How design combats mental exhaustion: five routes to refresh

As more organisations recognise that knowledge workers face cognitive exhaustion and burnout, new scientific research compiled by WORKTECH Academy points to design strategies to restore levels of focus

We’ve always understood that physical labour, such as working on a factory production line or a building site or down a mine, is exhausting. But for decades we’ve been far less willing to concede that white collar work in the knowledge economy can be similarly draining. While muscles might be strained less in the office environment than in a manufacturing facility, for example, the mind can be stretched to the limits of endurance – and that has physical repercussions.

Today, however, there is growing recognition by companies that knowledge work is cognitively exhausting – the faster the business cycle, the harder we concentrate, and the harder we concentrate, the quicker our cognitive capacity depletes. This has negative impacts on professional performance and also our ability to get on with our co-workers. Ever noticed why a normally sane and sanguine colleague suddenly becomes so grumpy?

So how can organisations redesign workspace to enable their people to refresh their cognitive energy during the working day? WORKTECH Academy teamed up with Research Design Connections in Chicago to review the latest scientific evidence  in the field. The new evidence foregrounds a number of key elements rooted in nature.

Natural vistas

When given the option of sitting by the window, or in the middle of a floorplate, nine times out of 10 people will choose the window. Humans are innately attracted to nature and evidence suggests access to open views promotes mental restoration in employees. Open views refer to a view which is unobstructed by structures such as buildings or branches.

Visual art

In city centres where many offices are located, natural rural vistas aren’t easy to come by. But research now suggests that realistic nature scenes in art dotted around the building can contribute to reduced stress levels as well as mental refreshment.

Connection to water

Images and connections to water can be just as effective as natural green space. From manmade water features such as fountains to natural water formations such as rivers, built environments containing water are rated highly in having a positive effect on cognitive restorative properties. Research even indicates that fish tanks have physiologically and emotionally restorative effects – perhaps it’s time to order that mini aquarium.


It isn’t just visual encounters that can support cognitive restoration – natural sounds also play their part. Noises such as birds singing or the gentle rustling of leaves can encourage a mental refresh. This has led to some organisations implementing soundscaping into their offices to help improve acoustic privacy while also promoting mental restoration properties.

Urban views and sky visibility

Although natural features are the overarching theme for mental restoration, fascinating stimuli in urban environments can also promote a mental refresh. That is, if the fascinating stimulus is linked to the wider framework of the urban environment. This can be a feature such as a central plaza either outside or within the workplace; it should be somewhere which invites people to take a break and large enough for people to feel like they can explore.

Offices with limited access to nature can also make up for it with large window panes which permit visibility to the sky, and window boxes which contain greenery. The alternative is to relocate offices to the periphery of the city – views of distant cityscapes and mountain ranges substantially increase restoration likelihood according to our research roundup.

A review of the scientific research into design to mentally refresh the workforce, prepared by Sally Augustin of Research Design Connections with WORKTECH Academy, can be found in our Innovation Zone.