‘Sick note culture’ – how workplace design can improve employee mental health

Reducing mental health-related absences starts with workplace design that supports employee mental health.

Last month, we addressed how workplace design can influence physical health. This month, we’re tackling an equally important aspect of employee wellbeing – mental health.

Recently, the Prime Minister announced he would be attempting to tackle what he called ‘sick note culture, with a particular focus on the people currently considered ‘not fit for work’ due to mental health. In response, mental health charity Mind made a statement on LinkedIn, calling the PM’s speech “stigmatising, harmful, and inaccurate’. They noted that the issue doesn’t lie with the fitnote system, but lies instead with the current poor state of mental health services in the UK.

While updates to sick note legislation may or may not encourage those suffering with their mental health to return to work, and while mental health services struggle to keep up with demand, these issues are out of the hands of most of us. The good news is that there are steps that individual organisations can take to take care of the mental health of their employees – and even support those suffering with their wellbeing back to the office.

how workplace design can benefit employee mental health

Beyond mental-health-friendly policies and benefits, such as flexible working and wellbeing helplines, companies can support employee mental health through workplace design in the following ways…


Quiet spaces

Providing private, quiet spaces is imperative for employee peace of mind.

If an employee is feeling stressed or anxious, or if they’re just in need of some time alone, quiet spaces give them a well-needed break from the rest of the office.

Neurodiverse employees in particular can benefit from a quiet area, as they provide respite from sources of ‘sensory overload’. In a nutshell, employees with autism or ADHD, for example, can find themselves overwhelmed with the amount of information being fed to them from multiple senses, which can lead to agitation, freezing up, or even panic. Quiet spaces separate the employee from this sensory input, allowing them to escape their fight, flight, or freeze response and return to a calmer state of mind.

Not only do these spaces allow an employee to de-stress, but they also accommodate for confidential conversation, such as communication regarding mental health. If an employee feels the need to confide in someone that they are struggling, the privacy of these spaces allows this crucial communication to happen.

A quiet space can come in many forms, from single-person acoustic hubs to full rooms equipped with comfortable soft seating, natural light, and acoustic panels to reduce noise. This versatility means any office can accommodate for such a space, and in turn accommodate for better mental health in the workplace.

Employee mental health - quiet spaces


Acoustic control

The use of acoustic panels reduces stressful noise pollution and improves communication between colleagues.

According to experts, there are two factors to noise pollution in the office – what is being heard, and the listener’s reaction to it. If an employee considers noise to be overwhelming, irritating, and/or incessant, their productivity, concentration, and memory retention can all become hindered, causing stress and anxiety.

The modern workplace is often open-plan and, while the lack of boundaries creates a better sense of community among colleagues, it also creates a space full of noise and distraction. To combat this, organisations can introduce acoustic solutions such as wall panels, acoustic screens, and ceiling tiles, which absorb sound waves instead of reflecting them, dampening the noise reverberating around your space.

Acoustic panels also allow for improved communication between employees by reducing the amount of reverberation, making speech sound clearer. In terms of neurodiverse employees, this improved clarity means those with auditory processing difficulties will find it much easier to comprehend what their colleagues are saying.

acoustic solutions - employee mental health


Biophilic Design

The natural world has an innate positive influence on our moods and our mental wellbeing.

Our previous article boasted the wide benefits of biophilic design in the workspace. From stress reduction to mood improvement, bringing elements of the natural world into the office is highly beneficial to the wellbeing of employees.

Biophilic design isn’t restricted to plant life – health-boosting elements such as natural light, wood, and even water can all be incorporated into the design of your workplace. The secondary effect of doing so increases the sustainability of the workspace, a factor that can also have a positive effect on the mental health of employees. Sustainability initiatives can counter the anxiety and feeling of helplessness many of us feel regarding the state of the environment and the effects of climate change.

For a full run-down of biophilia’s benefits, read our article from February.

biophilic design - employee mental health

Community Spaces

Belonging is a fundamental human need, and the workplace is often our primary source of social connection.

Studies have found that individuals with strong social networks are less likely to experience mental health problems such as anxiety and depression. A sense of community creates resilience among colleagues by providing a strong social safety net, allowing employees to confide in one another when they are going through a hard time, and to receive support.

Belonging is a fundamental human need, and mental health suffers when this need is not met. Many of us are still reeling from the isolating lockdowns of the early 20s, and the workplace often offers the highest potential for social connection in our lives.

