How to Reduce Stress as People Come Back to the Office

Applying Neuroscience Principles to Foster Comfort and Improve Workplace Health

April 27, 2020

Design Principal, NBBJ

Editor’s Note: This post was co-authored by Suzanne Carlson, Edwin Beltran and Hannah Smith.


As COVID-19 sweeps the globe, it’s creating two health crises: one that is physical based on the impact of the virus itself, and one that is emotional due to the wide-ranging toll it takes on mental health.  When it comes to emotional health and work, a specific stressor is the thought of returning to the office and the fear of getting sick from fellow commuters or colleagues.

Acute and chronic stress negatively impacts our lives, from job performance to relationships, to critical thinking and educational outcomes. Neuroscience research shows that stress can literally make our brains shrink, yet there are also proven ways to re-energize and feed them.

Over the past decade, our workplaces have been optimized to increase productivity, collaboration and innovation. Now more than ever, our offices need to not only optimize job performance, but provide comfort, mental stability and focus — to help us flourish while keeping us safe. But how?

Neuroscience as a Framework

Dr. John Medina, an affiliate professor at the University of Washington School of Medicine and an NBBJ Fellow, examines the causation of stress and its impact on us as humans. Applying Dr. Medina’s research to the workplace in our COVID-19 world may help not only alleviate stress, but also support comfort, resilience and optimism in these difficult times. Here are some specific ideas, backed by neuroscience research that can help:

Provide choice to increase comfort and calm.

When employees have greater control over their work, it reduces stress, which is especially critical during a pandemic. An important first step is to give employees the choice to work from home, return to the office, or combine both modes. In the workplace, providing options can also mean creating spaces for “prospect” and “refuge” — areas where colleagues can both see each other and also go to retreat.

Offices that provide prospect and refuge mimic the savannah environment in which our pre-historic ancestors lived, with views of the sweeping plains and a cave close by. “Developing simultaneous preferences for expansive space and enclosed shelter was fundamental to our survival,” writes Dr. Medina. Today, in office plans that provide high levels of visibility, modular “micro offices” with easy-to-clean materials can help with infection control and offer social distancing, flexibility and balance, in addition to privacy and quiet. These strategies, coupled with operational changes — such as stringent cleaning, sanitizing, and disinfecting protocols — may help.

Support an active workday and policies to help build resilient behaviors.

Offering ways for employees to incorporate motion into their work activities is especially important during the pandemic, to improve not just physical health, but mental clarity too. Studies show walking meetings at 1.8 miles per hour optimize information processing, while lowering the stress hormone, cortisol. Circulation paths in and around the office could serve as meeting and fitness loops, with graphic markers to facilitate proper social distancing and indicate the amount of calories burned based on distance traveled. Allowing walking meetings, where employees have the opportunity to go for a walk outside the office too, is a win-win. It helps maximize cognitive focus, provides fresh air and reduces stress.

Adopting policies that address social distancing guidelines and employees’ needs for solitude and socialization can lay a positive foundation too. For example, welcoming stairs can help people to get in their steps, increase their endorphins — and avoid the close confines of an elevator — while promoting greater connections between colleagues on different floors, which can reduce stress as well.

Employ nature’s healing benefits.

As humans are wired to spend time outside, it’s even more critical now than ever before to consider the positive effects of nature on our health and productivity. Numerous studies show that looking at plants and the sounds of running water can lower anxiety, speed healing and even boost the immune system. These are key elements workplaces could benefit from, and particularly so during the coronavirus crisis.

While some workplaces connect with the outdoors in a significant way, incorporating smaller touches can help too. Simple strategies like access to natural daylight by opening blinds and pulling in fresh air via operable windows could lower indoor contaminants, because sunlight and higher rates of ventilation can reduce the viability of viruses in the air and on surfaces — like a natural disinfectant. In addition, weaving in green-colored accents like rugs and furniture, facing desks toward views, or even bringing in certain plants with antibacterial and antimicrobial properties, can increase employee wellness.

Engage the senses to create restorative moments of reflection.

Providing a sensory experience in the workplace that acknowledges heightened emotions could provide comfort and familiarity in these challenging times. Studies show indirect attention breaks — such as views to outdoors, listening to calming sounds and smelling soothing natural scents like lavender — for 10 minutes per every 100 minutes of focused attention, can minimize stress and blunt the negative effects of mental fatigue, but also promote mindfulness and increase executive function.

These restorative experiences could be amplified by creating niches filled with peaceful artwork, inspiration boards or team achievement walls to provide additional ways for employees to pause, regroup and reconnect with themselves and their teams.

In Summary

As we return to the office, stress levels of employees will be high for a variety of reasons — but we should strive to avoid the workplace itself being a cause of such stress. By incorporating the benefits of neuroscience into the workplace, we can transform our offices to evoke a sense of calm during what is a difficult situation for all, and be ready for whatever the future may bring.


How are you and your organization dealing with the coronavirus? We’d like to hear from you. Drop us a line at

Banner image courtesy Sean Airhart.

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