The sweet smell of success

07 January 2020

Could how a workplace smells be the next solution to improve productivity and wellbeing at work?

Powerful effects

Scents can have immediate and powerful effects on us psychologically. Scientific research has evaluated our responses to odours generally and the implications of smelling particular aromas.

When people smell scents they categorise as pleasant, their mood is likely to improve2. This is important because when we’re in a better mood, we’re more likely to think creatively, be more flexible mentally, and get along better with others9. For example, around the world, floral scents are likely to be interpreted as pleasant smells5. When we’re in a space that smells clean to us, we behave better and in general, people are fairer and more generous3.

The ways that smells can be artificially introduced into a building depend very much on the amount of space being treated, but most applications will require a special machine.  This holds a reservoir of scented oil that it vaporises and introduces directly into the air, or through the ventilation system.  You can use standard oils or use an expert to create your own custom-made one.  Regulating the intensity of a scent in a space is really important, so prior to choosing a signature scent, an onsite test is a must.

To determine if the concentration of a scent in an area is useful but not overwhelming, ask people who do not know that the space is scented about their experiences in the place generally. If they spontaneously mention the scent, reduce its strength. When people do not spontaneously mention the scent but do recognise it is present if asked about it directly, the levels are appropriate. 

Ultimately, by actively managing scents in the workplace can create a calming, relaxing and positive atmosphere for employees, increasing their productivity, performance and overall mental wellbeing.


1 Shannon Barker, Pamela Grayhem, Jerrod Koon, Jessica Perkins, Allison Whalen, and Bryan Raudenbush. 2003. ‘Improved Performance on Clerical Tasks Associated with Administration of Peppermint Odor.’ Perceptual and Motor Skills, vol. 97, pp. 1007–1010.

2Robert Baron. 1997. ‘The Sweet Smell of . . . Helping:  Effects of Pleasant Ambient Fragrance on Prosocial Behavior in Shopping Malls.’  Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, vol. 23, no. 5, pp. 498-503.

3De Lange, L.  Debets, K. Ruitenburg and R.  Holland. 2012. ’Making Less of a Mess: Scent Exposure as a Tool for Behavioral Change.’ Social Influence, vol. 7, no. 2, pp. 90-97.

4Camille Ferdenzi, Annett Schirmer, S. Roberts, Sylvain Depplanque, Christelle Porcherot, Isabelle Cayeux, Maria-Ines Velazco, David Sander, Klaus Scherer, and Didier Grandjean. 2011. ‘Affective Dimensions of Odor Perception:  A Comparison Between Swiss, British, and Singaporean Populations.’  Emotion, vol. 11, no. 5, pp. 1168-1181.

5Tiago Goes, Fabricio Antunes, Pericles Alves, Flavia Teixeira-Silva. 2012. ‘Effects of Sweet Orange Aroma on Experimental Anxiety in Humans.’ The Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine, vol. 18, no. 8, pp. 798-804.

6Hiroki Harada, Hideki Kashiwadani, Yuichi Kanmura, and Tomoyuki Kuwaki. 2018. ‘Linalool Odor-Induced Anxiolytic Effects in Mice.’ Frontiers in Behavioral Neuroscience

7Alan Hirsch. 2003.   Life’s a Smelling Success. Unity Publishing:  New York.

8Barbara Horwitz-Bennett. 2010. ‘Overseas Observations.’ Healthcare Design, vol. 10, no. 10, pp. 24-32.

9A.Isen. 2001. ‘An Influence of Positive Affect on Decision Making in Complex Situations: Theoretical Issues with Practical Implications.’ Journal of Consumer Psychology, vol. 11, no. 2, pp. 75-85.

10Alice Isen, F. Ashby, and Elliott Waldron.  1997. ‘The Sweet Smell of Success.’ The Aroma-Chology Review, vol. VI, no. 3, pp. 1, 4,5.

11Adriana Madzharov, Ning Ye, Maureen Morrin, and Lauren Block. 2018. ‘The Impact of Coffee-Like Scent on Expectations and Performance.’ Journal of Environmental Psychology, vol. 57, pp. 83-86.

12Martin and J. Cooper. 2007. ‘Adding Zest to Difficult Journeys: Odour Effects on Simulated Driving Performance.’ Proceedings of the 2007 Annual Conference of the British Psychological Society

13Ann McKim and Jo Ellyn Pederson.  2011. ‘Step into My Office: The Effects of Organization and Lemon Scent on Mood.’ Poster presentation at the 2011 Annual Meeting of the American Psychological Association, Washington, DC.

14Lucy Moss, Michelle Rouse, Keith Wesnes, and Mark Moss. 2010. ‘Differential Effects of the Aromas of Salvia Species on Memory and Mood.’ Human Psychopharmacology, vol. 25, no. 5, pp. 388-396.

15Mark Moss, Steven Hewitt, Lucy Moss, and Keith Wesnes. 2008. ‘Modulation of Cognitive Performance and Mood by Aromas of Peppermint and Ylang-Ylang.’ International Journal of Neuroscience, vol. 118, no. 1, pp. 59-77.

16Akio Nakamura, Satoschi Fujiwara, Ichiro Matsumoto, and Keiko Abe. 2009. ‘Stress Repression in Restrained Rates by R—Linalool Inhalation and Gene Expression Profiling of Their Whole Blood.’ Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry, vol. 57, no. 12, pp. 5480-5485.

17Liron Rozenkrantz, Avraham Mayo, Tomer Ilan, Yuval Hart, Lior Noy, and Uri Alon.  2017. ‘Placebo Can Enhance Creativity.’ PLoS ONE

18Roberta Sellaro, Wilco van Dijk, Claudia Paccani, Bernhard Hommel, and Lorenza Colzato.  2015. ‘A Question of Scent:  Lavender Aroma Promotes Interpersonal Trust.’  Frontiers in Psychology, vol. 5, no pagination.

19Olga Sergeeva, Olaf Kletke, Andrea Kragler, Anja Poppek, Wiebke Fleischer, Stephen Schubring, Boris Goerg, Helmut Haas, Xin-Ran Zhu, Hermann Luebbert, Guenter Gisselmann, and Hans Hatt.  2010. ‘Fragrant Dioxane Derivatives Identify B1 Subunit-Containing GABAA Receptors.’ The Journal of Biological Chemistry, vol. 285, no. 31, pp. 23985-23993.

20Vallance, T. Heffernan, and M. Moss. 2007. ‘The Enhancement of Everyday Prospective Memory by Rosemary Essential Oils.’ Proceedings of the Annual Conference of the British Psychological Society

This article is based on a research piece ‘The science of scent: aroma 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