Danahe (left) and Maximoz Espinoza use their computers and tablets while learning from home. Credit: Bonnie Arbittier / San Antonio Report

We’re more than a year into the pandemic, and it’s clear that isolation has affected our mental and physical health. COVID-19 and interior fatigue has set in, leaving many searching for remedies to the feelings of stagnation. Do I need to move to a new house or apartment? Find a new job? Go back to school? Switch careers? Many of these stale and anxious feelings come from routine or after major life events, like this pandemic. 

As we emerge to a “new normal,” it’s not only important for us to reassess our living spaces, but for schools and workplaces to consider how they can provide an environment that supports the well-being of students and staff as they return to shared areas. Estimates suggest that depression alone is costing U.S. employers billions of dollars per year in lost productivity. Many students are also hindered and the pandemic has interrupted the trajectory of their school work.

One cannot underestimate the importance of the built environment – our homes and surroundings – to one’s health and well-being. The built environment is defined as human-made space and surroundings where you interact and spend your time. For example, houses, offices, apartments, dorms, and even outdoor places like parks, and plazas. 

Schools and workplaces have met the challenges of the pandemic with a focus on health and safety to prevent the spread of COVID-19, adjusting ventilation, creating Plexiglas barriers for social distancing, and some even set up thermal temperature scanners as building occupants walk in. These measures, while reassuring from a physical health perspective, do not address the mental health challenges of readjusting to going back to work or school, or even permanent remote working measures. 

Studies have shown that clear visual communication balanced with a homey environment contributes to the overall harmony of a spatial environment. Whether at home or in the office, paint color, signage, light fixtures, art posters and large mirrors, green elements, and privacy spaces balanced with common spaces are cost effective measures to promote well-being through interior design.

The presence of nature and light in a space can make all the difference. A Pennsylvania hospital study found that patients recovering from gallbladder removal surgery who had a window view of a natural setting, not only had shorter postoperative hospital stays, but also received less pain medicines, and less negative evaluative remarks on their files from nurses. 

The window healing effect is not just about viewing nature, but also about bringing in more light into a room. Another hospital study measured the recovery from severe and refractory depression in psychiatric inpatient units. Patients in brightly lit and sunny rooms stayed on average 2.6 days less in the hospital than those in dimly lit rooms. 

When windows are not an option, poster frames are a good alternative. The presence of wall art in one office environment led to reports of less anger and stress in some workers.

Incorporating nature and light into our built environment could be as simple as seeing nature through a window, or an image (wall art), large mirrors and light fixtures, or potted plants. These are simple proven adjustments that building facilities and home owners can implement.

Interventions through the built environment contribute to behavioral and mental well-being. Less anger and anxiety and more harmony and healing. Stakeholder engagement can augment this process and remind occupants that they are cared for on a daily basis. At home, for remote workers, the same applies. Having self-awareness on how the space you are in reflects on your well-being, mood, health, and productivity is important. 

In the field of environmental health, we are already able to measure how occupants interact with their building space in terms of energy utilization, thermal and visual comfort, ergonomics, and indoor air quality. Incorporating mental health studies in the built environment is now becoming more evident from a public health perspective. The ability to analyze and study real-time emotional and sensory responses will continue to provide the field of environmental psychology with evidence-based conclusions for better architectural and living spaces. For now, we can start by mindfully welcoming back our students and staff to healthier built surroundings.

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Afamia Elnakat

Afamia Elnakat, PhD is a published author in peer-reviewed journals scoping the fields of environmental sciences, sociodemographics, data analytics, conservation, and living energy efficient. She is recognized...