Natural Light in the Workplace

Sunlight is a critical part of our health. Not only does it provide us with the essential Vitamin D, but it can affect our emotional and mental wellbeing as well. Imagine yourself outside on a warm sunny day, enjoying the warmth of the sun’s rays on your face. You are calm and stress-free, until you remember you have to go back inside to your 4ft by 4ft cubicle in the basement of the building. Often we are forced to work in buildings with little to no natural light, and the effects can be drastic on our wellbeing. We are surrounded by 10 feet of concrete in each direction, spending the majority of our time awake trapped in a prison cell of an office building. Sure, it may seem nice to have a window in your office, but does having natural light in the work place actually have a physiological impact? It turns out, it actually does.

Photo by Ennead

First and foremost, sunlight is important in stimulating the production of vitamin D. Being exposed to sunlight allows our bodies to produce vitamin D, which is essential for the absorption of calcium. Vitamin D also blocks the release of parathyroid hormone, which reabsorbs bone tissue and makes bones thin and brittle (Cleveland Clinic). Vitamin D is essential for healthy bones and is also related to the immune system. Insufficient Vitamin D is known to be linked to bone disorders and associated with a higher risk of multiple sclerosis, diabetes, tuberculosis, and many forms of cancer (Boyce, 2010). Vitamin D is linked to several health related issues that are commonly occurring in the United States. If Vitamin D is so vital to our health and so easily attainable, how are over a billion people worldwide vitamin D deficient (Naeem, 2010)?

Photo by Sean Pollock, Unsplash

With the recent trend of urbanization and a larger number of people working in cities, there are more people working indoors. Our society is more focused on technological improvements and so much of our work is done and shared through the internet which forces us to be situated near computers. Because of this, we spend most of our workdays surrounded by a roof and four walls. It is estimated that humans spend between 80 and 90% of their lives indoors (Court, 2010). With more people working indoors, there has to be some way to keep things lit, and in comes artificial lighting. While artificial lighting is often necessary, with it comes some unintended consequences including eyestrain, decreased levels of reported happiness, and decreased productivity. In a study done by Franta and Ansted, they showed that a lack of day-lighting caused headaches, seasonal affective disorder, and eyestrain (Rashid, 2008). Eyestrain is an important phenomenon in which the papillary muscles that shape the lens in your eye become strained or overworked in insufficient levels of light. This can in turn lead to problems with vision or focus. In an interview with college student, Olivia Lee, she explains her view towards natural lighting in buildings. “When I spend too much time in buildings without windows or harsh lights, I get headaches and can’t seem to focus for very long.” Daylight is considered the superior light for human visual comfort without causing any environmental burden. The importance of windows and daylight in office spaces not only affects occupants’ physical needs, but also their psychological needs (Kang, Shengxian, 2017). Sunlight is the trigger for the production of melatonin, which is important in maintaining our circadian rhythms (Court, 2010). The effects of the lack of sunlight were brought to light with the discovery of Seasonal Affective Disorder. This disorder, common in higher latitudes where there are shorter daylight hours, causes feelings of gloominess, lack of energy, difficulty concentrating, withdraw socially and experience difficulty sleeping and is caused by decreased exposure to sunlight (Court, 2010). If all of these health problems can come from lack of vitamin D, why do we design our buildings without light. In his book, Derek Phillips writes that “[l]ight is as much a building material as the structure of which it is made” and that light should be greatly considered when designing a building.

Photo by Ennead

The newest engineering building on campus is the Engineering Education and Research Center, opened in August of 2017, has done just that. It has made leaps and bounds in terms of natural light exposure throughout. Its layout has two large towers, both surrounded by windows on all four sides, and a giant atrium in between. Its design allows natural light to come in from all angles, giving students and employees beautiful views from campus and the city, as well as a very well-lit and open environment. The building is constructed out of limestone and glass, and its goal is to create a collaborative and interdisciplinary learning environment for the campus. It is designed by Ennead architects, and has won several awards for its design. Walking through this new building, you can see the difference in the attitudes of students. The study areas are always booming with students, eager to get a chance to study in the newest edition to The University of Texas campus. Students are smiling, laughing and have a certain energy about them. I interviewed a graduate student, William Meador, about his experience working in this building. He said “As a PhD student, I spend a lot of hours in

Photo by Ennead

the lab. Working in a place like this completely changes my mindset about work. I am happier and more productive here than I have ever been working in labs in the basements of buildings.” Being surrounded by sunlight changes peoples’ perceptions about having to show up to work. The lab I work in is on the 7thfloor of this building, and it has made my daily experience of work more enjoyable knowing I am connected to the outside world. Having a view of the city and a well-lit work space makes tedious tasks seem more manageable. I have been in labs in the basements of other buildings, and the ability to see the change in daylight keeps work in perspective.

Photo from CPM One Source

While it may feel pleasant to work in an area with natural light, it is actually scientifically proven that artificial lighting can cause problems such as eyestrain, interruptions in the Circadian Rhythm, and even Seasonal Affective Disorder in extreme cases. Vitamin D, whose production is stimulated by exposure to sunlight, is crucial in several different aspects of our health, and daylight in the workplace is just one way that we are able to get it. If we are going to spend at least 40 hours a week in one building, why not make it one with access to the outside world?

Works Cited

Boyce, Peter R. "Review: The Impact of Light in Buildings on Human Health." Review. Indoor and Built Environment, vol. 19, no. 1, 15 Mar. 2010, pp. 8-20,doi:10.1177/1420326X09358028.

Court, Anthea. “The effects of exposure to natural light in the workplace on the health and productivity of office workers: a systematic review protocol.” JBI Library of Systematic Reviews and Implementation Reports, vol. 8, no. 16, June 2010, pp. 1–19, doi:10.11124/jbisrir-2010–574.

Kang, Shengxian, et al. "The impact of indoor environmental quality on work productivity in university open-plan research offices." Building and Environment, vol. 124, 1 Nov. 2017, pp. 78-89. ScienceDirect, doi:10.1016/j.buildenv.2017.07.003. Accessed 4 July 2017.

Matthias Wacker & Michael F. Holick (2013) Sunlight and Vitamin D, Dermato-Endocrinology, 5:1,51–108, doi: 10.4161/derm.24494

Rashid, Mahbub, and Craig Zimring. "A Review of the Empirical Literature on the Relationships Between Indoor Environment and Stress in Health Care and Office Settings." Review.Environment and Behavior, vol. 40, no. 2, Mar. 2008,doi:10.1177/0013916507311550.Naeem Z. Vitamin d deficiency- an ignored epidemic. Int J Health Sci (Qassim) 2010;4:V–VI

Phillips D. Daylighting: natural light in architecture. Oxford: Architectural Press, Elsevier 2004.