To foster a sense of community through workplace design, providing break areas that are comfortable and attractive encourages down-time and socialisation among employees. Many cultures and traditions associate community with the act of enjoying food together, so crafting a cafeteria with a collection of long, banquet-style benches and tables is an optimal way to cater for communal eating.

In building a communal space that encourages your employees to take a break, you not only foster a vital sense of community, but you also encourage employees to enhance their work-life balance. By investing in an attractive, effective break space, you signal to employees that time dedicated to resting is just as important as time dedicated to productivity, empowering employees to enact balance.

community spaces - employee mental health

Rest Spaces

An afternoon nap can boost wellbeing, cognition, and productivity in employees.

A previous article explored Gensler’s findings from their survey of office workers last year, with regards to the spaces they consideredmost ideal’ in the workplace. Ranked highest was the ‘rest space’, a place primarily reserved for mid-day naps but similar to a quiet space, in that employees could use the space to find peace. We’ve already discussed how a quiet place benefits mental health, but crafting the space to accommodate a power nap brings all those benefits and more.

It's a well-known fact that a lack of sleep negatively affects our mental health, and it’s also well-known that many of us are not getting sufficient sleep. According to Mental Health UK, almost 1 in 5 adults in the UK aren’t getting enough sleep. In light of this statistic, the benefits of a nap during the work day cannot be overstated.

In the past, work culture has “overvalued those who undervalue sleep” – for example, glorifying the executive who clocks off late at night and is back to work in the early hours. By providing a space for employees to nap, organisations signal that they value their workers’ sleep health, empowering their employees to value their sleep more and keep a strong boundary between their working hours and their resting hours.

Rest space - employee mental health

Colour Psychology

By taking colour psychology into consideration, a workplace can boost employee mental health with a simple coat of paint.

As with many aspects and theories of workplace design, the use of colour is another significant factor in employee mental health, and one that is often overlooked.

A modern trend in office interior design is the minimalist approach – the use of neutral, inoffensive colours that drape the entire workspace in a monotonous beige. Experts in interior design warn that such an excessive and exhaustive use of neutral colours de-energises the workspace and the employees within it, sapping them of motivation, creativity, productivity, and positivity.

On the other hand, when used well and used proportionally (which an interior designer will be well-equipped to advise on), introducing colour to the walls of your workspace can have a variety of positive effects on the mental health of employees.

Extensive research has been conducted to explore the psychological effects of each colour, and this research should inform the colour of your workspace depending on the intended effect. For example, Pantone’s 2024 colour of the year ‘Peach Fuzz’ is an orange-pink hue that is thought to invoke feelings of cosiness, friendliness, optimism, and vibrancy; whereas 2023’s ‘Viva Magenta’ encourages “experimentation and self-expression without restraint” – invoking confidence, fun, and unconventionality.

The workplace is full of colour; colourful personalities, colourful experiences, colourful lives. For improved mental health, workplaces should bring colour to the surroundings, too.

colour psychology - employee mental health



Supporting employees with their wellbeing is the most effective way to reduce absenteeism due to mental health. If the majority of organisations were willing to not only have conversations with employees regarding their mental health, but willing to actively take steps to make reasonable adjustments, many more people would feel empowered to return to the workplace following a mental health break.

What else could a workplace provide to improve mental health in the workplace? Share your thoughts, along with this article, with the hashtag #DamsWellbeing.



If you find yourself struggling with mental health in the workplace, either as an employee or as an employer, Mind has collated a variety of helpful tips and articles to assist you.

Please also be aware of the following UK helplines that may be of assistance:

116 123 | Samaritans | 24 hours a day, 365 days a year | email: for a reply within 24 hours | A helpline for any issue that may be affecting or troubling you.

0300 304 7000 | SANEline | 4.30pm–10pm every day | Contact SANEline if you're experiencing a mental health problem or supporting someone else.

0800 689 5652 | National Suicide Prevention Helpline UK | 6pm to midnight every day | Offers a supportive listening service to anyone with thoughts of suicide.

0800 58 58 58 | Campaign Against Living Miserably (CALM) | Contact if you are struggling and need to talk.

If you don’t wish to talk on the phone, text "SHOUT" to 85258 to contact the Shout Crisis Text Line, or text "YM" if you're under 19.