As workers bemoan the loss of privacy in the age of the open-plan office, a new study suggests that they might have an additional legitimate gripe: lack of windows. Researchers have found that workers deprived of sunlight get less sleep and physical activity than those who sit near windows.
Previous studies have looked at the relationship between daylight, psychological well-being, and worker productivity, but “few have addressed the impact of daylight at the workplace on sleep, quality of life, and overall health,” write the authors of a study published in the Journal of Clinical Sleep Medicine. They found that employees exposed to natural light slept 46 minutes longer—and more soundly in general—than did their peers working in windowless offices.
Insufficient sleep, the researchers say, can have numerous short-term effects, including memory loss, slower psychomotor reflexes, and diminished attention. Sleep quality can also have “effects on, and interactions with mood, cognitive performance, and health outcomes such as diabetes and other illnesses.” Apart from individual health, a bad night’s sleep could lead to “more accidents, workplace errors, and decreased productivity.”
The study compared the self-reported sleep patterns of 49 day shift employees, 27 of them working in windowed offices and 22 in windowless environments (or so far away from windows that they could see neither sunlight nor views of the outside world). On a subjective sleep-quality questionnaire, the window workers scored better. They also rated better on a standard health survey in two categories, including “vitality.”
To go beyond self-reported assessments, 21 participants (10 windowless workers and 11 windowed ones) wore a wristband that measured activity during sleep and waking hours. That monitoring revealed that workers with windows slept 46 minutes longer each night during the workweek than their windowless counterparts and were four times as active during the workday. Exposure to daylight is an environmental cue for the circadian clock, the body’s natural rhythm over a 24-hour period. Depriving workers of light seems to disrupt behavioral patterns such as sleep and activity.
The benefits of daylight exposure seem to extend beyond the five-day workweek. Even on free days, workers with windows got more rest, sleeping better and longer. “Light exposure in the workplace,” the researchers conclude, “may therefore have long-lasting and compounding effects on the physical and mental health of the workers, not only during but also beyond work hours.”
Sure, day lighting should be a priority in designing workplaces. The lead researcher in the study, Mohamed Boubekri, recommends that architects of new buildings design open-plan floors that are no more than 50 to 60 feet deep. That way, he says, “the majority of building occupants could benefit from the daylight and the views.”
But in existing buildings where square footage is limited, some unfortunate souls will be assigned to the dark corners of the office. What can they do besides petition for a better desk? Take walks and eat lunch outdoors—advice that goes for windowed workers, too.