Let there be light

We have reached that time of the year when nine-to-five workers find it is dark when they leave the office. This may be a fact of life during autumn and winter, but the impact of the right lighting on the workforce should not be under-estimated.

Research on how light influences productivity goes back to the 1920s. A recent study of 50,000 office workers by market research company AMA Research found that an individual’s ability to control their own lighting levels was even more important than the quality of the light they were working in.

Adrian Leaman, secretary of the Usable Buildings Trust, says lighting is one of many environmental factors that should be taken into account when assessing working conditions for employees. Employers should also ensure there are stable temperatures, a lack of interruptions, a clean working environment, adjustable furniture and no conspicuous waste.


“It is quite easy to demonstrate a relationship between lighting conditions and changing perceptions of work productivity under controlled conditions with only a few variables, but in real situations where there are hundreds of variables, the lighting effect is usually swamped by other influences,” explains Leaman. “For example, the effect of thermal comfort and noise on perceived productivity is much greater and usually more important than lighting.”

But Ahmet Cakir, a researcher at the Ergonomic Institute of Berlin, argues that we should not overlook the positive effects of daylight. In his report, Does Lighting Influence Health and Wellbeing?, he concludes that there is no substitute for natural light.

“The positive effects of daylight cannot be replaced by anything,” he says. “Artificial lighting represents at most a not fully equivalent substitute for natural daylight it is a supplement.”

Lighting manufacturer Philips has responded to this by introducing a product that it claims will imitate the quality of daylight. Its Activiva lamp is designed to boost a person’s performance by imitating the blue light normally found only in natural daylight. Field tests carried out at a UK call centre, in which existing fluorescent light tubes were replaced with the Activiva lamps, found that staff were 10% more productive. Workers handled more calls, and there was a decrease in the number of calls they missed or abandoned.

“Individuals found that they had better memory, improved concentration and that they were more alert,” says Dr Peter Mills, chief health officer of Vielife, the workplace health consultancy that carried out the call centre research for Philips.

Other factors

However, Leaman is unimpressed. “I fail to understand how a type of lighting can make people more alert,” he says. “I imagine that ability to concentrate on a task is affected much more by – for example – how tired they feel, and the level of unwanted interruptions they may suffer in open-plan layouts.”

Dr Alexi Marmot, director of space management consultancy Alexi Marmot Associates, says that for changes to light to be effective, they need to be viewed within the context of the whole physical and social environment in which we work.

“Offices are complex physical, social and organisational environments, so changing just one thing, such as the artificial lighting, is highly unlikely to make a great deal of difference,” he says. “But doing this alongside an overhaul of the total environment – including how and where people work, their technology, and how and where they interact – is likely to have a beneficial effect.”

Opening the blinds during daylight hours will help employees get their quota of natural light, but if your workplace is a disorganised mess, perhaps it’s time to consider the whole picture.

This month in Occupational Health

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