Employees’ brains are hardwired to find happiness in colour and lighting.
The human brain is remarkable and unparalleled in its ability to process, and assign meaning, to stimuli in ways that not only guide our physical action but impact us both cognitively and emotionally. Take our sense of sight, for example. Not only do we analytically recognise an object, we use cues such as colour to assign meaning. This meaning is a combination of cultural norms, personal experience, physiological reaction and millennia of anthropological development. Scientists posit that our ability to recognise colour stems from an early survival need requiring us to be able to identify ripe from unripe, or indeed rotten, fruit. In other words our eyes and brain recognising a banana as food is our rational, physiological response. But the “green banana bad, yellow banana good” response – that’s all a mixture of anthropology and physiological experience. Our response to colour is often universal, with specific responses being triggered regardless of cultural norms, leaving us susceptible to the influence of colour whether we are aware of it or not.
Beyond our deeply rooted colour response, we are also psychologically influenced by light. It is a biological fact that as it gets darker, the pineal gland in our brain releases melatonin, which makes us drowsy and sluggish. Conversely, exposure to light increases serotonin levels, which regulates mood, social behaviour, memory and even appetite. The impact of light on the human psyche is so profound that the condition SAD (Seasonal Affective Disorder) affects as many as 20% of people living in areas with limited winter sunlight. The impact of a lack of sunlight can be so pervasive that towns such as Rjukan in southern Norway, who experience six months of darkness a year, have resorted to the installation of giant mirrors to reflect sunlight onto the townspeople during their prolonged winter. Since the installation of the “artificial sun”, residents have reported an increase in the sense of well-being, energy and community spirit during the traditionally dark months.
If human beings are impacted on such a fundamental level by both colour and light, what do these deep-rooted responses mean for the modern working environment? Despite changes in the way we work, most employed adults still spend as much as 50% of their waking hours in an office environment, resulting in a large portion of cognitive and emotional stimuli coming from the work environment. Since the industrial revolution, many techniques have been implemented to improve the physical comfort and safety of employees, however, until recently, the impact of factors such as colour and light on productivity, creativity, energy, and happiness have been overlooked.
While there is little definitive research linking colour to productivity, there is data to substantiate its impact on mood and overall well being. The blue/green spectrum, for example, induces feelings of calmness, making it a great palette to use in highly stressful areas. Red is known to increase both heart rate and breathing, akin to an adrenaline response, and is useful in areas where energy and high levels of activity are required. Yellow is a trickier shade, inducing creativity and frustration in equal measure, so despite the maxim “yellow banana good” this shade should be used sparingly. Grey or white walls can create a sense of sterility, which prevents distraction and overstimulation, but nothing world changing has ever been created in a grey space.
Lighting, while vital from a health and safety point of view, should also not be overlooked from a wellness perspective. In Japan, blue-toned lighting was installed in the subway system in an attempt to curb suicides in stations, resulting in a remarkable 80% decrease in the suicide rate over the last decade. The same solution was implemented in stations in the UK, with similar results, together with reported declines in crimes such as vandalism, mainly attributed to the calming effect of the lighting. Lighting undoubtedly has a direct impact on physical health, from limiting eye strain and headaches to combating fatigue, however there is also a growing understanding that both the type and shade of lighting has a marked impact on mental wellness and productivity. Much like colour, lighting tones can have different effects. Lower colour temperatures used in meeting rooms encourage integrating and the sharing of ideas. Warmer tones in more intimate spaces create a sense of trust and openness, while middle tones in conference rooms facilitate alertness and motivation.
As we understand more and more about how the human brain works and how its’ responses have a direct impact on mental health and productivity, colour and lighting in the workplace will become fundamentals.
The bottom line is this – there is a link between colour and emotion, light and mood. Mood and emotion are linked to productivity and happiness – which in turn create organisational performance and success. While the direct link between colour and revenue is yet to be established scientifically, organisations looking to build a happy, motivated workforce should carefully assess their working environment for opportunities to incorporate more positive colour and lighting.
Incorporating such forms of positive stimuli will go a long way in triggering employee’s psychological happiness and improving morale because sometimes all we need to do great work is a yellow banana in the sunshine.