03/14/2023 • 4 min read

How Biophilic Design Improves Cognitive Well-Being

Reduce stress and improve feelings of safety and security in the workplace

by Aaron Haworth

For thousands of years, people have built environments and structures that provide them with safety and security. Our survival instincts are powerful, and so is our underlying awareness of potential threats around us. We also know people have a biological need to connect with nature and exist among natural elements to support their overall well-being.

Using biophilic design principles, we can address our needs for protection and cognitive safety, as well as our affinity for nature—creating workspaces that emphasize mental well-being and stress reduction to provide a sense of security. In fact, many of our perceptions of safety are based on the environment around us, making biophilic design an intuitive solution for improved overall well-being.

We already know that satisfying the need to connect to nature by putting people in natural environments has great benefits. Research shows working and living in a natural-feeling environment can help make people happier and healthier, feel less stressed, and perform better at work. But, what elements of biophilic design can support our needs to be protected from stress and feel safe from threats?

Expansive Visual Access

The first component is providing a wide scope of visual access and the opportunity to see much of the surrounding environment. Think of people living on the African savanna and their need to perceive potential threats from long distances. Now, imagine how increased visual access could ease the stress and anxiety they might feel. If people can see more of the environment around them, they don’t have to worry as much about potential threats and predators lurking about. Providing that same type of natural visual access in the workplace can help employees perceive a sense of protection and control over their space.

According to a research report from Terrapin, the ability to see not just the immediate area, but also views of longer distances can provide stronger feelings of comfort and stress reduction, especially in a new place. Experts suggest using transparent materials and lower partition heights where some division is necessary, to improve this perception. In terms of architectural features, the use of open floorplans and high ceilings, as well as balconies, catwalks, and other elevated spaces are design options for creating improved, natural visual access.

Shelter & Retreat

The second biophilic design component for reducing stress and improving mental well-being is providing natural-feeling retreat spaces. These spaces combine the structure of a shelter with biophilic elements, evoking innate feelings of safety and calmness for the people occupying them. Envision a cave setting with protection on multiple sides and overhead, leaving some forward visual access to scout for potential threats. Or—more directly—picture a tortoise or other animal with a shell they can retreat into. Translated to the workplace, retreat spaces should provide a similar underlying sense of safety that allows for relaxation and restoration.

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Practically speaking, there are a few different ways to provide the sense of security we need in the workplace. Retreat spaces should be designed to provide visual and auditory privacy, allowing for easier achievement of peace and relaxation. Additionally, having personal control over levels of access to a space can increase that sense of security.

Something as simple as a chair or booth seating with an extra-high back and sides can achieve this through the comforting aspect of partial concealment. Tall, freestanding screens, as well as canopy areas and other covered architectural elements can provide some protection as well. By not entirely closing off the space, it allows for a balance between total protection and awareness of one’s surroundings.

For more complete protection, enclosed spaces like telephone booths, moveable pods, small meeting rooms, and private offices are effective solutions. Glass walls, doors, curtains, and acoustic panels can provide varying levels of visual and auditory privacy—often with user control over that privacy.

Ultimately, biophilic design draws on the fundamental connection people have with nature—and often, their instinct to preserve their own well-being. Providing broad visual access and comfortable, protected spaces naturally helps people feel safe and reduces stress. This in turn helps improve concentration and attention, so people not only feel better, but can also perform better and produce stronger results. 

Activating Biophilic Design in the Workplace

Find out more about biophilic design and the principles that can help build a connection to nature in the workplace for improved employee well-being and performance.


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