Water in the workplace

17 December 2019

Water has an important role beyond keeping us hydrated: it turns out that its very presence can affect our mood and performance.

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Cognitive scientists have learned that there are advantages to incorporating water - and water features— into workplaces whether that water is drunk by employees or merely seen and heard.

Although the workplace water coolers of old have all but disappeared, drinking stations, chilled water taps and water-bottle filling stations are vital inclusions in office design to support worker wellbeing - most people spend 40-50 hours a week at work so it is imperative that water is easily accessible.  

But drinking water is not only important for survival: research has found that staying hydrated actually improves how well our brains work (see panel, right).

The locations of water-filling stations are also important as it influences how people use and move through a work environment, so their locations should be carefully considered.  These sorts of workplace features can serve a critical social function for informal contact among workers that desks and meeting rooms can’t provide . . . Coffee machines, kitchens cafes, and recreational areas all provide a similar environment that can greatly enhance social connectivity in the workplace.8  

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STAY HYDRATED, STAY SMART!

Undergraduates who bring water into exams seem to improve their grades by keeping hydrated2.  Researchers related the exam marks of students who drank water during exams to those that didn’t.  After they normalised for student performance in previous coursework, they concluded that drinking water actually enhanced performance.

 

A virtuous solution

One study has found that office workers put considerable labour into developing and maintaining complex systems for making choices about what, how and where to eat while working6.  Their need to exercise control over their environment is then undermined by food that simply materialises in the workplace; provided by the business or co-workers.

For many, the consumption of water offers a virtuous solution to the conundrum.

The researchers report that found that water shaped people’s movement patterns in the office, taking them to a zone away from their desk frequently.  Workers valued the act of getting up to get water as well as how drinking water supported them in avoiding certain foods.

Benefits without drinking

There is also evidence to show that there are benefits for employees from simply hearing water in the workplace.  The sound of gently moving water – like a babbling brook - is relaxing7.  It’s also been found that the sound of rippling water has a relaxation effect stronger than that of music5.

Biophilic design – creating and using natural forms in interior architecture - can reduce stress levels and is valuable for human emotional and cognitive functioning4.  Incorporating a water feature, such as a fountain, into a manmade view can have positive implications for mental refreshment9.  The same research found that both natural and built scenes containing water were associated with higher preferences, greater positive mood affect and higher perceived restorative ability than those without water.  Intriguingly, images of built environments containing water were generally rated just as positively as natural green space.

It may be a challenge to incorporate water into a workplace — it is heavy and can do damage if it escapes from whatever is containing it — but research consistently indicates that adding water features to spaces has positive psychological implications.

The age of aquarium

Looking at aquariums, even if they don’t have fish in them, has a calming effect3.  This was concluded by researchers who found that viewing aquarium displays can lead to noticeable reductions in blood pressure and heart rate, and that higher numbers of fish helped to hold people’s attention for longer and improve their moods.  The study provided robust evidence that exposure to underwater settings could actually have a positive impact on people’s wellbeing.  Even looking at a fish tank full of water but without fish may be physiologically and emotionally restorative, but the presence of fish improves these effects further.

Working with our clients, Alpha FX to design and build their new office in the Brunel Building, a key inclusion was the large fish tank which featured as a centrepiece to the bar.  Not only are the fish key members of the team, who have been part of the company for several years, it was important that they had pride of place and acted as a focal point within a key communal area.

 

Want to find out more about the Alpha FX project, click here

Looking for advice on your own office design and build project, get in touch here

 

Sources

1 ‘Aquariums Deliver Health and Wellbeing Benefits’. 2015.  Press release, University of Exeter

2 Pawson, Doherty, Martin, Soares, Edmons and Gardner ‘Bring Water into Exams to Improve Your Grade’. 2012.  Press release:  British Psychological Society

3 Deborah Cracknell.  2012. ‘The Restorative Potential of Aquarium Biodiversity’. Bulletin of People-Environment Studies, vol. 39, Autumn, pp. 18-21

4 Yannick Joye. 2007. ‘Architectural Lessons from Environmental Psychology: The Case of Biophilic Architecture’. Review of General Psychology, vol. 11, no. 4, pp. 305-328

5 Myriam Thoma, Roberto La Marca, Rebecca Bronnimann, Linda Finkel, Ulrike Ehlert and Urs Nater. 2013. ‘The Effect of Music on the Human Stress Response.’  PLoS ONE, vol. 6, no. 8

6 Carolyn Thomas, Jennifer Sedell, Charlotte Biltekoff, and Sara Schaefer.  2016. ‘Abundance, Control and Water! Water!  Water!”  Food, Culture, and Society, vol. 19, no. 2, pp. 251-271

7 Cassandra van Praag, Sarah Garfinkel, Oliver Sparasci, Alex Mees, Andrew Philippides, Mark Ware, Cristina Ottaviani and Hugo Critchley. 2017. ‘Mind-Wandering and Alterations to Default Mode Network Connectivity When Listening to Naturalistic Versus Artificial Sounds’.  Scientific Reports, vol. 7, article number 45273

8 Ben Waber, 2013. People Analytics: How Social Sensing Technology Will Transform Business and What It Tells Us About the Future of Work. FT Press: Upper Saddle River, NJ

9 Mathew White, Amanda Smith, Kelly Humphryes, Sabine Pal, Deborah Snelling, and Michael Depledge. 2010. ‘Blue Space: The Importance of Water for Preference, Affect, and Restorative Ratings of Natural and Built Scenes.’  Journal of Environmental Psychology, vo. 30, no. 4, pp. 482-493

This article is based on a research piece ‘Water, water, everywhere: a liquid asset in the workplace’, authored by Sally Augustin, a practicing environmental design psychologist based in Chicago, for WORKTECH Academy. Workplace Futures Group is a Corporate Member of the Academy, which is a global online platform and membership organisation for the future of work and workplace