helping create spaces that are both active and connective.

This is a new era in workplace culture, where we are seeing a change from a culture driven by authority to one where employers are led by staff needs. Companies now actively seek to create environments that encourage collaboration and productivity, via flexible working and the provision of a variety of spaces for break out and relaxation, as well as open plan working areas; quiet or private working spaces and different meeting room types. Such environments allow employees to work the way they feel is best for them, rather than all having to conform to any single way of working.
Michael O’Neil of Haworth has created a report looking at whether the office could become a ‘driver of happiness and meaningful work instead of simply a machine of productivity’? By working with over 2,000 office workers at various businesses, he concludes that good workplace design can increase an employee’s focus and assist in getting work done – in addition to communicating clearly to employees that their employers care about them and value them.

O’Neil also talks about ‘legible design’, which he defines as ensuring a space communicates energy and fun, whilst meeting its intended function and negating any ambiguity about its purpose. In this way, the walls (or the spatial borders of a room) must also fit with the meaning of a space and art is a great way to communicate both mood and purpose to help with this. In a break-out area, for example, images that reference escapism and encourage relaxation such as natural images or colourful abstract expressionism help to balance mood and encourage imaginative and relaxing thought, which can then inform the rest of the working day.

In the same way that we all interpret text, calculate equations or work out which office chair at the office is the comfiest, the language of semiotics allows us to deliberate the meaning of an image or piece of art. We don’t have to be art historians or even understand the inner workings of semiotics to understand visual references. When analysing an image, we automatically look at references and understand how they relate to us via the experiences we have been through and our own knowledge, as well as our historical, religious, geo-political and social conventions.

Colour can of course still be used ‘on brand’ in an office environment, but in a much subtler manner than simply being a corporate reference. Again, art can help with this. All artists are very well versed in colour theory. Shape too has symbolic meaning. For example, a circle can represent the circle of life, the universe or the shape of a wheel. Circles bring connotations of nurturing; wholeness and infinity; the moving of time and revolution.

Oshin Vartanian, a specialist in the neuroscience of aesthetics and creativity, has found that many areas of the brain are engaged when we look at art, including ‘areas involved in visual representation such as the recognition of faces, processing scenes and locations and the ability to make certain movements or use certain objects.’ In addition, ‘the areas of the brain involved in processing emotion and those that activate our pleasure and reward systems were also engaged.’

The University of Westminster recently published a report in ‘The Journal of Holistic Healthcare’, presenting research on how looking at art in your lunch hour can reduce stress. They measured the levels of each participant’s steroid stress hormone (Cortisol) before and directly after viewing art. The results showed a normalisation of cortisol levels after seeing art, as well as a rapid recovery from the consequence of high stress.

Once art has helped to reduce stress, it can also help to increase our brain productivity. ARTIQ’s own study into the impact of art in the workplace found that 70% of workplaces had no artwork installed and 95% of people could not see any art from their workstation, whilst the Leesman Index did a survey of 7000+ people, revealing that 85% were dissatisfied with the artwork provision in their offices. From the groups we tested, we also found that those that had then had artwork installed in their workplace had an increase in productivity by 14% in comparison to those without any art.

There is good reason to encourage employees to look to art in order to think more creatively. Creative thinking promotes a culture that favours pushing the boundaries of innovation, remaining unique and competitive by generating innovative ideas that disrupt the marketplace. Oshin Vartanian’s study in Neuroscience, also explains that art activates ‘the brain’s default mode network – the area associated with internally orientated thinking like day dreaming, retrieving memories or thinking about the future was also activated.’

Having intelligently-curated art in your workplace therefore can have a powerful positive cognitive impact on the brain, from reducing stress to increasing focus and productivity as well as encouraging us all to think outside the box. Something we encourage clients to think about is the idea of renting art, so that art’s benefits can be extended by regular change-arounds on, say, a 6-month basis. It’s a stimulating way to bring the benefits of art to the workplace at a much lower cost than buying outright – and a much lower risk of making a great error of judgement too. Staff can also vote via specialist software for the art they want to see, which also creates a sense of togetherness and empowerment. Far from being an aesthetic indulgence, art has a strong role to play in employee wellbeing – and one that is still under-valued.

By Georgina Angless, Art Consultant, ARTIQ