People

The loneliness epidemic: can workplace design weigh in to help?

As the effects of loneliness on our health come to the fore, how can workplace design play its part in helping people interact? Laurie Aznavoorian of BVN Architects explores the research

Just a few years ago, sitting got touted as the new smoking. Now, the new smoking is breathing outdoors if you live in Sydney, or any other major city in the world. So, you can take the weight off your shoulders you’ve been carrying about sitting around all day and while you’re at it, take the weight you’ve been carrying about your weight off too because they are the least of our worries. Between climate change and ergonomics, there is a new malady that’s proving to be more lethal than either obesity or smoking. What’s the new concern that public health experts have deemed an epidemic? Loneliness.

‘Loneliness linked to physical and mental ill health…’

More than one-fifth of Americans and British people say they are chronically lonely and Australia fares no better. According to the Australian Psychological Society’s Australian loneliness report, one in four Australians feel lonely. The bad news is that loneliness does not just impact us psychologically, it’s also linked to physical health. Researchers at UCLA have learned that social isolation triggers stress hormones leading to cellular changes that cause inflammation, which leads to heart disease, stroke, metastatic cancer and Alzheimer’s disease. As if that is not enough, when were lonely we become lethargic and forget about exercising, eating right or going to the doctor. Consequently, lonely people have a 26 per cent higher risk of dying.

Minister of Loneliness

The UK has been concerned about this that they appointed a Minister of Loneliness and put in place programmes to confront the ‘loneliness epidemic’. Australia, Canada, Germany and New Zealand are considering similar moves. But detecting and dealing with loneliness is no small task. We know humans are social beings, but just because someone is alone does not make them lonely. Similarly, we can be surrounded by people and have a robust number of social media friends, but still feel our social relations are lacking.

The rise in people who report being lonely tracks with other societal shifts that have occurred such as younger people increasingly moving away from home and their established social networks, delaying marriage, skipping kids and working all the time. But older people not as impacted by those shifts are also lonely. Nearly half of Britons over 65 say television and pets are their main form of company.

Co-living with friends

Entrepreneurs can smell opportunity in the air and have developed products and services that they hope will put an end to isolation. One is Tribe, a co-living space in Brooklyn whose motto is ‘we help you make friends’, and of course there is WeWork which claims to be ‘building a new infrastructure to rebuild social fabric and rebuild up the potential for human connection’. Microsoft’s new London store is designed less as store and more as community hub and meeting place. And then there are services like Hey Vina, Bumble BFF and Peanut expressly designed to help humans bond with other humans.

The healthcare market has responded to the loneliness epidemic by practicing ‘social prescribing’. This is a new way to help patients that involves placing social workers and non-medical support people in doctor’s offices to link patients to a wide range of social, emotional or practical services in order to address such issues as housing problems, financial stress and social exclusion.

Designing out loneliness

While we haven’t necessarily labelled it as such, and the motivations may be different, architects and designers have been tackling the problem of loneliness for some time. We search for the ‘genius loci’, a spirit of place or distinctive atmosphere that draws people to place and one another. Even the typology of typical commercial office buildings has also evolved to foster connection. Footprints, core locations and the introduction of stairs and atria all contribute to the building as a platform for community building. More buildings today feature outdoor areas, fresh air and daylight that provide much needed areas of refuge for sound mental health.

‘Workplace designers encouraging serendipitous interaction…’

Similarly, workplace designers use spaces as attractors to encourage serendipitous interaction and exchange of information. They also encourage movement with clever planning devices. And in recent years, much attention has been placed on the interplay between digital and physical environments to heighten real time predictive user experiences. Workplace apps connect people in space and enable them to establish professional and social networks.

Our vocation is to make spaces for people, it’s imperative we think about how the environments we create help us tackle social issues like loneliness. It’s not a simple problem but one we hope to learn more about. BVN is conducting an ongoing research study in partnership with B:Hive – a workplace community BVN designed in Auckland New Zealand – University of New South Wales and WORKTECH Academy, to address the impact of spatial design on human ability to establish workplace networks, build community and feel a sense of belonging.

The research is still in the initial stages, but the findings will be published on the WORKTECH Academy platform in 2020. Watch this space.

Sources

Sarah Butler, Microsoft to Open First European Store in Central London, The Guardian July 11, 2019

Laura Entis, The Big Business of Loneliness – Coworking spaces, friendship apps, and adult dorms are selling human connection

Neil Howe, Millennials And The Loneliness Epidemic, Forbes May 3, 2019

Morgan Liotta, Fostering Connections to Overcome Loneliness; New GP; April 2019

Ozcelik, Hakan and Barsade, Sigal; Work Loneliness and Employee Performance, published on ine doi.org November 30, 2017

Catherine Philpot, The Silent Epidemic,The Salvation Army April 30, 2019

Social Prescribing – A New Way to Think About Healthcare; blog chf.org.au; September 6, 2019

Laurie Aznavoorian is Senior Practice Director at BVN Architecture, Australia